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How powerful is TV's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, 46 years after its first airing? A week ago Tuesday, CBS' annual telecast clobbered the equally classic animated treasure How the Grinch Stole Christmas on ABC when they went head to head. Since then, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart put his voice over the Burl Ives snowman/narrator as part of a hilarious holiday-animation takedown of Fox News Channel's yearly "War on Christmas" hysteria. ("The season wouldn't feel the same without people going out of their way to be offended by nothing.") Glee kicked off its frenetically sentimental Christmas episode this week with a rendition of "The Island of Misfit Toys" (how appropriate). And now the entire cast of NBC's Community looks like they stepped off of Hermie's assembly line in Santa's workshop.

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As you may have heard, this week's episode of Community, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," is done completely in stop-motion animation, the style immortalized in those enduring Rankin/Bass Christmas-TV chestnuts. If you'd asked me a while back which current TV sitcom would attempt such a thing, I'd answer without hesitation:

Community. If you asked me which character would prompt such an odyssey into this surreal yet oddly familiar world, it would have to be Danny Pudi's proudly oddball Abed.In this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine (with "Fan Favorite" Supernatural on the cover), I note in my Review column: "Community is having the opposite of a sophomore slump as it makes claim ... to being TV's most adventurous and unpredictable sitcom. Intoxicated with all things pop-cultural and self-referential, this smartly smart-alecky show long ago moved beyond its seemingly simple premise of Cheers in a community-college study group."All of which is certainly true in this one-of-a-kind episode. Though there are some very sharp jokes (and one brilliant reference to an iconic TV show), it isn't nearly as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the show's recent experiments in breaking form: the Halloween zombie outbreak, the Apollo 13 parody, the mega-meta "bottle episode" involving Annie's missing pen. But as the animation takes us inside Abed's peculiar psyche, testing and illuminating the character of his friends along the way, there's no doubt this is a very special episode. Without being a "very special" episode, if you catch my drift.The gist involves a search for meaning in the holiday season that goes back at least as far as Linus. Although as Pierce grouses: "What do you care about Christmas, Abed? You're Muslim. Don't your people spend this season writing angry letters to TV Guide?" (That's the one joke I'll spoil here, just because.) The group is alarmed by Abed's insistence that they've all become cartoons — not so far from the regular truth — and their attempt at intervention involves bringing in John Oliver as Professor Ian Duncan. He tries to shrink Abed's head, seeing his animated winter wonderland as a way of taking shelter from reality in delusion. So what else is new?From the start, as Abed suggests "We should commit to the format, starting with a song," to the final Abed-Troy riff during the end credits, there's a sweetness underscoring all the bizarre and snarky madness that distinguishes Community from the rest of what used to be a "must-see" NBC comedy lineup. For all their oddity, even when transformed into animated toys, the characters of Community are more than silly caricatures.They might resist learning — group leader Jeff (Joel McHale) recently griped, during the wacky conspiracy-theory night-school farce, "I feel like someone is trying to teach me something!" — but they are growing, and growing on us. Someday I have a feeling we'll be studying Community as a modern comedy classic.Go here to read about how the cast feels about the show's postmodern leanings.

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