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After a brief hiatus to avoid going head to head with the NCAA March Madness games, we’re back for the final stretch of the season. G.I. Jeff is the 11th episode of Season 5, and the last episode before the two part season finale. Even though the title of the episode made it relatively apparent, this episode was hyped up as a throwback to the original G.I. Joe cartoons. While I did watch a little bit of the cartoon when I was younger, the height of its popularity was before I was born. As a result, I don’t have the same nostalgia for it as other fans may have. At any rate, here are my thoughts.
G.I. Jeff doesn’t waste any time at all, coming right out of the gate with full-on 80s style animation and sound effects. In fact, if someone was channel surfing and wasn’t aware of Community, it could easily be confused for an actual classic G.I. Joe episode, albeit in higher quality. In true Community fashion, it’s rife with clever references, observations, and meta humour, and it delivers it flawlessly. It can be argued that this episode has the highest amount of meta jokes in the season, from Shirley’s character being reduced to a simple catchphrase (as most lower ranking characters did at the time), to the flawless recreation of cheesy toy commercials, to everyone getting upset when Jeff accidentally kills an evil Cobra member. (Nobody ever actually dies!!). Heck, even Abed’s character is named Fourthwall. He, of course, becomes pivotal to the story, but more on that later.
I’ll be honest, when I was first watching through the episode, I, like many, assumed it would simply be a fun, self-aware little concept episode parodying G.I. Joe. However, as a fan of the show for 5 seasons now, I should have known better. Nothing is ever that simple, and even the silliest episodes usually end up having a very real story that hits hard in the end. After one of the toy commercials in the episode, there’s a blink and you’ll miss it single frame shot all gathered around what appears to be some sort of bed, staring at someone. It’s unknown who the person they’re gathered around is, but simple deduction would indicate that Jeff is the only person missing in the shot. When I first noticed that frame, I definitely had to rewind and check it out again. It was then that I knew this episode was, to steal a catchphrase from another 80s cartoon series, more than meets the eye, and they had me hook, line and sinker.
After that split second scene, things all begin to unravel. The voices of Britta, Annie, Abed and Shirley’s characters turn from in-character as their G.I. Joe counterparts, to their seemingly real-life counterparts, calling out for Jeff to wake up. Also, anytime anybody mentions Greendale, Jeff seems to have terrible flashbacks and yells at them for mentioning it. After reaching his breaking point, they decide to break out of jail (where they were thrown for their treacherous, heinous deeds of killing an enemy terrorist unit), and return to Greendale to try and piece together Jeff’s issues.
Now, while this episode was great overall, it was the lowest rated episode of the season. This isn’t so much of a testament to the quality of the episode, but the accessibility of it. Episodes like this are a large reason why Community is more or less a cult classic than a comedy series such as Big Bang Theory or Two And A Half Men. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a bad thing at all. Community is a fantastic show, and miles (or should I say streets?) ahead of either of those shows. However, concept-heavy episodes such as this aren’t exactly the most market-friendly, and someone who isn’t familiar with the show who is seeing it for the first time would be unlikely to get into it. For example, I have a relative that enjoys sitcoms, and while they do enjoy some of the earlier episodes of Community, (I believe the STD fair one is their favorite, which is a fantastic episode in many different ways), but was turned off by a lot of the concept-heavy episodes such as Digital Real Estate Planning (the video game episode), or anything after mid-season 3 for that matter. An episode doesn’t need to be accessible to be fantastic though, and I would take a smart, clever and slightly insular episode over a dumbed-down and “trying to appeal to everybody” episode any day.
Speaking of Digital Real Estate Planning, G.I. Jeff reminded me of that episode in many different ways. They’re both a concept episode right before the leadup to the season Finale, they both were recorded outside of Greendale, and had that “last episode recording of the season” feel, and, of course, they both were funny, lighthearted episodes that took a turn midway through and ended up with a touching ending. Whether or not that was intentional, I found that it was a very interesting parallel.
When all is said and done, G.I. Jeff isn’t the most accessible episode, and I wouldn’t recommend it as someone’s first episode of Community, but it was great overall, and turned out much better than I expected it to be. Ratings aside, it has some pretty good momentum going into the two part season finale. Let’s hope it nails it!