The meta NBC show skewered the earnest Fox series brilliantly with its Christmas episode—but missed one key point
Glee may not have aired its annual Christmas special until Tuesday night, but the show already got Scrooged last week. That was when Community aired its own holiday musical episode, "Regional Holiday Music," which also happened to be a ruthless attack on all of Glee's flaws, a relentless exposing of the show's most repetitive cliches, and a blistering derision of the show's popularity. Yes, "Regional Holiday Music" was, as is reliably the case with Community, a sharp, funny episode, while Glee's "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" was, as is reliably the case with that show, a wildly uneven mix of creative highs and lows. But, just as Scrooge, with his perfunctory bah humbugs, was blind to the fact that deep inside he actually loves Christmas, Community, for everything it so hilariously skewered about the show, failed to see that it's actually not all that different from Glee.
It took barely a minute for Community to fire at all of Glee's easiest targets, and lampoon them perfectly. Greendale Community College's glee club barges into the cafeteria and begins singing unannounced as part of some infuriating viral marketing scheme for its Christmas pageant. Their performance includes a ludicrous mash-up (of Lil John and Elton John songs) and a hip-hop interlude. They obsess about regionals. ("What the hell are regionals? They never stop talking about them," quips Chevy Chase's Pierce.) Joel McHale's jaded Jeff even channels his best Sue Sylvester and gets regionals canceled.
Then with some coaxing from Abed who—in a very Glee-like way—believes the only way his friends can spend time together is if they all join the glee club, the study group fills in for the original singers, who suffered a "collective emotional breakdown" after the competition was canceled. Soon, they all adopt regionals ("What the hell is that?" asks Pierce, again, every time it's mentioned) as their own raison d'être, and the episode continues to mercilessly mock Glee. The club's director wears a sweater vest, dubs himself "Mr. Rad" in an attempt to be cool, and paces around the practice room while delivering tired speeches meant to be inspiring nuggets of wisdom. "He's like human fro-yo," says Troy, offering the perfect characterization of Matthew Morrison's Mr. Schuster on Glee. There's a mute piano player, and characters who burst into spontaneous song—sometimes with absurdly extravagant production values—and bystanders who become reluctant-turned-enthusiastic participants in the number. Even the sometimes-hypocritical overarching message behind Glee is razzed: "Not liking glee club doesn't make us bullies," says Jeff. "Implying that it does is reverse bullying."
As Glee's "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" began, it became all the more apparent how accurate Community's spoof was. After an apropos-of-nothing performance of "All I Want for Christmas Is You" complete with garland-and-tinsel choreography, Mr. Schuster makes his grand entrance wearing a red and green, Yuletide-themed vest, and gives a pep talk about why this Christmas will be better than the last. An Irish exchange student is sad about the holidays and therefore sings a song to cheer himself up, "dedicating" it to people who are an ocean away. Somehow the whole thing inspires formerly homeless Sam to take pity on him and become his "Christmas sponsor." Community couldn't have invented better illustrations of Glee's cringe-inducing, everyone-is-loved-as-long-as-they-sing-a-song motif.
And things only got more over-the-top. Artie directs a holiday special for a local access station that is inspired by a 1978 Star Wars Christmas special and shot in black and white in homage to Judy Garland's classic holiday programs. Only on Glee do those two things go together. But what followed—nearly 20 minutes of a meta holiday special performed by Glee's characters—could almost be ruled a send-up of the very thing that Community is known for: Singling out a kitschy entertainment genre and paying tribute to it by recreating its motifs with painstaking accuracy within the confines of the show's own sitcom world.
That show-within-a-show was so clearly a love letter to the Judy Garland specials it honored. It's a bold move for a series that's supposed to appeal to a mainstream—not to mention youth—audience, whose collective heads the segment likely went over. And it's something Glee has done before—remember the brilliant frame-by-frame recreation of "It's All Over" from Dreamgirls performed in Mercedes' imagination? In fact, it's the same go-for-broke channeling of classic scenes, genres, and story lines that Community has built its reputation on, with send-ups of everything from Goodfellas ("Classic American Poultry") to, with its Christmas episode last year, Claymation holiday specials.
So it turns out that as hard as Community worked to prove that it—a clever, ironic, highbrow comedy—is everything that Glee—a populist, cliched, comedy-drama hybrid—is not, the two shows are more similar than they may seem. For better or worse, they are unabashedly themselves. With Community, the better is that unrivaled attention to detail and hyper-intelligent comedy; the worse is that this very cleverness may be why the show attracts barely 3 million viewers an episode and has been taken off the air. For Glee, the better is a show that's unafraid to use its platform to put the spotlight on issues and, occasionally, classic songs and shows that its audience wouldn't normally be exposed to. The worse... well, essays have been written about that.
There's one last thing that Community got right about Glee. In the final act of "Regional Holiday Music," all the enthusiasm the Greendale gang had for performing in the Christmas pageant unceremoniously falls apart, and Abed is left spending Christmas, as he feared, alone. But pulling through, as they always do, his friends arrive at his dorm room to sing a heartwarming group number that bonds them all together again. The heartwarming finale: A Glee staple. In "Extraordinary Merry Christmas," that took the form of Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" performed at a homeless shelter for children (like I said, Glee is nothing if not unashamed about extravagant acts like this). And here, the heartwarming finale is this: Both Community and Glee are smart shows that deserve large followings for, to varying degrees of success, at least trying to push the boundaries of what will fly on TV. So God bless them both, every one.