Last week saw the cancellation of the TV show Community, which aired for five seasons on NBC. It delighted critics, but never generated the ratings that the network was hoping for. Although the audience was small, its loyalty was intense, and fans have begun a fierce online campaign to have another network or streaming service pick up the show for another season.
What is it about Community that inspires such devotion? On its surface, it’s just a show about students at a community college called Greendale. It is certainly hilarious, and the characters are very fun to watch, but there must be something else about this show that makes it stand out among so many other comedies on TV. Part of it has to do with the emotional weight underscoring the struggles the characters go through as they mature, and part of it has to do with the show’s loving embrace of fantasy and surrealism. But I would also argue, as many have before me, that this is a television show about television.
Which is why, on a blog dedicated in part to fantasy and the art of creating fiction, I’m offering a brief analysis of what makes Community such a compelling program, and why it deserves a proper final season with the closure that the fans deserve.
First of all, Community is a sitcom with a strong heart and deep characters. This is a group of students who crack jokes and deal with funny situations, but also learn and grow together. We explore their myriad backgrounds that led them to enroll in Greendale. We genuinely share in their emotional highs and lows as they struggle with issues like tracking down an estranged father, starting a new career path, and coming to grips with old age. Dan Harmon, the show’s creator and executive producer for 4 of its 5 seasons, structured his characters’ episodic arcs by the following 8-step guide, which he recognized as a tried-and-true sitcom formula:
By way of example, let’s look at Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale), whose character development highlights the classic tension of the self vs. the group. From the pilot and through much of the early episodes, Jeff is the main character and anti-hero of the group. He enrolls in Greendale after losing his law license when it is revealed that he faked his undergraduate degree. As a typical lawyer, he is pretty full of himself, and feels that Greendale is so far beneath him that he just wants to breeze through as quickly as possible, get his degree, and get back to his law firm. He didn’t come to make friends or spend any effort in class, and in the pilot he tries to cheat by asking his friend (a professor) for the answers to his Spanish test. He also pretends to be a Spanish tutor and forms a fake study group in order to get closer to a girl in his class, Britta (Gillian Jacobs). Unexpectedly, an actual study group forms, made up of students with various ages, backgrounds, and goals to achieve. Britta sees right through Jeff, and he abandons the group as soon as he can, but when his friend tricks him out of the test answers, Jeff is suddenly in a vulnerable position. No longer can he look out purely for himself and coast to his degree; suddenly, he needs the group in order to pass the test. And the group takes pity on him and invites him to study with them. Week in and week out, the group continues studying together, and what begins as a purely utilitarian relationship for Jeff grows into something more.
As the show progresses, Jeff gradually develops into a more mature, less selfish person. His arc through season one can be understood as the arc of the anti-hero, which is a tradition stretching far back in pop culture history, from Rick in Casablanca, to Han Solo in Star Wars, to Captain Jack Sparrow. While the definition of anti-hero is fluid and composed of multiple subcategories, in general the anti-hero lacks the qualities of a classic hero, and often is reluctant to take on a heroic role, but ultimately lives up to that role by choosing to act for good. Jeff, like countless anti-heroes before him, is snide and self-serving, lacking a natural inclination towards putting others before himself. But he grows so close to his study group friends that he begins to see beyond his own self-interest, giving help, advice, and support to them when they need it. And as Jeff becomes less self-centered, the show becomes less Jeff-centric. It is actually a little jarring to go back to Season 1 after watching Season 5, because of how much the perspective has shifted from Jeff to the whole ensemble.
Jeff’s friends come to rely on him, and he eventually learns to accept that responsibility as he embraces their friendship. In one early episode, “Introduction to Statistics”, the group is in a panic because one of their members, Pierce (Chevy Chase), is tripping on drugs and threatening to kill himself. The rest of the group begs Jeff to help, and at first he tries to avoid eye contact, so he can go home with one of his professors. But Jeff ultimately listens to Troy (Donald Glover) and decides to stay to help Pierce. His professor, perplexed, asks, “Are you like a court appointed guardian for these people?” Jeff answers that he is not, but they are his classmates. In that statement, he shows that even though he has no legal responsibility toward the other members of the group, he has a moral obligation to help, because they are all part of the same group.
As much as the group needs Jeff, Jeff also needs the group. They show him the love and support of a family he doesn’t think he needs. And through their friendship, he develops emotionally and ethically in a way that he might never have if he stayed a lawyer. In the episode “Debate 109”, he reluctantly helps Annie (Alison Brie) win a debate tournament on the subject of whether man is inherently good or evil. Ironically, it is a quote from the debater on the opposing side (arguing that man is good) that stuck with me: “The average life expectancy for a man in a community is 23 years longer than a man alone.” Jeff is learning a similar lesson at Greendale, that living in a community offers a richer, more satisfying life, even though you have to compromise and relinquish some of your own self-interest.
Each character goes through their own development arc. For example, Troy begins the series as a dumb jock obsessed with appearances, but evolves into a more mature, kind-hearted person. Part of this has to do with his friendship with Abed (Danny Pudi), which is arguably the strongest relationship on the show. They grow from casual acquaintances to an inseparable pair that not just enjoy the same geeky diversions but genuinely care and look out for each other. There is also Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), who gains the confidence she lost when her husband walked out on her, and eventually fulfills her dream of opening her own sandwich shop, and Annie, who loosens up considerably from the stressed out overachiever she was in the pilot. For every character, it is the group that pushes them to overcome their obstacles and become better people.
Secondly, the show is notable among sitcoms for its frequent use of fantasy and surrealism at an otherwise mundane setting.
Community has parodied a wide variety of different genres, such as crime procedural shows (“Basic Lupine Urology”), old school Christmas cartoons (“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”), and heroic space movies like Armageddon (“Basic Rocket Science”). Rather than mock these conventions of TV and film, the show pays loving homage to them, putting the familiar characters in unfamiliar situations to see how they react. Again and again, it brings up conventions of fantasy (such as Dungeons and Dragons) and science fiction (Doctor Who), and presents them in ways that even viewers who didn’t get all the references can still appreciate them. And underneath each fantastical plot is still a deep emotional core.
One of the first concept episodes was about paintball. The episode title “Modern Warfare” captures the theme perfectly: A game of paintball in Greendale escalates to the point that it turns into a full-on war (but with paint instead of bullets). I love how ridiculous this episode is on at least two levels. On the first level, there is the fact that grown adults are dropping everything they’re doing and playing a fierce game of paintball through the halls of their school. But on another level, the paintball game is so serious that it turns into a war, with hired assassins, double crossings, and dramatic deathbed speeches. The winner of the game receives priority class registration, and treating this prize with such outsize important that it turns friend against friend makes the episode both hilarious and emotionally gripping.
It all shows that in the strange world of Community, the smiling study group in the picture above can, at a moment’s notice, devolve into the anarchic picture below:
Thirdly, Community is a show about television and pop cultural tropes. Dan Harmon has admitted to spending many hours looking up tropes on tvtropes.org, and it clearly shows. Just look at the long list of tropes used, referenced, subverted, and averted over the five seasons of the show. As the list shows, Community does not just use common tropes from sitcoms and movies of the past; it often openly announces the trope as it proceeds to spoof it or play it straight (this is called “lampshading”). Abed is the character that embodies this aspect of the show most clearly. He is socially awkward to the point that he may have Asperger’s, and he sees the world through the lens of pop culture, dropping TV and film references into nearly every interaction he has. For example, instead of saying that someone is a bad influence, he’ll say that someone is “what Rob Lowe was to James Spader in the 1990 film Bad Influence”, or he will point out the fact that the group is trapped in a “bottle episode” when they spend the duration of “Cooperative Calligraphy” in the study room looking for a missing pen. In this way, Abed is our fourth-wall winking audience surrogate, a character in a TV show who sometimes seems aware that he is a character in a TV show.
Often tropes are invoked and then outright subverted. For example, the show has shrewdly subverted audience expectations when it comes to romantic relationships. Over the course of Season 1, sexual tension builds between Jeff and Britta, and we can guess what happens next. Based on shows like Friends, we expect that this unresolved sexual tension will lead inexorably to the characters hooking up and then having a long on-again, off-again relationship over the course the show. Abed, upon observing the bickering Jeff and Britta, pulls the rug right out from under us: “To be blunt, Jeff and Britta is no Ross and Rachel”. They actually do hook up, but soon after the show veers away from their coupling and they go back to being just friends. It is refreshing to see a show that dares to surprise its audience by sometimes following, but other times diverting from, common plotlines used by other sitcoms.
Alas, after 97 episodes, Community has been canceled, even though fans were fairly confident that it would be renewed for a final sixth season (based on an inside joke where the battle cry for renewal every season was “Six Seasons and a Movie!”). I personally found the fifth season finale to be enjoyable but a little unsatisfying as a series finale, which is why I hope it gets picked up for one more season. So far, there have been no announcements on whether Community will be renewed on another channel, but fans are holding out hope, tweeting hashtags such as #welovecommunity on a daily basis. For now, you can satisfy your Community craving by streaming every episode on Hulu Plus, which I have been in the process of doing since the announcement. And if it doesn’t come back, I hope that it doesn’t dissuade other sitcom writers from trying to be creative and push the medium forward. Rather, let Community be an example of how enjoyable a show with the right mixture of winking self-reference, off-the-wall absurdity, and genuine sweetness can be for a group of dedicated fans.
Now I realize that I’ve written more words than I ever have for a blog post, but I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this show. Seriously, go watch it.
Long live Greendale!