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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Community is Love, Zombies and All

Community is love.

Or rather, it's a show about love, just not the romantic kind. Sure, Joel McHale's protagonist, the vain disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger, but the real love story is the bond the characters create within a study group at, it may be assumed, one of the worst community colleges in the country.

This sugary sweet message, of course, is expertly covered by self-aware, smart humor and cruel jibes at the main flaws of the characters. It's that same gentle heart, however, that carries Community through one of its best and bravest episodes, the 2010, "Epidemiology," in which the slice-of-life sitcom becomes a sincere supernatural horror show.

I say "sincere" because there's no genre ambiguity. Community's zombie episode does not end with "it was all a dream." A virus that creates zombie-like symptoms in its victims--unbridaled rage, slurred speech, a taste for flesh--exists within this otherwise normal world. What makes it all work is the emotional report between the characters, specifically Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) and Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi).

The hetero-life mates of the group, Troy, former high school athletic star, and Abed, socially disinterested nerd, are the unlikely best friends that have emerged from the show. Their bond is the kind Community is built to explore: disparate strangers drawn together and finding common ground despite the odds.

In "Epidemiology," just as the "taco meat" of the Halloween party begins to show its adverse effects, Troy's hurt pride at now being seen as a "nerd" for hanging out with Abed takes center stage. Their Alien-themed dual costume shot down by the girls at the party, Troy struggles to distance himself from the brotherly connection he's formed with Abed.

Everyone else also struggles to distance themselves. From the zombies with which they've been quarantined.

As both hijinks and the horrors ensue, seen as the characters watch their friends turn into brain-numbed monsters, the core group is picked off one by one until only Troy and Abed are left. Abed diligently helps Troy escape through an open window, away from the zombie horde, sacrificing himself for the safety of his friend.

"I love you," says Troy. Donald Glover doesn't play the line for laughs as he watches the creatures descend on the pal he dismissed earlier.

"I know," says Abed in Pudi's patented deadpan.

The exchange is, of course, a reference to the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), before Leia watches Han Solo become frozen in carbonite. It's also one of the most emotionally honest moments of the entire series.

The characters aren't just sharing a joke with each other, they're sharing a joke with each other while their established sitcom world crumbles around them.

Community is about forging the sort of friendship that strengthens you against the outside world, from making labels like "nerd" immaterial to carrying one through life-or-death emergencies. Troy and Abed's bond symbolizes the fraternity that the show wants its core members to achieve: a friendship so strong, it can even outlast Apocalyptic, genre bending zombies.

Of course things aren't really Apocalyptic. Troy comes back to save the day, accepts he's both a nerd and a friend to these people, and is nearly killed in the process of saving everyone else's life. While the "it was all a dream" trope isn't rolled out, the characters are conveniently induced with amnesia to forget the incident.

It's an easy ending but it's pulled off well because we know the zombies weren't there just for the sake of a Halloween special. They were there in order to cut to the very core of the show, giving the characters the most dire of situations so that we can see the honest affection they have for each other underneath.

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