Supposedly, NBC's Community is about a mismatched bunch of community college students who bond and become a surrogate family. But it isn't. Not really. The bunch, led by Joel McHale's smarmy Jeff Winger, may be motley. But Community is about group dynamics like I Dream of Jeanie was about the space program. The show's real subject is itself.
Community, in essence, is a television show about television. Not only because the characters talk about pop culture constantly, like people in the real world. Nor only for the inside-showbiz jokes, like Chevy Chase's character Pierce making friends by doing the sort of pratfall that launched Chase's own career.
The show deals with Americans' fraught relationship with pop culture—specifically the torrent of movies, sitcoms, reality shows, cop dramas, medical shows, commercials, and everything else that pours into the average American home several hours a day. Community's characters both spoof media clichés and openly wrestle with how they are affected by them, as with Jeff's faux-apology to a cafeteria worker for speaking out of turn: "I was raised on TV and conditioned to believe that every black woman over 50 is a cosmic mentor."
The show launched with the most hackneyed premise possible—a "Will they or won't they?" courtship between roguish Jeff and spunky Britta, played by Gillian Jacobs. Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley, a divorced African-American mom, spoke for the audience in an early episode by telling Jeff, "I don't see why you and Britta aren't together. Two cute white people going to school together, it just seems right."
Jeff snapped back "We're not pandas in a zoo!"
That is, watching to see if two human beings if will start dating is a weirdly voyeuristic, almost primitive form of entertainment. By extension, the hyper-vicarious entertainment of rooting for a fictional couple to start dating, be it Jim and Pam, Ross and Rachel, or Jeff and Britta, is borderline pathetic. So much for our epic TV romance.
As it turns out, though, Jeff and Britta are like pandas, in that they hang around each other, but don't seem too interested in getting physical. Particularly since Annie Edison, played by Alison Brie, asserted herself as an unlikely romantic rival, literally letting her hair down and sharing a stage kiss with Jeff that surprised them both by turning steamy:
The juxtaposition of Annie and Britta itself spoofs another classic sitcom device—the conspicuously contrasting pair of female characters. Think of the dueling hot moms on Modern Family, Bailey Quarters and Jennifer Marlowe on WKRP in Cincinnati, even Betty and Veronica's comic-book battle for Archie's love. With innocent Annie and worldly Britta, Community invokes TV's archetypal contrast of ingénue and vixen, and probably the most debated pair of fictional women of all-time—Mary Ann and Ginger from Gilligan's Island.
Except that Britta's vixen is no movie star. She's klutzy, sanctimonious, and more often hostile than seductive. Annie, in matronly sweaters and floral prints, may look like a Kansas farm girl, but she's smart, ambitious, intense, and perfectly capable of using her sex appeal if necessary.
Community's most satisfying spoof might be Danny Pudi's Abed; an Arab-American pop culture guru with Asperger Syndrome. Nick Caraway to Jeff Winger's Gatsby, Abed is a true sitcom rarity—a "foreign" character who is more than a sidekick and the butt for jokes about his accent. Abed is a butt of jokes, of course—as Pierce pointed out, "Asperger" does sound an awful lot like "ass-burger." But the humor comes from his personality, not his background.
Community's narrative, though, isn't about anything as trite as avoiding sex-role stereotypes and ethnic jokes or, heaven help us, that "family is what you make it." We can only hope Jeff Winger won't evolve into a sensitive guy who learns to love himself and others. But who cares, really? The show critiques, without condemning, the incredibly intimate relationships Americans have with fictional characters and the undeniably profound effects those relationships have on how we relate to real human beings. Worrying whether, say, Jeff and Britta will ever get together? That would just make you a Schmity.