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October 22, 2010 at 07:51 PM EDT

Community is the last place I’d go to get religion, but last night’s episode, entitled “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” was nourishing in its exploration of faith as belief and perception. It was gratifying that it was propelled by Shirley, who I’d been thinking has become the show’s most one-dimensional character — since the series began, Yvette Nicolle Brown seems to have been directed to pitch her voice higher and widen her eyes to display non-stop sincerity off which the rest of the study group can bounce its cynicism.

Last night, however, Shirley took offense at the crass humor that constantly surrounds her, especially when it came to making fun of Christianity. Enlisting Abed to help her to make a movie that might present a Christ hip enough for jaded community-college students, she thought she’d found an ally. But Abed, gulping down the New Testament and deciding that Jesus was “like ET, Edward Scissorhands, and Marty McFly put together,” went off in his own messianic direction.

Abed being Abed — that is, consumed by the culture he consumes — doesn’t portray a Christ, he becomes one: a long-haired pious figure who spoke in meta-mini-parables (“We are the film”). This was not what Shirley had in mind, and it was nice to see a flash of her old temper when Abed tried to justify his actions by quoting from (what I think was) the First Epistle to the Corinthians: “Did you just Scripture me, Muslim?”

It was fascinating to see how easily Abed’s blank affect could be turned into a serene religiosity without any change in expression, and the episode got away with a Last Supper sight-gag funny simply by not calling undue attention to it. When Abed prayed to God about freeing him from his own movie because it was “the worst piece of crap… the critics are gonna crucify me,” there was a soulfulness running beneath the comedy.

In the half-hour’s B-story, Pierce found himself taking up with the group of senior citizens who float through Greendale Community College, led by the cantankerous Leonard. It was an opportunity to pull a switch on our (and the study group’s) image of Pierce. The silver-haired, out-of-it Pierce (“You-Tune”) got into the rowdy spirit of elderly status, in which bad behavior is excused as senility. Community‘s reflexive habit is to go against the prevailing pop-culture “truth” — and these days on TV, there’s nothing worse than being over 50; watch any reality show for testimony from young things saying “yuck” to wrinkly people with brains and sex drives. Community turned that attitude inside-out.

The two story lines were not unrelated. Both had to do with being a leader and being led; believing in a message being offered as a revelatory truth, or rejecting it. (Oh, and Jeff as the group’s father figure wasn’t exactly off-topic, either.)

In the end, when Abed and Shirley clasped hands and said, “You humble me,” I was actually moved. All this, in the context of a really funny, fast-paced episode.

After all, one definition of religion is a “community” of like-minded people, right?

I’d be curious to know what you think, and believe, about this episode.

Follow: @kentucker

And hey, be sure to check out the latest TV Insiders podcast, featuring Dalton Ross, Annie Barrett, Michael Ausiello, Michael Slezak, Missy Schwartz, and li’l old me yakking about everything from Project Runway to The Good Wife to The Ultimate Fighter. Yes, all that and more.

Joel McHale and Alison Brie star in this comedy about a college study group—which has received second life on Yahoo.
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