It's one of the most inventive shows in sitcom history. But can it make us care about the characters?
Community is the most innovative sitcom of all time.
Wait! Hold on. Don't pummel the comments section with rants about All in the Family and Cheers just yet. "Most innovative" doesn't necessarily mean the best. It doesn't mean the NBC show, which airs the conclusion of its two-part season finale tonight, is the funniest sitcom ever, or has the most memorable characters. Community's protagonist Jeff Winger, played by Joel McHale, is no charming scamp like Sam Malone. Jeff and Britta, played by Gillian Jacobs, are certainly not a classic sitcom couple that audiences will root for like Sam and Diane. Or Ross and Rachel. Or Jim and Pam, Niles and Daphne, Dave and Maddie, Mulder and Scully, Jeannie and Major Nelson, and so on.
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Jeff and Britta, in fact, are an appalling pair. Deliberately so, and that's one of the things that makes Community so unique. Jeff and Britta aren't a "real" sitcom couple at all—if such a thing can even be said to exist. They are a satire of sitcom couple. Their courtship is a plot device that Community creator Dan Harmon uses to satirize the whole, done-to-death will-they-or-won't-they sitcom premise.
On the literal level, Community is about Jeff Winger. A smarmy attorney disbarred for faking his undergraduate degree, he enrolls at fictional Greendale Community College to get one. There he finds a motley bunch of students played by a very talented group of actors, including Jacobs, Chevy Chase, Donald Glover, Yvette Nicole Brown, Danny Pudi, and future mother to my children, Alison Brie. The crew forms an unlikely study group, and an even unlikelier family dynamic ensues.
Figuratively, however, Community is about something else entirely. The show's real subject is mass media, especially the conceits, tropes, and conventions of TV and movies. Just as Jeff and Britta aren't a real TV courtship, Community isn't actually a sitcom—not any more than The Onion is an actual news-gathering organization. Community, instead, is a weekly satire of the sitcom genre, a spoof of pop culture in general, and an occasionally profound critique of how living in mass media society can mess up human relationships in the real world. It's also funny, too. Some of that "profound critique" comes disguised in the form of boob jokes.
Sure, All in the Family was innovative for its time, tackling issues like Vietnam and Watergate that no other show would touch. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was groundbreaking, too, not only for its feminist message, but for being the first sitcom to have truly ensemble cast. Virtually every one of those talented actors went on to star in shows of their own. Ed Asner in Lou Grant. Valerie Harper in Rhoda. Gavin MacLeod captained The Love Boat for ten years. Ted Knight's Too Close for Comfort ran six. Cloris Leachman is still on TV an amazing 30 years later, playing a delusional grandma on Raising Hope. The Great Betty White, of course, has never stopped working, from Mama's Family and Golden Girls to this year's appearance as special guest star on Community's season premiere. When Dan Harmon, previously head writer for The Sarah Silverman Program, talks about not wanting to make a "template sitcom," he's talking about breaking the template Mary made.
Other than worshipful respect for Betty White, however, Community has less in common with Mary than with another 1970s classic: M*A*S*H. The sitcom set in the Korean War that lasted far longer than the war itself never stopped finding new ways to tell a story. Ignore for a moment the show's moralizing drumbeat, especially in later years. Ignore, too, that some of that famously sparkling dialogue was cribbed from the Marx Brothers. If there was a new camera angle, an untried lighting effect, or an experimental plot device, M*A*S*H would give it a go. Think of an innovation in TV storytelling over the last 40 years, and M*A*S*H probably tried it first. Decades before The Office and Modern Family, they shot fake-documentary episodes, with handheld cinema verite feel and characters making confessional asides. They shot an episode in real time, 24-style, complete with ticking clock onscreen, another that covered an entire year in the life of the camp, and "Point of View," in which all the action is seen through the eyes of a wounded soldier.
In the 1980s, the sitcom changed. When Baby Boomers started having kids, they turned away from broad social issues, worrying less about saving the world, and more about personal relationships at home and work. Television reflected that Reagan-era cultural retrenchment, and the socially-conscious, experimental sitcom fell out of favor. It was replaced by straightforward family or pseudo-family comedies, typified by Cheers, Newhart, and, of course, The Cosby Show. Other than an occasional—and usually lamentable—"Very Special Episode," '80s sitcoms avoided any problem in the world bigger than Vanessa Huxtable wanting to quit the clarinet.
These shows were sealed off from each other, too, and from the rest of pop culture. Beyond that TV staple, the wildly implausible guest star appearance, like when Dizzy Gillespie plays Vanessa's music teacher, '80s sitcoms were loathe to acknowledge other mass media, too. The characters never went to movies or rock concerts like the rest of us. They never wore t-shirts emblazoned with advertising for shoe companies and soft drinks. With the notable exception of Roseanne, they also never showed characters doing something that most Americans, then and now, enjoy for several hours a day: watching television.
In 1989, The Simpsons exploded into pop consciousness and changed everything. Marge and Homer, working class Baby Boomer parents with three Generation X kids, were the first family on TV to address the problems of living in a mass society. The Simpsons were first to capture how it feels to live in an America utterly saturated by mass media, where kids are casually obsessed with hyper-violent cartoons, and someone you will never meet, like a local anchorman, plays an intimate role in your daily life. The Simpsons, in essence, were the first characters on TV to be as dramatically affected by pop culture as the rest of us.
By the mid-1990s, the first wave of Generation X was hitting 30. Bart and Lisa's cohort, the first generation to never know a world without TV, was old enough to start writing TV shows of their own. References to pop culture started pouring into the once hermetically sealed sitcom world. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, characters would casually mention movie stars and rock bands. Jerry Seinfeld got in trouble for making out with his girlfriend during Schindler's List. Eric on That '70s Show imagined himself as Luke Skywalker.
By the 2000s, shows were doing more than just incorporating pop culture. They were making fun if it. South Park and Arrested Development, the only real rivals to Community's meta-comedy crown, mocked the conventions of film and TV. A whole wave of "backstage" shows, including The Flight of the Conchords, Entourage, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, satirized the entertainment industry from the inside. Maybe the best of them, premiering in 2006, is 30 Rock.
Tina Fey is a brilliant innovator—Lisa Simpson all grown up—and there is no question 30 Rock built the road Community drives on. Still, for all of 30 Rock's meta-humor and nods to the audience, it's a fairly conventional workplace comedy at heart. Essentially it's a reworked version of Mary Tyler Moore, with Tina Fey in Mary's role, Alec Baldwin as the Lou Grant-like figure, and Tracy Morgan reprising Ted Baxter.
Where Jon Stewart's show makes fun of pundits, The Colbert Report is, in itself, a spoof of punditry. In the same way, Dan Harmon, Bart Simpson all grown up, isn't making a sitcom. He's making a parody of them.
That difference was made vivid a few weeks back when both shows aired a "clip show," TV's version of a victory lap, where characters recall past events as a pretext for cutting to highlights of past episodes. 30 Rock, celebrating five years on the air, wove their clips around the wafer-thin premise of Tracy wanting to destroy his own credibility.
Community's clip show, ladies and germs, was a new whole different kettle of fish ball wax. First we see the study group making yet another diorama for Anthropology class. This one, though, depicts the study group in the act of making a diorama—just a hint of the Charlie Kaufman-ish weirdness to come.
The cast starts reminiscing and flashing back, but there's something odd about the clips we flash back to. They aren't highlights. They are all-new, shot to look like highlights, and we are "remembering" events that never aired. We weren't shown crucial stuff, apparently, too. Like during the Halloween episode. We flashback to the cast wearing the same costumes on the same set, but this time see that Jeff and Britta's "Will they or won't they?" has been an "already did" for months.
Then it gets really weird. We start genre-hoping, jumping from template to template. We see the cast jump from a "memory" of mocking Glee, to another where they visited a Scooby-Doo-style ghost town, to another of being held at gunpoint by a drug lord, to finally wearing straight-jackets in a padded cell. The scenes flicker at a ever faster pace, all the while Jeff's valedictory, what-did-we-learn today speech effortlessly adapts to each.
Community, it seems, didn't a make a clip show after all. They made a spoof of clip shows, and there's a good reason Harmon ended it in a padded cell. Too much media consciousness will make anyone go crazy.
In Jorge Luis Borges' fable "On Exactitude in Science," a map made on a scale of one to one replaces the territory it's supposed to represent. For theorist Jean Baudrillard, that map is a metaphor for postmodern life. On Community, that map represents mass media: the depictions of human experience in pop culture that have become the standards by which our flesh and blood lives are judged.
In Community's pilot, Pudi's character tells Jeff, "I thought you were like Bill Murray in any of his films, but you're more like Michael Douglas in any of his films." The audience only gets the joke if they have seen Bill Murray play a wise-cracking slacker hero and Michael Douglas playing a creep. But real human beings, like Greendale's mascot, are more complicated than fictional characters. Real human relationships take more than 22 minutes of witty banter a week. In an age when even the simplest human interaction is colored by media-created expectations, when our flesh-and-blood romantic relationships are judged against the standards of TV and movie love affairs, Community asks if it's even still possible to make an authentic connection?
Probably not. But we shouldn't quit trying. Neither should Community. The danger, for people, and for this remarkable TV show, is in no longer trying to authentically connect. Consider a very different kind of sitcom. How I Met Your Mother, nearing the end of a hugely successful run, hasn't been on the air for nearly a decade because it wittily critiques life in the mass media consumerist simulacrum. How I Met Your Mother thrives because audiences feel emotionally connected to the characters on it.
If Community forgets that, they're in trouble. No matter how inventive they may be, if the sight gags, puns, one-liners, pop culture name-drops and media-on-media meta-critique overwhelm the relationships between characters, Community will take a one-way trip to Flash-in-the-pan-ville. If the show, in a gargantuan irony, stops offering viewers a sense of community, all the innovation in the world won't keep us watching.