Nobody actually thinks they're going to die. All of us - from the hardest-core believer to the most disbelieving atheist of them all - thinks deep down that we're going to get some get out of jail free card, that we're not going to take our chances on whether there's an afterlife or not because we're just going to keep living this life forever. Maybe we'll encounter strange chemicals that alter our DNA just enough that we never age. Maybe they'll invent an anti-aging serum or perfect nanotechnology, and it will have the same effect, making us as gods (or at least totally awesome superheroes). Maybe we'll all last to see the Singularity and upload our consciousnesses into giant machines. Maybe it will be aliens. Maybe the universe really does expand and contract an infinite number of times, and we'll live this life over again, only this time, we'll do it just differently enough to make something better of it. Or maybe I'll have been good enough and smart enough and special enough that God himself will come down and grant me a one-time reprieve.
The point is that none of this is going to happen, even as my brain keeps saying, "Well, it COULD." But TV doesn't like you to think about this. When characters die, they're shuffled offstage as quickly as possible. Maybe they'll get a funeral or something, but for the most part, TV doesn't want us reflecting on the fact that even fictional people will theoretically die. It tends to dampen the mood when the advertisers want to sell us paper towels so amazing that they make it possible to play air hockey with a bowl of salsa on a countertop. Tonight's Community, while not perfect, pitches itself directly at that very territory, the place where people go when they realize that it's futile to try to not die, that death is inevitable, even for you and even for me.
Pierce's mother has died, out in the garage (Troy wonders if she crawled there to die like a cat). The experience has shaken up Troy, who discovered the body, but Pierce seems weirdly unaffected. His mom, after all, is just going to be vaporized, and then the essence of her spirit is going to be revivified in a few years' time, at which point she'll re-emerge, good as new. All he has to do is take care of her vaporized remains - which look very like a lava lamp - and be a good neo-reformed Buddhist, and all will be well. Troy's going to help him on this path because those two live together and they haven't had a storyline in a while. But Jeff is also along for the ride, just for different reasons.
See, health-obsessed Jeff has gotten a blood test back and learned something ominous: His cholesterol's slightly high. Even though student health nurse and A.V. Club patron saint Patton Oswalt says it's not a huge concern and suggests he can get over it with medication and egg whites, Jeff takes it harder than he probably should. It doesn't matter how well he takes care of his health because just about anything could kill him, and kill him sooner than his friend Professor Duncan (the welcomingly returning John Oliver). But instead of what might happen on another TV show - where Jeff realizes that all of his kooky pals believe in their religions because they want to hold out hope for something after death - Jeff takes it upon himself to disprove what Pierce believes. He's going to openly mock Pierce in class. He's going to take Pierce and Troy to the morgue to see the body of Pierce's dead mother. In short, he's going to be Jeff Winger, jackass.
For whatever reason, this is turning into religion and death week on TV, what with this episode and the heavily hyped "Grilled Cheesus" episode of Glee. One of the big complaints directed at that episode by those in the audience who are atheists was that the episode seemed to turn the atheists into the villains (I'd argue it was a lot more nuanced than that, but whatever). That's something that TV does. Fiction, for whatever reason, has a tendency to side with the people who believe in crazy things because the possibility that their crazy things are real is more interesting than the possibility that they aren't. (This is why every other sci-fi series has a healthy streak of pseudo-Christianity.) Community more or less attempts to provoke the same reactions in the audience as Glee did: Jeff is almost certainly right that what Pierce believes is crazy, but isn't he a big meanie for wanting to prove Pierce wrong? Where I think Community is more nuanced in this episode is in the fact that, well, Jeff always fulfills this role within the group about nearly anything, and the episode's focus is less on what these people believe and more on the thought of why they believe it.
As Pierce's mom points out on the mix CD she leaves for her son with a spoken-word introduction from herself at the start (a nice lift of a very similar plot device on Taxi), life is for living. But even if you live that life to its fullest, you can never experience everything the world has to offer. You always will be left wanting something more. And that's where the room for a dream of something else comes in, even as Pierce's mom categorically denies it (and she should know; she's dead!). When my grandma died and kept seeing long-dead relatives coming to visit her in her hospital room, it was because the neurons in her brain were firing at random times, calling up old memories and making them more vivid as she thought back over her life. But man, it was somehow more comforting to imagine they were there to usher her into heaven.
But we're here, and we know we're going to die. And that means … something. And I think the best thing about tonight's episode is something the series barely even comments on. Abed sits much of the episode out, if you're just paying attention to the foreground action. This is a curious decision, as Abed's the closest thing the show has to a breakout character, and breakout characters usually get more attention, not less (check out time-slot rival The Big Bang Theory's treatment of Sheldon). And yet, even as the show uses Shirley to comment on Britta and Annie's B-story, it uses Abed to comment on the A-story (notice how the two are framed together in the concluding montage scored to Pierce's mom's speech). Abed spends the entire episode helping a very pregnant female student out, first making sure she's comfortable, then taking her to the hospital, then delivering the baby in the back of an SUV when he can't get there on time. It's a stock sitcom plot you've seen a million times before (Abed tends to get involved in those), but it's presented entirely without comment and entirely in the background. The only reason you'd even notice Abed's involved is because he's wearing a bright green hoodie. We focus on death a lot, and that tends to crowd out everything else because it's so scary. But there's more to life than just that, often playing out in the background. The ultimate message of this episode isn't that "everybody needs to believe in something!" as I initially feared it would be. It's an idea people of all beliefs (and non-beliefs) can get on board with, I hope: You only get one shot at this life. Do what you can.
- This episode is enormously funny. I know the high-minded stuff above doesn't make it seem that way, but everything in the A-story and the runner about Duncan messing with Chang is pure gold.
- Also, there's a tag with Betty White? I hope this means she'll return more and discuss other hits of the summer with assorted indigenous tribes of the world.
- What didn't work: Parts of the Annie and Britta storyline. Don't get me wrong; there was a lot of funny stuff in it. But to a degree, I feel like we've seen this exact conflict between Annie and Britta a few times too many in this series. I liked the putdowns the two tossed at each other, but the second that oil spilled on the ground, I knew exactly where all of this was going. At this point, a comedy throwing its two hot girls into an ironic mud fight is essentially just a non-ironic mud-fight, it's happened so often.
- "Yay. They're having fun in pairs!"
- "Did YOU even know about the ostrich that raised the tiger cub?"
- "If you guys just let me get to the can opener, I can feed you."
- "Then you're not listening because his has LASERS."
- "If a guy wants to make a puppet of me, that's hardly your concern."
- "I'm raising less money because I'm not jump starting date rapists."
- "You gain levels, and at a certain point you actually CAN eat a ghost."
- "Hold on a sec. I need to use my force field to prevent Chang from getting food."