“Look, I think I’m overexplaining this. The bad guys are snakes and the good guys are army people.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about Community, and it’s not uncommon for me to overidentify with the characters (well, Abed). This season has been such a delight for me with the return of Dan Harmon and the big, high-concept episodes. There’s also a big thematic thing that’s really connecting with me, but we’ll get to that. I absolutely loved last week’s “G.I. Jeff” episode. I feel like it’s an episode where your appreciation is largely connected to whether or not you were a young boy in the early ’80s, so I get those people who didn’t care for it. They’re wrong, but I understand why they’re wrong. When I was a little slip of a thing, G.I. Joe was my jam. The cartoon, the toys, the comics – I absorbed it all and I loved it. I was a member of the fan club and had my own dog tag and everything.
And so, the logical next step is a full breakdown of “G.I. Jeff”. Right? Right! And first off, I have to say that I can’t even believe this got on the air. Here’s the thing – it’s not just a G.I. Joe homage. It actually incorporates actual G.I. Joe characters. These are characters that you can still buy as action figures. They appear in movies starring Channing Tatum and the Rock. Props to Hasbro for going along with this and not requiring product placement of the current line. (Also, props for not suing Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer into oblivion for all the SPHINX stuff on Venture Bros. Hasbro is pretty cool about letting their intellectual property appear on great TV shows.) I can’t say for certain that they used any actual footage from the original cartoon, but it looks like they definitely had access to the character packs.
First off the Community characters are based, in varying degrees, on actual G.I. Joe characters. As “Wingman”, Jeff is sort of a color-swapped version of Duke. Annie’s “Tight Ship” is wearing a sexy version of Shipwreck’s outfit. (And actually, she’s wearing the exact same thing as Shore Leave from Venture Bros.) “Buzzkill” Britta doesn’t appear to be specifically based on any one character, but she fits in with the increasingly specialized characters who showed up late in the run. A lot of people are reading Shirley’s “Three Kids” as a take on Stalker, but that’s only because he was African-American and wore a beret. Really, she’s a stand-in for the secondary characters from the show who only got to have one personality trait or quirk. Roadblock talked in rhyme, Bazooka was dumb, Low Light didn’t like talking to people, Three Kids has three kids. And as “Fourth Wall”, Abed looks a lot like Spirit. (Or, in the comics, “Spirit Iron-Knife”.)
The COBRA characters match up more directly. Dean Pelton is obviously based on Cobra Commander. Duncan’s Xim-Xam comes from Tomax and Xamot – they wore that exact costume and had the “feel each other’s pain” gimmick. Hickey is based on Major Bludd. That’s a clever choice, as Bludd was a mercenary who also wrote poetry. Perfect fit for Hickey, the badass who makes comic strips about Jim the Duck. Chang, I think, is supposed to be based on Quick Kick. Technically, Quick Kick was a Joe, but he’s a pretty close match. Also, if somebody’s going to get it wrong, it’s Chang
On to the episode itself. I’m going to mostly just point out and explain references rather than recapping every story beat. And at the end, I’ll get to final thoughts. Otherwise, this is going to run to 7000 words and nobody except me wants that.
The opening minutes of this episode could not look more like actual G.I. Joe footage. The lack of logic that Tight Ship and Buzzkill note is also very true to the source material. What’s happening here? Why is an American military organization even concerned? Nobody ever knows. But this was a show where the terrorists once tried to use rock music to hypnotize teenagers. (“Cold Slither”) Plotting was a secondary consideration.
Actual Joe characters are all over this opening. Destro, Wild Weasel, and the Cobra troops are straight from the show (as are the Rattler planes and HISS tanks). Flint, the guy giving orders, is voiced by his actual voice actor, Bill Ratner. Roadblock, Deep Six, and virtually every Joe vehicle in this segment all come from the show. (Spit-Take and Hat Muffs are new, in case you couldn’t tell. Though Hat Muffs is clearly based on Wild Bill.)
Jeff kills Destro, which was unheard of on the show. This gets horrified reactions from Dusty, Gung Ho, Wild Bill, Snake Eyes, Scarlet, and Clutch. (I don’t have to look any of these up. That’s worrying, right?) That takes us to the theme song, and it is the exact same song as the original cartoon. The animation is all new and the narration right before the end is original, but it’s based on the actual narration. And trust me, they really did overexplain the premise. I’m not going to bother pointing out deliberate animation errors, but one thing they do here (and later in the episode) that I really like is that some of the colors are almost transparent. For example, you see the background through Jeff’s face. That used to happen all the time. The narrator, by the way, is Eric Bauza who did the voice of Destro in the G.I. Joe: Resolute reboot a couple of years ago.
Jeff’s hearing is presided over by Flint, Duke, and Scarlett. Duke, like Flint, is voiced by his original actor, Michael Bell. The woman voicing Scarlet is Mary McDonald-Lewis who was Lady Jaye on the original show. I can’t make out all of the background characters, but Liefeline, Cutter, Stalker, and Cover Girl are visible. You can also spot Scud the Disposable Assassin. Scud starred in a ’90s comic by Rob Schrab (who directed this episode) – Community creator Dan Harmon also did some work on that series and its spinoffs. Those guys go way back.
When the Greendale bunch get locked up, the loser Joes are clearly original creations. Deep Dish is voiced by Mark Rivers, the composer on Parks and Recreation (and drummer for MouseRat). And Sleep Apnea is not only played by Dan Harmon but looks just like him.
This is where Abed shows up as “Fourth Wall”. I wish I could say that the stereotypical Native American music playing whenever he speaks isn’t a hallmark of ’80s cartoons, but… Also, note that he’s Native American here. I think that’s partly because putting a Middle Eastern character into this reality could go to some uncomfortable places (Any such portrayals on the original show were… upsetting), and partly because it casts him in the role of a shaman Plus, it’s Jeff’s subconscious we’re talking about anyway.
By the way, my favorite line from the episode might be “If this were a cartoon, there’d be a word for ‘cartoon’ in our language. Which there isn’t.”
Abed has a Duke action figure, and I love that they drew all the right joints onto the animated model. And then it segues into a live-action commercial for the toys. If you didn’t live through this era, it’s not possible for me to tell you how perfect this is. This is what commercials looked like! We watched children play with action figures and yell. After that point, reality bleeds through a little as Britta and Annie break character to talk to Jeff. Admit it, you assumed this was all going to be in Abed’s head…
Back in Cobra Headquarters, they’re changing the “Days since Last Casualty” counter from 10,419 to zero. Hee! By the way, 10,419 days is 28.5 years. Twenty-eight and a half years from the airdate of this episode would be right around late September of 1985, which is when G.I. Joe premiered. Admit it – that blows your mind.
Cobra Commander gives Destro’s eulogy, and he’s voiced by the aforementioned Rob Schrab. (The Commander’s original voice actor, Chris Latta, died in 1994. But Schrab’s impression is pretty close.) At the funeral are the Baroness (visibly weeping – she was Destro’s girlfriend), Storm Shadow, Zartan and some of his Dreadnoks (Buzzer, Torch, and Zarana), and Dr. Mindbender.
When Cobra attacks, Wingman can’t not kill the enemy, no matter how hard he tries. He even kills his own teammate, Lifeline. (Lifeline’s shtick was that he was a pacifist. He was smug and annoying, and clearly Dan Harmon feels the same way.) The Submachopter that they escape in is not a real vintage vehicle, but it’s not far off. The live-action version was actually made using parts from real Joe toys.
Another live-action commercial, and I really want the “G.I. Jeff” action figures to be real. I would buy two sets, one for home and one for the office. Why can’t I have a Tight Ship action figure? Also, now they’re branded as “Mutineers” – the last attempt at a G.I. Joe cartoon had a “Renegades” tag and had a similar(ish) presence about a group of Joes on the run from the main force.
Once they get into the Greendale dig site they find, yes, an animated version of the library, staffed by the Dean, Hickey, Duncan, and Chang. Nice job of making the animated Greendale on-model, by the way. Also, the gag with Xim-Xam and Mix-Max is great. Even as a kid, I thought “we feel each other’s pain” was more of a liability than a benefit.
In the background, you can see Community elements like a “Save Garrett” poster, “Fat Dog for Midterms”, the butthole flag, and a flier for the air conditioning repair school. When we get to Jeff’s office, we can see the scotch Pierce left him in his will, plus several vintage Joe toys. Also, there’s a note from Pierce that reads “welcome to the club”. Which, given that Pierce is dead, indicates that something is going wrong.
Abed’s diagram of reality, which separates the cartoon from the real world, is based on a Dungeons and Dragons diagram of their reality. (The tip-off is the part labeled “Prime Material Plane”.) They’re really going all out with the nerd stuff this week! At this point, Wingman knows what happened – he drank scotch and took “youth pills” because he’s turning forty. They assure us that it’s not a suicide attempt, but it’s not the opposite of one either. And, presumably, in the real world he maybe found some G.I. Joe toys in a thrift shop – being just a little younger than Jeff Winger, I think that makes perfect sense. Those things are a huge nostalgia trigger for me.
By the way, the fact that Deep Six is one of the toys on his desk would explain his prominent appearance in the episode. He was a tertiary character on the show, but he’s such an absolutely ridiculous visual and any explanation for his presence is good enough for me.
Anyway, through a simplified solution, Jeff can fly back to the real world but he doesn’t want to go He wants to stay in this reality that he created. This is where the commercials really make sense – he’s retreating into a childhood fantasy, broken up by those live-action ads where he’s a tiny toy being controlled by himself as a child.
The Joes and Cobras join forces (“Yo, Jobra!!!”) to take down the Mutineers, and I really like that they arrive in a Cobra vehicle re-painted in military camouflage. And this takes us to another commercial featuring the team-up. And milk, which is sold separately.
In the cartoon, Cobra Commander makes fun of Duke for being generic. (“You look like some Aryan foosball figure.”) That makes me think of the German foosballers from Season Three, which may or may not be intentional. Also, now that it’s clear that real world Jeff is dying, I can bring this up There was an animated G.I. Joe movie in 1987. In the movie, both Cobra Commander and Duke die. But the Transformers movie with the death of Optimus Prime came out first and traumatized a generation. So G.I. Joe: The Movie was rewritten to save Duke, in the clumsiest way possible. The movie literally ends with somebody announcing that they just got word that Duke is OK. There’s no new animation or anything. Just a hastily-added line of dialogue. That feels kind of relevant here.
Jeff convinces them that he wants to stay forever, until he realizes that they don’t get to see “boobies” or drink scotch. That’s enough for Jeff to decide to escape, but Cobra Commander tags along. He can’t survive the transition to the real world (“Why does my back hurt? Why do I have random pains in my body? Why is my ability to appreciate new music diminishing?”) and he melts away. It’s not the same effect that accompanied his death in G.I. Joe: The Movie, but it’s similar.
Jeff shatters reality, and ends up in the toy commercial, but conscious. He ends up attacking his own inner child, and I laughed so hard at this. And then we’re finally back in reality where Jeff tells everybody what happened. Now, the joke where they have to remind Chang that he’s Chinese is legitimately funny, but this is a really odd scene. The reaction are a little broad and there’s a hug and everybody laughs for too long at a joke that really isn’t a joke. It feels like a traditional sitcom, and I think that’s intentional. Like maybe Jeff is still processing things through a filter – his perceptions are still altered. Or maybe it’s Community taking a shot at the thing that it actually is after twenty minutes of jokes about animation in the eighties. It’s like they’re granting equal time. I can’t quite decided what I think, but it’s definitely deliberately stilted.
Of course, we end with a “Knowing is half the battle” bumper. I really like this, and just want to point out that one of the pieces of graffiti says “Harmon Sucks”, which is the name of an actual Community fansite. And probably something that Dan Harmon says on a regular basis himself.
With all that said, I’ve been meaning to write more about Community for weeks now. I have mixed-to-warm feelings about Season Four (“the gas leak year”), but a lot of that has to do with my general affection for Greendale and the cast of the show. You put Donald Glover or Alison Brie in something, and it starts with a baseline two-and-a-half stars just based on that. (I’ve never given something a star rating, but you know what I mean.) But still, last year Community didn’t make my top twenty shows of 2013 list, after placing near the top in 2012.
With Season Five, it’s right up at the top again. The season premiere ended on a joke so weird and funny (“My thoughts are in French now”) that I had to get up and leave the room because I was gasping for breath and people were concerned. I’m absolutely in love with this season. And I understand people who think that they’re doing too many premise-driven episodes, but I’m totally cool with it. It’s a show about people in their fifth year at community college – it makes sense to scale back the episodes about taking classes or yet another dance or a potential inter-group romantic pairing. You can see those things anywhere, but where else are you going to see a social media driven Logan’s Run?
And to me, it makes sense that they’re going bigger this season because it’s a show about people who don’t know what their lives are anymore. They graduated and got out in the world and nothing worked out. They’ve all got a second chance to try and make things better. Much like Dan Harmon, who was fired after Season Three and then rehired as showrunner a year later, they have a do-over. Not just that, but they get to recapture this time in their lives that means so much to them.
As we saw in the season premiere, the study group grew apart after graduation. That’s what happens to everybody when they leave college. Can you imagine a situation where Britta and Shirley would continue hanging out without this artificial construct holding them together? They’re people who care about each other, but need something external to keep them in one another’s lives. So they have to hold on to Greendale, not just as a possible gateway to a better life, but as the reason that they get to be friends again.
Not only have they had a look at their post-graduation life and decided that it was not for them, thank you very much, but even their artificial bubble has fallen apart. Pierce died and Troy went to sail around the world with Levar Burton. (A clever idea that doesn’t rule out Donald Glover’s return but leaves Troy inaccessible until (and if) that happens.) They can try to recreate the time when they were happy, but it’s not going to hold up. And if they have the option of fully committing to a game of Hot Lava instead of figuring out their future, I don’t blame them one bit for walking on chairs.
We’re living in a world where a prime time network series, airing in the time slot once occupied by The Cosby Show and Friends, is doing an episode about a midlife crisis framed as an episode of a eighties toy tie-in animated series. Whether or not the episode worked for you (and it 100% worked for me), you have to admit that’s amazing.