“Community” is back on the air and you can count me glad. It’s the only show on TV I care to follow, and when I miss it (which is always) I catch it the next day on Hulu over lunch. When it went on hiatus in December, I wasn’t the only fan who worried NBC was trying to diffuse fan outrage over a pending cancellation, hoping we would become mollified by some other show and forget to launch our blistering letter-writing campaign.
The show has big cult following, but not a big marketable following, and the fans know it. “Community” isn’t for everybody. It’s the funniest thing on TV for my money, but let’s face it, my money’s not always good in this town. The show has two big strikes against it that make it hard for a wider audience to warm up: “Community” is weird and it’s cynical.
Weird shouldn’t be a problem.
“The Office” and “Parks & Recreation” and “30 Rock” are weird too. Tracy Jordan having a drug reaction, clinging to the ceiling of his dressing room, “bugging out” about little blue dudes and shouting out for “Doctor Spaceman” – that’s pretty out there. Then again, having two characters who convert a bedroom in their apartment to a Holodeck-like “Dreamatorium” where they can indulge their deep fantasy role-playing sorts of trumps it all. (Wider audiences failing to embrace this extreme penchant for oddity may be why, at the beginning of Season 3,” the “Community” cast pledged to “have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined.” Of course, they pledged this as part of a Broadway song-and-dance dream sequence, so maybe they were being a little disingenuous.) Still, shows like “30 Rock” and the others mitigate their insane B plots with sweet, likable characters who can ground the audience in relatively-less-insane A plots.
Which is where cynical comes in.
Here, “cynical” is just a big umbrella word I’m using to wrap up all the deliberately thorny elements that distance viewers from this show and keep them from buying in to the long-term storyline of the characters.
Those likable characters from Dunder Mifflin and Rockefeller Plaza? They’re in short supply at Greendale Community College. (Individual characters are likeable, but “Community” makes sure we never feel sentimental about them for long. Everybody is flawed and occasionally ugly. “Community” writers make sure we remember that.)
Sweetness? It’s more an undercurrent of meanness that pervades this show. (Characters are dicks to each other – so much so, in fact, they occasionally call each other “dick.”)
Often the whole ensemble is at odds with one another and will end the entire show a fair distance short of a group-hugging make-up that gets us back to the cheery status quo. The status quo at Greendale is, indeed, that usually these characters are annoyed with one another.
I know precious little about improv comedy…
…but I know that one of the precepts is that you never improvise a disagreement or an argument that tears your fellow players down. You build them up. You never say, “No, you’re wrong,” you say, “Yes, and…” You build on one another. But “Community” is often an exercise in tearing others down.
To many, that’s the show’s strength. Some fans prefer that the show abandons treacle and contrived sitcom conventions to do something truly daring. It dares to make characters unlikable, racist, dumb, possessive, manipulative, intolerant and egomaniacal. Usually, audiences like shows where lead characters who skewer these traits in others; in “Community,” the characters are skewering these traits in each other.
When the show debuted in 2009, I wrote about my enthusiasm with glee, but I cautioned the main character, Jeff Winger, “seems to be an irredeemable cad. Cads can be a hoot, but he’ll need to be sympathetic before long if he’s going to be a cad in the spotlight.” At times, it seems Winger did grow. One of my favorite sequences in the first season is when he finally relents to become Spanish class partners with Pierce, the boorish old blowhard played by Chevy Chase. Winger doesn’t want to get sucked into Pierce’s weird event horizon, but to heal hurt feelings, Jeff finally lets Pierce dictate their elaborate presentation for tyrannical Spanish professor Senor Chang. Shown in a wordless montage, the presentation involves silly dances, tiny sombreros, dramatic gesturing and fistfuls of sparklers.
When it’s over, the two stand stock still, panting, under the scrutinizing gaze of Chang. Finally the professor nods as if he has at last given begrudging admiration for such a ballsy and ambitious delivery. Similar situations in movies and TV have taught us what to expect next. We expect him to say, “OK. That took guts. An A for the both of you.” But:
CHANG: “F … and F minus.”
PIERCE: “Did you say S?”
That’s comedy. That’s fresh and unexpected and it piles ridiculousness on top of ridiculousness. “Did you say S?” That kills me.
So there’s evidence of Winger growing. But most of the time the show shelves this, and he and others go back to being snarky and mean to each other again. Which I guess is just like life, you know?
Depth is rare – but there
The thing is, “Community” is chock full of tender moments that mean something. Two Christmases ago, the Rainman-like Abed had a seasonal meltdown that resulted in him seeing everything in a Rankin/Bass stop-motion winter wonderland. The group played along with his delusion to get him to the bottom of his depression (albeit in their own snarky and sarcastic ways). The episode explored how small traditions can resonate more powerfully than the big, gaudy, bedecked traditions that Christmas seems to be about. In a way, it’s the most trenchant commentary on the holiday season since Charlie Brown and his crappy little tree.
The episode before that, Troy the naïve jock-nerd turned 21 and the gang took him to celebrate “growing up” with his first trip to a bar. But alcohol turned everyone ugly, and Troy realized that growing up meant un-fun stuff like being responsible and driving your incoherent friends home. Amazingly incisive character exploration, all of it.
Hair in your soup
But then there was the much-ballyhooed Dungeons & Dragons episode of last season. As you may be aware, I’m a bit of an enthusiast for D&D, both as a game and as a cultural roadhouse where so many generations and demographics have stopped in for a drink, even a metaphorically tortured one. I had heard that “Community” was embracing a D&D themed episode, and the early buzz was that it was a love letter to the nostalgia of role playing and dice rolling. It started quite promisingly, as the study group tries to buck up the spirits of a seemingly suicidal fellow student by feigning interest in his favorite hobby: D&D. They put on brave faces and try out their first game with their friend, Fat Neil.
So far so good. But Pierce, who creator Dan Harmon once called “the Daffy Duck of the group,” just had to become the antagonist. Often Pierce is the source of derision in the show, and he regularly says and does dumb and detestable things. But in this episode, he takes it to a new level as a D&D villain, both in-game and in-show. He takes umbrage that the group did not invite him to play the game with Neil, and he goes on an episode-long tear replete with such dialog as:
“First of all, gay. Second of all, stupid. And thirdly, why was this a secret? Are you cutting me out of the group?”
“You remembered to let fatty sit in my chair. Get out! You’re stretching it.”
“I’m 66, dick.”
(upon taking Neil’s prize possession in-game) “Maybe I’ll wipe my ass with it. That’s what you get for taking my chair, fatty.”
A lot of people loved this episode. I was so disappointed. I had wanted to share it with others, possibly others who are married to me, and say, “Hey, look at D&D through this very funny lens and see why people like me aren’t totally stupid for getting a kick out of it.” Instead, it was as mean-spirited and nasty as a dracolich with an ochre jelly in his phylactery. (That joke would kill at D&D session.) It wasn’t that the writers did any kind of disservice to role-playing games. In fact, they gave D&D a fair shake, getting legitimate laughs with the tropes, not at them. Instead “Community” did a disservice to its characters and now I don’t recommend that episode to anyone.
But whenever I get down about these characters, they say or do something surprising that reminds me why I tune in. Like “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which re-imagines a story six ways based on which character must go to the door to fetch the pizza delivery. Or “Basic Rocket Science,” in which the gang is trapped in a KFC-sponsored space flight simulator. Or “Modern Warfare,” one the greatest-ever sitcom episodes ever about paintball … and possibly one of the greatest-ever episodes of TV comedy anywhere, anywhen.
Or even just a snippet of awesome banter, like this from last week’s back-from-hiatus episode:
BRITTA: Weddings are like a little girl’s tea parties, except the women are the stuffed animals, the men are making them talk, and they aren’t drinking tea. They’re drinking antiquated gender roles.
JEFF: Somebody tell Britta what an analogy is.
BRITTA: I know what it is. It’s like a thought with another thought’s hat on.
See what I mean?
So hooray for being back, “Community.” I await more laughs of this caliber and beyond. May I just request that your writers familiarize themselves with Wheaton’s Law?
You know: Don’t Be a Dick.