Introduction to Identification: Abed in 'Community'
Synecdoche. Diegesis. Star Wars. Pop Culture. Cool Cool. Open a TV Tropes tab as we look into Abed’s identity in Community.
The Greendale Seven are gone. The third and final Harmon-led season of Community has long wrapped up and several questions and conclusions present themselves to us. Much like earlier seasons, the third season featured the “class subject as group metaphor” synecdoche trope as we saw the group change and evolve. This was most obvious during the two part finalé, "The First Chang Dynasty" / "Introduction to Finality", where every member of the study group, (except Annie, oddly), made a real move forward into the next stage of their lives. This is not the only time character evolution and identity change has been drastically used in the series. Not by a long shot.
No character has made more of a change throughout the series as Abed Nadir. In the earliest episodes, Abed can simply be seen as a socially awkward, TV and film obsessed geek. Even as late as the first season’s 16th episode, "Communication Studies", Abed is still seen to be an amateur film maker and TV tragic. In an attempt to get a better performance from Jeff in his plan to drunk dial Britta believably, he follows the ‘rules’ of hard-edged directors, such as the cited Martin Scorsese (who “drank with DeNiro”), by getting drunk with his ‘lead actor’ as a means of bonding and to provoke a method performance. Here, he is simply what he was introduced as; a pop culture junkie.
Yet by the time of first season’s conclusion, he has become something else entirely" a fourth wall leaning, though never breaking, kind of meta-character. “I had also wanted to be in a mafia movie”, he admits in voice-over in "Contemporary American Poultry", signifying the start of the parody (or ‘homage’ as undoubtedly Abed would have it). Before Abed comments on the Goodfellas / Godfather-esque goings on with the group’s plan to seize control of the school’s chicken finger supply, the episode plays as normal. It's only through Abed’s voice-over acknowledgement to himself and to us as viewers that the spoof really begins, complete with new style camera work and audio. In this guise as a fourth-wall leaning commentator on the world through television’s eye character that ‘Abed,’ as the core of Community really begins to exist.
The more fans of the already trope-heavy show are steeped in pop culture, the more they tend to flock to Abed. Given Abed’s initial identity of pop-culture-junkie, and given Community’s core demographic and fan base, this makes sense. Yet there is more to this Abed / Audience relationship than familiarity and empathy. For the tail end of the first season, and the majority of the second, Abed assumes the identity of the Viewer. Whilst he is present as a real character in the show; he also serves as a diegetic bridge between reality and fiction. In this guise, Abed can serve as a vehicle for some of the show’s more daring and less traditional outings, such as season two’s "Basic Rocket Science".
Carrying out the ‘space mission’ parody would not work nearly as well if we, the audience, didn’t have Abed as a connection point. Whilst the rest of the study group simply goes through the motions of their ‘mission’, Abed actively adopts the role of the home base radio contact, going so far as to suit up especially for the occasion. The dedication to the role (to the point of making his friends walk in slow motion while approaching the ship, and spouting clichés such as “I was supposed to be on that ship” and “Come in Kentucky One!”) is what turns the episode into a remarkable piece of television. The study group, especially members Jeff and Troy, helps ground Abed within the reality of the show by, generally, encouraging (or at least permitting) his actions and commentary. Yet none others act as ‘meta’ as Abed; he himself remarks that he is “used to being the only observer” in "Intro to Political Science". This, as season three fans know, is not the final destination of Abed.
Despite the fourth wall leaning and all the film references, the character of Abed was always firmly grounded in the reality of the show. As such, his mental state was remarked upon several times by several characters, including Abed himself, yet not until the absurdist, stop motion Christmas special homage, "Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas", do we gain an understanding of how Abed’s mind really works. The entire episode, animated a’la Rankin/Bass Holiday Specials is purported to be (by Abed) the most important Christmas ever, due to reality becoming a stop motion animation. The group argue and claim this to be incorrect (further driving home the ‘Abed=The Viewer’ notion), and determine that Abed has suffered a mental breakdown and hold a therapy session for him.
The therapy, taking form as a Christmas adventure to help him find the meaning of Christmas, does conclude with Abed reaching a minor epiphany regarding the ‘meaning’ of Christmas only being present if you will to be so. Yet the fact that the group felt the need to intervene in Abed’s life shows the first step towards Abed’s final identity, that of a somewhat mentally ill man. This is remarked upon by Jeff in the next ‘breakthrough’ episode for this character plot line, "Critical Film Studies", where he notes that Abed has seemed more distant than ever, and how worried the group have been since his mental episode over Christmas. The episode takes the form of a tribute or homage to My Dinner with Andre, and concludes with Abed and Jeff having a brief conversation about Abed himself.
Abed, ironically, confesses that growing and changing aren’t really for him, and that he sees himself more as a “removed, uncomfortably self-aware type” Jeff says that he doesn’t have to change and it becomes clear that the group loves Abed for the very ‘flaws’ he seems to have minor anxiety over. These two episodes aside, and other key moments scattered across the season, the majority of season two keeps Abed pretty firmly in his role as The Viewer. It's in the third season that the issues regarding Abed’s mental state are brought to the fore.
Abed maintains his position as a bridge between audience and Community reality relatively straightforwardly until the season’s seventh episode, "Studies in Modern Movement", where Annie moves in with Abed and Troy. Upon realising the two’s plan to have her sleep in a makeshift blanket fort, Annie stumbles into what she believes to be a linen closet, yet is actually the ‘Dreamatorium’. Resembling Star Trek’s holodeck, the room serves as a place for Troy and Abed to play imaginary games and have adventures ‘of the mind’. Troy mentions several times that Abed ‘runs’ the Dreamatorium, implying that it is Abed’s over-active imagination, or mental delusion, that ‘creates’ the imaginary worlds.
The room is used on and off as the season progresses, and Abed’s identity is increasingly confirmed as no longer being the diagetic bridging character he once was. Donning a Batman costume in "Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism", Abed acts as if he were Batman, ignoring the notion that he is Abed in any way. Yet it's not until after the (agonisingly drawn out) mid-season break do we get another real glimpse at the reality of Abed.
In "Contemporary Impressionists", we find that Abed has run up a large debt to a celebrity impersonator company over the holidays due to his overuse of impersonators helping him re-enact scenes from his favourite movies. Troy convinces the group to adopt celebrity personas and work for the company to help pay off Abed’s debt. Once this is done, Abed shrugs off the act and continues hiring impersonators. In a frank conversation with Troy, he is told that he can’t always do everything that he wants. Confused, he questions this, saying that Troy “wanted” to help him; so why can Abed do what he wants to do?
After reaching a bittersweet conclusion that Abed will let Troy tell him what to do sometimes because he “doesn’t want to stop being [his] friend”, Abed retreats to the Dreamatorium on his own, neglecting Troy one of their special handshakes. In the Dreamatorium, Abed ‘converses’ with 'Evil Abed', who tells him that being by himself can be better, and that their co-existence is only dark and inaccessible to other people, not to ‘each other’. Were this simply a throwaway gag, it could be ignored and laughed at as a Star Trek spoof. Yet Community is not that kind of show -- this is literally the imagination of a mentally unstable adult who has finally had his best friend confront him about his state of mind. This identity is the one we as an audience have until the show’s conclusion.
Troy again calls Abed on his mental health in the "Pillows and Blankets" Ken Burns parody episode; texting him saying that he has “mental issues” and that Troy is the only real friend he will ever have because no one else will have enough patience to deal with someone like Abed. Two episodes later, we are given the deepest insight into Abed’s mental state of mind of the series, in "Virtual Systems Analysis". Annie and Abed imagine an episode of Inspector Spacetime in the Dreamatorium in Troy’s absence. Abed informs Annie that the Dreamatorium is the room where he runs simulations of scenarios with his friends so as to better understand them. When Annie, accusing Abed of selfishness, changes the ‘power source’ of the Dreamatorium so that Abed is forced to empathise with other people, he screams and passes out on the floor.
Then we're given a series of vignettes where Abed ‘plays’ each of his friends, giving their views on Abed or denying his existence. We learn through these moments that Abed sees his position in the group to be non essential and his existence trivial. We later learn that Annie’s comments about his selfishness and the lengths others go to appease him really did hurt Abed. The pinnacle of the episode though, is when Abed role plays as himself to Annie, recalling how he was often put in lockers during high school and places like that is where society puts people like Abed when they get sick of them.
This confession of vulnerability and the ensuing coaxing of Abed back to reality by Annie (with a slightly more empathetic outlook, even if he has to actively try to achieve it), shows that Abed is fully aware of his mental state deep down. His final comment in the episode, “You never know what kind of day you’re going to have,” shows his acceptance of the randomness of life, and the pointlessness of him running Dreamatorium scenarios to prepare for social interaction. Surely there are very few viewers arrogant enough to label Abed with any one disorder on the spectrum of mental health issues -- but these actions point to a very real sounding problem.
The third season finalé, "Introduction to Finality" has Abed dealing with the loss of his friend after Troy moves out to live in the air conditioning repair school dorm housing. Annie reports that he hasn’t been outside in weeks and when we, the audience, visit him, we see him conversing with 'Evil Abed' once more. Abed, in an Albert Camus reminiscent confrontation of the absurd, abandons hope and eventually adopts the ‘Evil Abed’ persona in an attempt to make the life he is living ‘the darkest possible timeline’. Britta and Evil Abed have a one on one therapy session in an attempt to help Abed, yet the session devolves into Abed psychologically torturing Britta and forcing her to come to terms with her own personal demons from childhood.
At the episode’s conclusion, Abed eventually loses the Evil Abed persona upon hearing Jeff’s final speech about selflessness. Abed, no longer goatee’d, tells Britta that he is fully aware that he needs therapy of some type and that she is the only shrink that he would ever be able to trust. In a final montage, we see Troy move back home as the Dreamatorium is disassembled, leaving Abed with a small, miniaturized version in his blanket fort. Abed’s story line has come full circle, with him realising that he does need help and that the earlier identity of pop culture junkie is where he belongs, not the increasingly meta character nor the mentally unhinged.
How does this relate to the show as a whole? Abed’s character arc actually runs parallel to the changes in tone for the entire show. The earlier episodes serve as amusing, trope heavy plot lines grounded in reality. The middle era of the show features the heaviest amount of direct parody episodes and most obvious references to other shows, despite still ensuring a foot in normality. The third season episodes are certainly the most ‘wacky’ of the show -- with absurdist school mutinies committed by Chang and entire 8-bit video game episodes.
Furthermore, it's in this final run of season three episodes that we see the drama of the show come to the fore, with laughs often taking a backseat to real heart and earnestness -- not just with Abed either; the entire group evolves and changes in real ways. And finally, the concluding point regarding Abed’s desire to be helped (perhaps become a more ‘Season 1 Abed’), is mirrored in the show’s final montage; a real ‘first season’ touch, complete with non-diegetic song playing to close.
The show itself evolved, to good and bad points, the drama and laughs have ebbed and flowed, with Abed serving as a touchstone for where the show was and where it was going. It certainly didn’t always fly to possible heights, but real life, the personas we adopt and pop culture alike, do not always work out how we want.