(The first in a series in which I occasionally check in on series that I watch but don’t regularly write about…)
I have a problem with “Community.” But it’s not the one, or ones, that you might think. Anytime I voice any objection to this show in blog form, podcast form, or even Twitter form, there’s inevitably some sort of blowback from fans of the show that can’t believe I dare place a blemish on the show. And that’s fine: people are entitled to love what they love, and I don’t think anything less of anyone that loves it more than I do. But I wanted to check in on the show a little past the halfway point of Season 2 because I want to try and fully explain my views on the show in a way that hasn’t quite come across as clearly as I would like.
Here’s the best way I can formulate my feelings in a succinct way: My problem with “Community” is…that I have a problem with “Community.”
That clear things up? Probably not. So let me explain.
“Community” should, by every metric, be a show I unabashedly love. It’s got all the ingredients that I would normally put into a television show stew in order to get a delicious, slow-cooked small-screen dinner. Makeshift family bound by circumstances beyond their immediate understanding? Check. Encyclopedic pop-culture knowledge? Check. The desire to push past the boundaries of a certain genre (in this case, the half-hour sitcom)? Absolutely. So all the elements are in place. So why don’t I love this?
“Because you SUCK!” has been offered to me on more than one occasion as a viable explanation. Maybe I’m too close to all of this, but I don’t think that quite gets at what’s going on here. I’ve been uncomfortable for a lot of this season while watching the show, but could never quite put my finger on why so much of the show was leaving me cold while general critical/fan response (at least in terms of what little cross-section I perused) seemed to be watching a much funnier, much more emotional, much more alive version of the program I was watching here in Boston. Surely NBC wouldn’t offer up an inferior episode for the 617 area code. So what was going on?
So rather than look to the show for reasons why I wasn’t 100% on board, I started looking at the reactions to it. And then things started to click into place more clearly, especially after “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” one of the many episodes of the show I could admire but not truly love. In it, a DVD of the first season of “Lost” was used to exemplify “promises broken” in Abed’s mind. It stood in for the absence of his mother on Christmas, and “Lost” eventually turned around by episode’s end into something positive (a move I didn’t buy, but still note), the but the metaphor led me down the primrose path back to the online days when we didn’t know the ultimate fate of the survivors of Oceanic 815.
“Lost” didn’t invent the rabid online fanbase. Not by a long shot. But it’s hard to find a better example of a piece of entertainment that 1) came along at the right time to exploit it, and 2) knowingly encouraged the proliferation of it. It wasn’t created for the sole purpose of fanning virtual flames online, but the very makeup of the show managed to fit perfectly into a technological perfect storm of DVRs, wikis, high-res screencaps, and eventually Twitter to create a level of energy and insight that allowed people to feel (albeit incorrectly) that they owned and/or shaped the way in which the story was being told. That last element, Twitter, really helped break down the perceived wall between creator and consumer, unfortunately leading some to incorrectly conclude that by following Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse on Twitter, they had an equal stake in the eventual endgame of the show.
If “Lost” was the show that post-facto perfected the art of exploiting online culture in order to produce a loyal audience, then “Community” is perhaps the first show conceived from the outset at exploiting that culture. Now, I don’t mean “exploit” in a pejorative sense here, let’s be clear. I mean that, from this outside perspective looking in, Dan Harmon and company looked at that virtual landscape, saw a large number of people that shared the same types of passions that they did, and said, “Fuck it: we’re a making a show for THOSE people. Not only that: we’ll constantly cater to those people and those people alone, because they are essentially us. So if we please ourselves, we’ll please them.”
In other words, “Community” isn’t a show that is written without the writers’ own viewpoints in mind. They aren’t scribes that don’t believe in what they are doing on a weekly basis by any stretch. But their intent aligns with a culture in which in-jokes are rewarded, in which breaking boundaries is rewarded, in which being an underdog is rewarded. Again, to reiterate: all of these things in and of themselves are things I celebrate, and usually try to champion. But when I champion these elements, it’s often due to them emerging from the particular show I’m watching: it’s not because the show in question is loudly proclaiming that they are doing it. And that’s the fundamental problem I have with the show: the brazenness of their craft is what delights so many of its fans and yet what keeps me at arm’s length.
In some ways, Season 1’s “Modern Warfare” episode killed any chance of me ever being completely on board the “Community” train. The critical and fan response was so overwhelming that it gave the writers a sense of entitlement that hasn’t exactly been earned in subsequent episodes. To be sure: having the confidence to be able to write a myriad type of styles isn’t something in and of itself to frown upon. But having the confidence to do so and the ability to execute it are two different things entirely. Simply declaring you’re going to do a zombie episode or a stop-motion episode doesn’t give you extra credit from the start, nor does continually producing different styles of episodes (whether overt or subtle) make doing so the right thing to do if the through-line connecting those episodes doesn’t exist.
There’s a big difference between a situation comedy that can support multiple stylistic shifts and one that overtly throws in those shifts to prove its versatility. And just as the internet culture from which this show seemingly sprang enjoys being able to point out the references in an episode of “Community,” so too does the creative staff delight in inserting these references to be noticed. What ensues isn’t so much a half hour of television so much as a constant feedback loop, one that must be thrilling if you’re on the inside of it but a little off-putting if you’re not. (A good example: the way in which the moment that Annie’s pen was stolen was leaked immediately after “Cooperative Calligraphy” onto Twitter, the ultimate combo of “using a rabid fanbase as viral marketing tool” and “Didja see it? You saw it, right? Right?”.)
There’s been a lot of debate recently online about the value of weekly television reviews, a type of writing that I do myself quite a bit. “Community” is the type of show, as Todd Van Der Werff has pointed out recently, resembles nothing so much as “Glee” right now in terms of the way that individual episodes can overwhelm season/series-long arcs. Both pay passing respect to overall continuity, but there’s a difference between “remember that stuff once happened” and “carrying characters through a consistent storyline.” “Community” is pretty great at allowing its characters to react honestly and consistently to wildly different scenarios. Britta, for example, reacts in a consistent way to gender problems both on-campus and in a game of “Dungeons and Dragons.” And the darker shifts of episodes like “Mixology Certification” lend a hand to Troy’s burgeoning realization that the adults in his life are as clueless as he is.
Maybe a decade ago a show like “Community” could get away with essentially putting on a new show with familiar characters on a weekly basis and be seen as groundbreaking. Where I have a problem is where the individual episodes add up to a whole. Many criticize “Community” as being one endless series of pop-culture references that signify nothing. While such references are endemic to the show in the form of Abed and episodes such as “Epidemiology 206”, it’s obviously far from the sum total of what the show is doing. But in shifting perspectives and storytelling techniques so often in order to tell a particular 22-minute tale, the focus on the micro hurts the focus on the macro, and makes the sum total of “Community” more about its structure than anything else.
And to those that want to point out the emotional moments of the show as an example of how the show is 100% structure: well, I’m sorry, but those moments are as built into the structure as the pop-culture references. Having the sad music come in around 8:22 PM EST each week doesn’t make up for everything that’s come before it. Episodes like “Calligraphy” work better than most because the emotional, character-based beats are strung throughout the episode, not simply as the expected, sappily-scored breakthrough just before the closing credits.
Not every episode need end with its own “One to Grow On” moment, just as every episode need not be a laugh riot in order to be a successful one. I’ve long argued that the criteria for a successful episode lay not in it simply being “funny”. That these characters’ lives are inherently sad is a strength of the show, not a weakness. Getting to the heart of that sadness or self-loathing has yielded some of the show’s strongest moments, whether it shows Jeff rejecting his old lawyer buddies in favor of his newfound family at Greendale or Troy’s terror at disappointing his idol LeVar Burton. Annie might be perky as hell on the outside, but used to have a pill addiction and now lives above a sex toy emporium.
That this study group functions as a way for these damaged people to somehow grow beyond their imperfect selves is as solid a premise for a show as there can be. But my problem with “Community” is that the stories come not from these characters, but are imposed upon them. That’s what I mean by the show’s emphasis on structure being an impediment to my enjoying it. Think of it as a difference between constructing a house and establishing a home. “Community” features a skilled set of architects as the helm, but as I watch the show, I can see the blueprints in place. They are clever blueprints, often taken pieces of existing designs and tweaking them to their own purposes. But I don’t want to see the blueprints of a house: I want to experience the warmth and coziness that comes from being not aware of the edifice that encases me from the outside world, the little touches that turn a mere building into a place I actually want to inhabit.
Abed’s continual references to “bottle episodes” in “Calligraphy” annoyed the hell out of me, but the use of a bottle episode stripped away the show’s gimmicks and proved that it didn’t need them in order to produce a solid, funny, character-driven episode. (Unless, of course, you consider the “bottle episode” in and of itself a gimmick, which the show seems to have done by continually pointing it out. Damnit, “Community,” I’m trying to defend you here!) If the show didn’t have interesting characters, all of this would be moot: “Community” would be an experiment about the parameters of television storytelling, which would be interesting to watch on an academic level and give plenty of people who know plenty about the history of television plenty to talk about on a weekly basis. But since it often sacrifices potentially compelling characters for the sake of its structure, the results are interesting from a professional standpoint as a critic but slightly depressing as a plain ol’ viewer of the show.
I haven’t yet mentioned the biggest elephant in the “Community” room yet, but since we’re talking about compelling characters here, let’s talk about the character on everyone’s mind right now: Pierce. In many ways, Pierce embodies every single one of the issues inherent with the show right now. He’s too meta by far (talking about him has somehow turned out to be interchangeable with talking about Chevy Chase). While having a more consistent character than Kramer on “Seinfeld,” he serves as piece of the overall narrative puzzle, being whatever that episode needs him to be as opposed to a consistent figure that evolves over time. But he’s also the embodiment of the type of argument that is hardly native only to “Community” but also internet television discussion in general. That argument? “Don’t worry, the show knows what it’s doing!”
I’m as guilty as anyone in engaging in or even starting elements such as this. It’s one of the many things that the aforementioned “Lost” helped usher into the overanalysis of television programs. It gets to the heart not only of the writers’ room as a supposedly infallible place, but also gets to the heart of television shows as something which validate the time and effort invested in by the viewer. I’m not sure exactly when this happened: for all I know, there were people that thought “Gunsmoke” retroactively invalidated a few decades of their lives due to the way it ended. But while I’ve seen many critics smartly tackle “The Problem with Pierce” since last Thursday’s episode, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” I’ve yet to read one that’s engaged audience expectations to the eventual end of Pierce’s current arc on the show. And that, to me, is the really fascinating angle to look at. There’s simply no reason that anyone can assume that “Community” can stick the landing on this Pierce arc any more than one could have assumed that “Lost” could stick their landing. On top of all THAT, the phrase “stick the landing” is so subjective as to be essentially moot: one person’s landing is another person’s EPIC FAIL.
People seem split 50/50 on the validity of Pierce as a character within the show right now. Plenty of people argue, and argue effectively, that the show needs a character like Pierce in order to ensure that weekly episodes aren’t big kumbaya sessions. We’re not supposed to like Pierce, they correctly argue, and therefore should not have expectations for him coming around anytime soon. But the other half argue that while Pierce need not be likeable, he’s turned downright intolerable. In their minds, his continued presence in the group is actually more unbelievable than a zombie outbreak on campus. And here’s where the tension between structure and character collide, and “Community” has embodied its biggest problem in convenient, Chevy-sized form for us to finally tackle the tensions inherent in the show itself.
I’ve thrown all of this on the virtual table for two reasons: 1) I honestly wanted to figure out my complex reactions to “Community,” a show that is obviously doing a lot of things right for me to spend 2,000+ words on figuring out what’s holding me back from truly embracing it, and 2) I love that shows such as “Community” produce as many varied and passionate reactions as it does. Nothing above is a definitive take on the show. It’s only mine. And I’d love to hear yours. So comment below and let’s keep this discussion going!