We all have those shows or movies that we sailed right on past, don’t we? Community was absolutely one of mine.
For years, I had close friends knowledgeable about television encouraging me to check in on Greendale Community College but for whatever reason, it never quite happened. I used to hear #sixseasonsandamovie and miss the reference. The first time I saw Joel McHale in anything was the revival of The X-Files. I spent *far* too long not knowing who Donald Glover was. All of these are on me. In hindsight, having just binge-watched almost the entirety of the series in around three weeks on Netflix (and slightly on Amazon), I can safely say Community is one of those shows that I am disappointed not to have experienced with everyone else at the time. I feel like those people who refuse to watch Game of Thrones and have no idea what they missed out on.
Let’s face it, Community is unique. There has never been a sitcom quite like it. You might call it a sitcom about sitcoms but that’s disingenuous. Community is more a sitcom that knows it’s a sitcom, and works hard to transcend a complex series of established formulas that have been in place for decades. Dan Harmon, the primary ubermind behind the adventures of the Greendale study group whose eventful college lives we observe each episode, understands tropes exist to be deconstructed and analysed, and deeper comedy can be reached in our post-modern landscape by encouraging the audience to be aware of said tropes. Community respects the so-called ‘fourth wall’ while never quite breaching it. In a sense, Harmon’s show is post-post-modern.
What’s great about Community, even as a show that arguably peaks and then troughs, is that it understands the sitcom well enough to deconstruct it while at the same time playing to the strengths of that same formula.
Above, I commented that I binge watched the show in around three weeks. That’s not entirely true. Myself & Mrs Black binged from around halfway into Season 1 across three weeks. The first ten episodes took us around two months to churn through.
This is not to say that Community starts poorly, but Harmon’s show arguably takes at least half a season to find the core characters. McHale’s protagonist Jeff Winger ends up a loveable, charming, amoral narcissist, but it takes a while for the performance to engender itself. Once Gillian Jacobs realises she doesn’t have to play beautiful but embittered feminist and counter-cultural revolutionary Britta Perry as the cool, aloof hot girl, and let loose with her innate gift for goofy, physical comedy, she becomes enormously good value. Similarly, as Yvette Nicole Brown realises that sweet, divorced single mother Shirley Bennett has a checkered past and a river of black cultural sass running through her, she clicks with the rest of the ensemble. It’s not all on the performers, indeed you can feel the writers leaning into these aspects of the characters as the actors bring out these facets naturally, and begin to gel as a unit.
The Rosetta Stone to understanding Community really lies in Danny Pudi’s Abed Nadir, a young Arabic man (possibly with Asperger’s) who grew up with a demanding, uncaring father, a man who never sought to understand how Abed framed an understanding of the world around him – by placing everything in the context of a television and popular culture. Abed finds that kinship particularly with Glover’s Troy Barnes, who very swiftly moves from a dimwitted ex-high school sports jock to Abed’s sidekick foil and loveable nerd. Around halfway in, the ‘stinger’ sequences that play over the credits, once the main final act closes (a sitcom staple in itself) almost always feature Troy and Abed going to great lengths to amuse themselves or play practical jokes, their most memorable becoming the running gag of ‘Troy and Abed in the mooooorning!’, where they pretend to play morning chat show hosts (a gag, itself, reminiscent of a great Seinfeld Season 9 episode where Kramer—a character who would have fit the world of Community perfectly—does the same thing).
Primarily through Abed’s contextual framing, and his seeming awareness that they are characters on a TV series destined for “six seasons and a movie!”, which he first shouts a declaration of in Season 2, Community starts as it edges toward a second season developing a sense of its own meta-textual hyper-reality. Many might argue that the episode which truly kicks this off is the late Season 1 episode Modern Warfare, and it would be hard to refute. It begins the defining staple of the series’ conceptual ideas – the paintball episode, which formes a loose trilogy that begins as a Call of Duty pastiche, moves at the end of Season 2 into a Western (specifically Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy) spoof, and finally in Season 6’s Modern Espionage, approaches the idea from a James Bond, spy thriller aesthetic.
Here’s where definitions become tricky, however. Is Community truly spoofing these concepts? I’m not so sure. Abed at one point even refutes the claim that these conceptual episodes are spoofs and he’s right. The self-awareness of the lampoon invalidates the pure spoof nature of these ideas. Mike Myers funnily enough often did the same with the Austin Powers movies, where characters displayed hints that they understood the tropes that those films were playing off. Community does this without puncturing the bubble. It heightens everything to a point where it just about tips into absurd and then pulls back. The climax of Season Four (arguably the show’s nadir – no pun intended) sees Jeff imagine a paintball competition that, for a moment, truly appeared to be a ‘shark jumping’ point where parallel universes and mind-bending physics were introduced into the series. Yet it works as part of a character’s inner journey instead.
There are so many examples of this layered writing and structure that it would take essays upon essays to break all of it down. Community delights in throwing ideas and lines and meta-textual concepts at the audience with the same fast wit that Frasier would throw cultural references. You cannot possibly catch them all in one sitting but they exist, even when the show on a narrative or comedic level is not firing on all cylinders. Season Four is the low point, as Harmon was fired and later in the season, Chevy Chase—who had portrayed the old, rich, hapless and outdated Pierce Hawthorne since the show’s inception—parted ways with the series under a fug of inappropriate behaviour. Community felt like a show doing a cover version of the heights achieved particularly in Season 3, which very rarely drops the ball with adept plotting and big ideas that almost always land.
Community was perhaps a little ahead of its time in some sense, while at the same time being a logical extrapolation of situation comedy and an increased understanding of meta-textual storytelling in modern fiction up to 2009, when the show first aired. Scream, of course, introduced these ideas into the horror genre in 1996, reviving the moribund slasher by playing off the inherent tropes within those movies to darkly comedic effect. Fight Club in 1999 breaks the fourth wall in its depiction of pre-millennial, white collar nihilism, and in 2002 Charlie Kaufman writes himself into Adaptation as a character played by Nicolas Cage. Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story in 2006 depicts a period drama within a film about the making of a film, and this is all after Last Action Hero which, in 1993, has Arnold Schwartzenegger deconstruct his own place in action mythology while at the height of his fame.
These are just a few examples but they all factor into Harmon’s thought process in developing a sitcom like Community which very quickly works to eschew the conventions of the narrative while, at the same time, endearingly playing up to them. Characters undergo genuine arcs across the run of the series, particularly Jeff, that mirror conventions in popular genre TV shows. Jeff begins as a hard to like ex-lawyer out to manipulate everyone around him and ends as someone who creates a family out of this unlikely band of friends. Annie Edison, supposedly a teenager at the beginning even though she’s played by the clearly older Alison Brie (so it never quite works), grows from anal, formerly bullied high school girl into her own woman. Abed becomes less of an infantilised man-child with learning difficulties and more of a functional, albeit unusual, man. In that sense, Community is not subversive. There is a heart to the comedy, a sweetness, that takes the edge off even the most bare-knuckled moments of humour.
This isn’t to the show’s detriment. It very quickly understands itself from a tonal and structural perspective. It engages with these traditions while, at every point, working to deconstruct or analyse them, placing them with a broader textual context that audiences with a deeper knowledge and understanding of popular culture will appreciate. Most people will understand Abed’s love of a British science-fiction show called ‘Inspector Spacetime’, about a mad traveller inside a time travelling phone box. Not everyone will really appreciate Abed’s broader references to internal comedic structure, or sitcom tropes. Harmon gives the audience a proxy for this in characters such as Pierce, or latterly in the final season Paget Brewster’s Frankie Dart – people on the outside of the references and internal developments who never quite understand what Abed does, and by extension the rest of the group.
In what feels like an inventive and earned series finale at the end of Season Six, Harmon very intentionally lays out the undercurrent of the ‘show within a show’ nature of the comedy, as the main characters explicitly discuss what a seventh season would look like, imagining scenarios with older characters returning, new characters being brought in, semi-regular players bumped up to regular status and so on, all while resolving the long-form relationships between characters who, in the time honoured tradition of storytelling, move on to pastures new. It’s a deliberately knowing finale that respects and honours Community’s determination to play the tropes and formulas of its genre for comedy, always respecting its audience to find those laughs within the layered joke structure.
Will the movie ever happen? I think so. Glover, arguably the biggest name from the show who has become a pop cultural icon since he left Community halfway through Season 5, has made peace with his role in the show and appears keen, and he is likely the make or break aspect of the project coming together. Netflix now having access will almost certainly see older fans rediscover it and new fans—like me—extol its virtues for the first time, and it would make a lot of sense for Netflix to bankroll the project as an exclusive to sit alongside the show. We can hope. The series has a satisfying conclusive element, thankfully, if the movie never happens, but the metatextual promise of #sixseasonsandamovie feels like a gift audiences deserve.
I can honestly say watching Community in such a condensed period of time was a joy. It worked more often than it didn’t, and even when it didn’t, it was always striving to be more than the sum of its parts. Akin to many of the films and TV shows the series revered and paid homage to, Community was lightning in a Dean-licious bottle.