by Thom Yee
5×11: “G.I. Jeff”
I can’t believe they went this far. They must, like, own the television broadcast rights or something.
Going far beyond inspiration or imitation, “G.I. Jeff” basically transplants our Save Greendale Committee into an episode straight from the original G.I. Joe ‘80s series. All the details are right, from the ridiculous premises, the low-framerate animation, the film scratches, the static backgrounds, the music that opens scenes and transitions, and everything in between. The episode uses original series characters like Duke and Flint and Scarlet, and I even recognize many of the original voice actors reprising their roles (though the irreplaceable Chris Latta [Cobra Commander and Transformers’ Starscream] remains woefully absent… because he’s dead). The Greendaley’s themselves are clear take-offs on established Joes: Jeff “Wingman” Winger is Duke; Britta “Buzzkill” Perry is Buzzer; Annie “Tight Ship” Edison is Shipwreck; Shirley “Three Kids” Bennett is Stalker; Abed “Fourth Wall” Nadir is Spirit, and so forth. The whole thing is punctuated with true-to-life toy commercials, with a bonus ‘and knowing is half the battle’ PSA concluding that “A good syndicated cartoon has a lesson in the end, but getting heavy-handed or preachy could turn an entire generation into jaded, sarcastic babies.” By far my favourite aspect of the episode is writer Dino Stamatopoulos’ (Star-Burns; yeah, he’s a writer in real life) recognition of G.I. Joe’s propensity for giving characters two-word codenames (e.g., Quick Kick, Cold Shoulder, Deep Dish, Shark Arms, Weird Head, Home Free, Place Holder, Sleep Apnea).
Having said all of that, I actually wasn’t around for or a big fan of the original show. Being more of a ‘90s kid, I was just a little too young for it, and while it was still on occasionally during Saturday morning cartoons (which I am old enough to remember), I would always miss those irregular airings because I was usually at Chinese school. Chinese school is this thing that Chinese parents send their Chinese kids to on Saturday mornings, both to ruin their lives and to teach them how to write in Chinese because Chinese is a ridiculous enough language to use different symbols for every word instead of using an alphabet and, thus, requires extra schooling. That whole experience left a deep, deep scar that remains to this day, even after watching hours and hours of childhood cartoons in adulthood, specifically to drown out the memory of having to regularly go to school on Saturday mornings and miss cartoons. Anyway…
The reason why I know so much about the original cartoon is that I watched the Movie a bunch of times in the early ‘90s and then read up on the mythology of the show. Which was a lot more interesting than… y’know… actually watching it. The character designs are striking and the backstories are relatively well filled out, but those shows are really hollow and it’s true that you can never go back. Or in my case, go further back and watch a show aimed more at an imaginary big brother five to ten years my senior. That’s what makes G.I. Joe such a perfect fit for this episode, as it’s right in Jeff Winger’s wheelhouse, which is what this episode is really about. As with all of Community’s animated outings, this episode deals with a psychotic break, this time Jeff’s fantasy world as he tries to avoid facing his 40th birthday. As is not-so-subtly hinted at throughout the episode, Jeff is actually unconscious in the hospital after having drank a fifth of Scotch chaser to wash down his Korean-sourced youth pills. And of course, with a little help from his friends, inside and outside this fantasy, he makes an Inception-inspired escape back to the real world.
While an extremely well-executed episode overall, “G.I. Jeff” ultimately falls a little flat for reasons beyond drawing humour from a cartoon that only a subset of the modernist Community grew up with. Everything I’ve just talked about follows the same rough pattern as “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”, but “G.I. Jeff” never really comes close to equalling that classic episode. True, “G.I. Jeff” doesn’t wield the same emotional charge inherent to that episode’s Christmas setting, nor does is it draw off of the same level of raw emotional content (where Abed is forced to deal with losing his mom and the family unity he’s used to during the holidays), but what makes this episode so striking is also what ultimately leads to its undoing as we spend just a little too much time in Jeff’s fantasy and not enough time in the real world reconciling Jeff’s real feelings on being a forty-year-old community college teacher. And if we’re being brutally honest, pop culture is just a little past making jokes about the innate ridiculousness of stories about gun-toting, weapons-of-mass-destruction-wielding organizations where nobody’s ever killed.
Still, it’s an eminently rewatchable episode, and, for a certain audience, it keeps getting better every time you watch it. Also, half a bonus point for dedication to craft and attention to detail.
Community “G.I. Jeff” final score: 8
Items of Note
-A Joe named Spit-Take? Whose sole purpose seems to be doing a spit-take when somebody calls his name?
-“G.I. Joe is the codename for America’s daring, awesomely trained, awesome mission force; its purpose to fight Cobra because they’re terrorists. Look, I think I’m overexplaining it. The bad guys are snakes and the good guys are army people.”
-Shirley “Three Kids” Bennett: “I have three kids.”
-Duke to Cobra Commander: “You’re pretty selective with those snake ‘S’s.”
-Okay, the fourth time reusing the knocking people out with a rock animation made it funny.
-Chang: “I swear to God, I feel Korean.” That’s good satire.