Community Ep 5.11 “G.I. Jeff” injects an obscure homage with emotional poignancy

community 5.11

Community Season 5, Episode 11 “G.I. Jeff”
Written by Dino Stamatopoulos
Directed by Rob Schrab
Airs Thursdays at 8pm ET on NBC

There are numerous plot devices Community uses as foundations for stepping into alternate universes – none more than campus competitions and psychotic breaks, however. So when “G.I. Jeff” opens up with Jeff Winger taking on the identity of G.I. Joe (with no framing device preceding it), it’s clear there is something very wrong with Greendale’s law professor – why else would he bury himself inside an early-1980’s children’s cartoon? What follows is arguably the most spot-on parody Community‘s done in its wildly experimental five-year run; and though it kind of hustles through its final moments to justify it all, is a quiet, contemplative piece in the spirit of “Critical Film Studies”, or its most obvious spiritual companion, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (written by Dino Stamatopoulos and animated by his studio, as was “G.I. Jeff”).

However, “G.I. Jeff” lacks the broad parody that makes “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” such an accessible episode: I’m sure there’s a large percentage of viewers who didn’t understand the references, voice cameos by G.I. Joe actors, or the very specific animated style (interwoven with a third reality connecting the two, a hilariously spot on parody of  80’s and 90’s-era toy commercials… “We are in a toy commercial” might be the funniest line in the whole episode). Plus, it’s pretty fucking dark: “G.I. Jeff” takes place in Jeff’s subconscious after he drinks a fifth of scotch and downs a few “age reversal” pills and lays in a coma in the hospital. “Accessible”? Hardly: this is one of the most niche episodes Community could ever produce – but it’s also a stroke of genius, a story told in a specific format for a very specific reason.

To the study group, Jeff is viewed as a success. Well-put together, people listen to him, he’s actually had a job in the real world (one he faked, but regardless, he had it) – as the “leader” of the group, Jeff naturally views himself as the member each other one should aspire to. But in the face of his 40th birthday, he finds himself reflecting: he’s graduated community college… but he still teaches there. He’s finally sucked it up and met his father… and it went terribly, especially in retrospect (Jeff verbally whipping his old man on how much he’s done for himself might feel like a hollow insult, even if it was influenced by tear gas). Like everyone else at Greendale, Jeff hasn’t stopped failing in life because he went to the magical place called Greendale: it’s certainly made him better, but it’s also fucked with his perception of who he actually was.

So when Wingman starts killing members of Cobra – including Destro, an actual G.I. Joe character from the original series, it immediately signifies the dark directions the episode is heading in. Jeff may not have tried to commit suicide, but aging is clearly a sore spot for him: in the wake of Pierce’s death (we see a note from him on the desk, suggesting the bottle Jeff drank was the one Pierce left him earlier this season) and Troy’s departure to become a man, Jeff’s wondering what kind of man has he become. He thinks he’s the hero of his own story – but lest we forget, there are no heroes on Community, just a bunch of fucked-up people trying to work through their problems in a magical place.

Jeff’s identity crisis allows “G.I. Jeff” to do two things awesomely: first and foremost, create an awesome, spot-on parody of a genre and show way too obscure for most of the audience to remember (even though most fans are still “worth” something, being in the 18-49 group for another decade or so). Secondly – and more importantly, “G.I. Jeff” marks a return to the show’s central conflict from the beginning of the season, forcing each character to look in the mirror and realize what they’ve compromised, lost, or failed at. “G.I. Jeff” doesn’t get into any of these other characters, but channeled through Jeff speaks to the fifth season as a whole, a continued reflection on how we define ourselves, be it by our professional successes and failures or our current MeowMeowBeanz rating. And when these characters struggle to reconcile who they want to be with who they are, Greendale continues to keep them together, the life line of the family at the center of Community, surrounding Jeff’s bed as he awakens in the episode’s (slightly on-the-nose) conclusion, ending another fantastic homage on an emotional high note.

Other thoughts/observations:

– SO MANY GREAT minor characters: Cold Shoulder (“what is with that guy?”), Deep Dish, Placeholder, Shark Arms, Spit-Take, Sleep Apnea… SO. MANY.

– two words: Tight. Ship.

– the commercials were great, but the PSA was even better, with Buzzkill Britta scolding kids for self-promoting with graffiti instead of fighting fascist government regimes with it – only to be interrupted by Abed in his three-layered racist costume.

– Apparently Rob Schrab also did the voice of (the super gay) Cobra Commander? That’s what I thought I read in the credits there (the original voice actor died a few decades ago).

– I don’t think I’ve laughed at anything harder than Zim Zam and Mix Max on Community this season. Hilarious cutaway joke; “ugh… what’s the point of even trying to explain it.”

— Randy

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