The important fact about Community’s gimmick episodes is that the good ones are never just about the gimmick. The paintball episodes, the Ken Burns spoof, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”—when the show trots out its tricks, it’s like a particularly good magic show, where the illusionist uses the tool of diversion to smuggle in some of the heftiest intellectual and emotional content of the series. This week’s episode, “G.I. Jeff,” replicates the look and feel of the old G.I. Joe syndicated cartoon show flawlessly: the little specs on the image, the choppiness of the cheap-o animation, the stilted dialogue. The recreations of those ‘80s live-action toy commercials are likewise perfect. And while we’re marveling over the perfection of the nostalgia, we can easily miss that this not only of the most ambitiously melancholy Communitys to date, but one that questions the very essence of reality.
The save that stuff, of course; initially, “G.I. Jeff” is merely an astonishingly trenchant satire of a really minor pop culture blip from about 30 years ago, which is kind of everything you need to know about Community in one sentence. The theme song is the same, but the narration gets real: “Look, I think I’m over-explaining it: the bad guys are snakes and the good guys are army people.” When Britta/Buzzkill notes that Winger/Wingman repeats the same action and calls it “cheap,” Abed’s Fourth Wall quips, “From an animated perspective, very cheap.” Jeff makes mention of the show’s “constant lip sync mistakes”; as he says it, Shirley’s lips move.
But the most accurate jab at the original series—that in spite of the constant warfare at its center and non-stop gunfire, no one ever, ever gets killed—provides not only several of the best gags (my favorite: the resetting of the five digit DAYS SINCE LAST CASUALTY board), but the motor for the narrative. By creating a heretofore unseen blunt and horrifying death—and what a great moment of mouth-agape reactions that is—Jeff ruptures the entire artifice of the animated program, traversing the line between this hallucination/fantasy and his real life (with those commercials creating a buffer dimension between).
“G.I. Jeff” plays like writer Dino Stamatopoulos (aka “Star Burns”) has been waiting his entire life to make it, so specific is the satire, so intricate the play between its multiple realities. It is, like the Abed Claymation Christmas (which is directly referenced in the final scene), an episode where a beloved childhood artifact is painstakingly recreated as a coping mechanism for a pointedly adult crisis—in this case, Jeff’s fear and frustration of aging, which manifests itself in drinking a lot of Scotch and taking a lot of pills. (It is made carefully clear that said pills were anti-aging voodoo, so we don’t read this as a suicide attempt, though that feels like a bit of a cop-out, or maybe a network/studio note.) “I don’t wanna be a middle aged community college teacher,” Jeff insists. “I want to be a G.I. Joe!”
He longs for the innocence of his youth, at least until he discovers that the world of G.I. Joe is markedly lacking in Scotch and naked women. And if that’s the case, well, he’ll take mortality—or, as the toy commercial narrator puts it, “Everything sold separately. Everyone dies eventually. No one gets out alive.”
G.I. Joe was always a shoddy bit of programming, a half-hour daily animated toy commercial punctuated by life-action toy commercials. But, as we’ve discussed, we maintain our initial ill-informed affection for things we love at impressionable ages, and bravo to “G.I. Jeff” for finding exactly the right mixture of skewering and affection—up to and including the required PSA stinger. “A good syndicated cartoon has a lesson at the end,” as Fourth Wall explains. “But getting heavy-handed or preachy could turn an entire generation into jaded, sarcastic babies.” And knowing is, indeed, half the battle.