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.