First off, let’s get this out of the way: I was never a proper American boy. I only saw a handful of episodes of Thundercats, He-Man, and Transformers. I straight up can’t even remember watching a single G.I. Joe and I certainly didn’t own any of the action figures. Truth be told, I can hardly recall what the hell I was watching. I think it was the sillier stuff like Looney Tunes and other lighthearted fare that everyone’s forgotten about—shows like Denver the Last Dinosaur, Bobby’s World, and Widget, the World Watcher who taught you about saving the environment just like Captain Planet did, but nobody was listening to him except little old me. Hey, I also liked The Real Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Those are still cool, right?
I thought I should mention this because the obvious criticism I’m going to get is that this episode just isn’t for me, so I might as well own up to it in advance. “G.I. Jeff” is a loving homage to the old G.I. Joe action figures and animated series of the eighties and, unless you were into all that mess, I can’t imagine this episode holding that much appeal for you. It certainly didn’t for me.
The main issue is that the success of the episode feels like it rides pretty heavily on nostalgia and recognition of a bygone era of budget animation and cheesy toy commercials (though I honestly can’t say if toy commercials have actually changed that much; I haven’t seen one in some time). It seems to me that either your familiarity with this old junk will be triggered from frame one and you’ll be grinning the whole episode or you’ll sit there, stony-faced, at times bewildered, like yours truly.
But, look, it’s not like I don’t get a lot of this stuff. Choppy animation and lip-synch mistakes were hardly exclusive to G.I. Joe. It was a goddamned epidemic back in the eighties. Seriously, grab a DVD of your favorite show and watch an episode or two. I mean, Jesus, what kind of stupid kids were we? We had no quality standards whatsoever.
I also happen to know enough about G.I. Joe to get the joke, or rather the driving force of the entire episode, that, ironically in a show ostensibly about war, it causes a huge upset when someone actually dies. The explanation (kids’ cartoons in the US can basically never show anyone getting killed) is one I suppose a viewer unfamiliar with G.I. Joe might work out on his or her own or maybe they’ll just go along with the premise even without understanding its origins. However, it still comes off very much like an in-joke to me, which is why it feels like such a bad choice that so much of the episode’s conflict is hinged on this concept. Even if you don’t find it befuddling, you still also have to find it funny that this American cartoon trope is being deconstructed. And this is the problem with the entire episode: if you have no interest in seeing G.I. Joe simultaneously homaged and parodied, there’s not a lot here for you.
“But,” I imagine you might argue, “isn’t the homage/parody formula a big part of many Community episodes?”
Indeed it is! But the best themed episodes of Community are enjoyable as both homages and as solid episodes of a sitcom about a group of unlikely friends at a community college. This way, even if you don’t understand the source material for the homage, at least you still get a great episode of one of your favorite shows.
I’ll go one step further: if the episode doesn’t function as a decent half-hour of Community first and foremost, it is a failure.
The problem here is that the humor, by and large, doesn’t even feel very Community-like. I notice Dino Stamatopoulos (who also plays Star-Burns) is credited with writing this one and most likely the animation studio he started with Dan Harmon produced this episode, just as they did the Claymation episode. Dino has been a writer on “normal” Community episodes too, so I’m sure the guy is capable of great work in the right context, but I’ve never appreciated his personal output. He did Moral Orel and is currently responsible for High School USA!, both shows that I feel go for cheap, amateurish jokes and shock humor.
“G.I. Jeff” is a lot more like a Stamatopoulous original than an episode of Community. It’s got dumb lines about Cobra Commander maybe being gay for Destro and a rather pointless bit at the end where his flesh gets burned off. Some of the wit is still in there. They didn’t make me laugh out loud, but all the character names (Buzzkill, Fourth Wall, etc.) are certainly clever and I like how Shirley won’t stop mentioning she has three kids. Also, at least one running gag about the budget animation—the way the characters keep using rocks to club their way out of every situation—got me pretty good. Still, tellingly, I found myself laughing most at Chang thinking he was Korean and the “It’s a old boy” mug, all of which showed up once we were finally out of the cartoon world.
If I give this episode any kudos it’s because it’s quite simply one of the oddest half-hours of primetime sitcom television I’ve ever seen. I have to admire the ambition, the effort, and the dedication, but I still don’t think that weirdness added up to anything very good. I often like to think of what it would be like if you were a viewer tuning into a Community episode for the first time and, holy hell, could you imagine if it were this one? A budget cartoon spliced with weird toy commercials with occasional flashes to a real-world hospital? Bwuh???
Something continually upsetting to me is the way Season 5 at its worst reminds me of Season 4, a period in Community’s life that I don’t even consider to be the same show. But remember the abysmal Season 4 finale where Jeff kind of had a psychotic break and imagined the Darkest Timeline was real and then it turned out it was all a dream? Well, this one makes a lot more sense and it doesn’t cheaply hide the “dream” aspect so as to use it as a twist at the end, but still, it feels lazier than I expect Community to be. I mean, this show did a freaking zombie episode and said it was canon.
No matter how you slice it, a dream episode like this renders the majority of it kind of pointless. Yes, I know the thing that matters and which is supposed to ground this as a real episode is Jeff coming to terms with his real age, but sorry, that didn’t really strike me as a huge reveal (and it didn’t seem to bother the other characters that much either). It was sort of a big deal that he almost killed himself, but that turned out to be an accident, so it’s not like Jeff is suicidal. But the chief issue is that the whole dream is only leading up to one small reveal. It’s not like we get multiple revelations or character development along the way, so my original point remains: very little of this matters.
I was never a fan of “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” but at least that felt like a Community episode. It was just a melodramatic, unfunny one. “G.I. Jeff” is a weird, somewhat crass cartoon with occasional funny bits and an end revelation that barely counts as one. At least it gets points for being weird, but I can’t help but notice that my reaction to this episode—a sort of stunned disappointment—didn’t feel entirely dissimilar to the state I was in after my first viewing of the season premiere of the gas leak year.