By Elizabeth LeJeune
Midterm season at UC Santa Cruz is in full swing, and the only thing that can cure my stress is
Xanax a good laugh. Good thing Community is back! Starting tomorrow, February 7th, Greendale Community College will be back in session. Tune in every Thursday at 7:00/8:00 central, set your DVRs, or update your Hulu queues, because Community is a show made by media savants for media savants. Here’s why:
Community isn’t your average sitcom. The typical sitcom is founded upon a customary set of premises, or “situations,” that the typical domestic family may encounter on a daily basis. Situational comedy is valued for its familiarity and consistency of characters, setting, and plot, but the sitcom’s value is depleting due to its shallow predictability. We’ve been watching the same characters live out the same situations for too long. The only exception is the ever-increasing number of token minorities.
Community is a refreshingly original series because it works within the 30-minute narrative of a sitcom, while at the same time parodying the sitcom formula – even the token minority. For instance, 10 minutes into the pilot episode, Jeff asks for reassurance from an African-American lunch lady, and when she looks at him incredulously, Jeff says, “Oh! Sorry. I was raised on TV and I was conditioned to believe that every black woman over 50 is a cosmic mentor.” This wry line is a reference to the way that mainstream television portrays people of color, and how Community tries to treat characters of color independently from their race, without claiming colorblindness.
The film student, Abed, is usually the one that makes the television references. He points out the ways in which Community parallels classic situation comedy. Just by making such remarks, he breaks that fourth wall and reminds us that real life isn’t like television, contrary to what many people have been led to believe, growing up on television.
Abed knows television inside and out, and he is also the most insightful of the group. He can lay out the purpose of the situation written into an episode of Community both for the cast and for audiences with just one deadpan comment. It’s refreshing to see a show reference itself and critique the classic sitcom so straightforwardly. Abed even offers his own explanation for our fascination with television: “Chaos already dominated enough of our lives; the universe is an endless raging sea of randomness. Our job isn’t to fight it, but to weather it, together, on the raft of life. A raft held together by those few, rare beautiful things we know to be predictable.” We weather the drama that floats in and out of our lives by clinging to the predictability of the sitcom.
Jeff’s character is the next poke at typical television. A handsome former lawyer, he’s the typical frontrunner – persuasive, good-looking, liked by everyone. Every sitcom needs a Jeff. But, just as in real life, the “perfect” character is really just unapologetically narcissistic. Creator Dan Harmon highlights the flaws of Jeff’s character, just to clarify for those Abeds out there that no one is perfect. And while he’s doing so, he pokes fun at all the “perfect” television characters, the honest cops and single dads and brilliant lawyers who make up the usual primetime landscape.
Romanticized television tropes have sacrificed humanizing character flaws, abandoned depth and diversity for the sake of the “hero” archetype. Doing so has not only misrepresented our population, but has also raised a generation of viewers who are filled with feelings of apathy and inadequacy. Honestly flawed characters are who we need to see stories about. Flawed characters who redeem themselves? Even better. We can learn from these types of characters – characters like Jeff, Shirley, and Britta from Community.
When the characters in Community get caught up in jealousy, gluttony, pride, or any of the deadly sins (and we know there are more than seven), we learn the lessons of indulging in those deadly sins. When Annie, a young woman who has always been the perfect daughter but who now wants to be independent, is faced with financial troubles, she finds it difficult to resist when Pierce bribes her with money for rent. She loses sight of her morals momentarily, and succumbs to Pierce’s every wish. Annie has just cast Pierce as marijuana in the drug awareness play that the gang is performing at the middle school, and she realizes that she is causing others trouble by letting Pierce take full control of his part in the play. He transforms his marijuana character into the hero, making the entire school want to start taking drugs immediately. But of course, she redeems herself in the end. Annie has learned to stick up for what she believes in, and she pays Pierce back and starts looking for a new job.
I know this all sounds very “sitcom,” and it is. But it’s also so meta. Community differs from, and at the same time embodies, the “good ol’ sitcom” because it uses the tropes of the situation and the irony of the meta-situation to teach us about ourselves. The distinction between Community and the shallow sitcom (which is not to say that all sitcoms are shallow) is that Community lays out honest, hilarious, and sometimes ugly characters. It doesn’t pull punches when it comes to its characters’ flaws, and it doesn’t shy away from satirizing television culture either.
Community’s satire at its finest is found in the two least likeable characters – Pierce and the dean (his name is Craig but we rarely hear it out loud). While we feel an emotional connection with most of the cast, these two characters are mere mockeries. Pierce, insensitive to issues of race and gender, makes comments like, “It’s better we talk man to man so that we don’t get distracted by our chubby thighs or whether or not we can have babies.” His bigotry is so absurd and outdated that we can’t help but laugh.
The dean’s cluelessness is more current. As the dean of the community college, he sincerely wants to be inclusive and to not seem racist. He isn’t a bigot, really. But to his dismay, his comments seem just as out-of-touch as Pierce’s because he fears being politically incorrect. When it turns out that Professor Chang forged his teaching credentials, he says, “Word of advice: If an Asian man says he’s a Spanish teacher, it’s not racist to ask for proof.” The dean represents a trend of racially aware but not racially sensitive people. The dean’s character and Pierce’s are parallel to each other: the old racist and the new.
Community makes it clear that we need to better represent our populations on television, and it does so by satirizing the not-so-diverse sitcom with a pointedly diverse cast – as the dean awkwardly points out: “Well look at this group having some meeting and being so diverse. There is, boy! There is just one of every kind of you, isn’t there?” Community grabs our emotions, makes us laugh, and critiques television, politics, and even our own human flaws. This so-very-meta show humbles our audiences, who have been taught by television to expect nothing less than heroism from themselves and their friends and families.