Checking in on…”Community”

(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?

nup_142681_0003.JPGSo 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.

community-zombies-halloween.jpgThere’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.

nup_142038_1138_jpg_627×325_crop_upscale_q85.jpgThat 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!

35 Comments

  1. Digifreak642
    Posted February 22, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the writeup! It’s interesting to read the analysis of someone who isn’t as big of a fan of Community as the rest of us.

  2. Real Talk
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    you’re a fucking idiot.

  3. Yuse
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Great article. While I’m not as well versed in the ins and outs of television writing, structure, etc., I find your expression of occasional lukewarm feelings towards episodes to be spot-on. There are a lot of episodes that I really want to love.. but that just don’t quite get there. I haven’t really participated in any online Community communities, so I was unaware of the unabashed support and approval that fans have been giving to the show but it makes a lot of sense. While calling the show lazy is oversimplifying, I think that it’s also partially correct. The mentality seems to be along the lines of “Welp, the fans like when we do wacky, zany stuff so let’s pour on all that we can,” as opposed to “How do we make a quality episode this week.”

    What I find hardest to bear as a fan is how close certain episodes come to greatness. Abed’s Christmas didn’t quite get there. Other episodes have so much potential… but they stick the landing. The zombie episode and the recent dungeons and dragons episodes emulate the mediums in question using our beloved characters… and yet they feel more like exercises wherein the cast are wearing different costumes in front of a new backdrop and asking the audience to admire how different things are this week.

    Unlike you, I find the lack of continuity to be acceptable. What I take exception to is how unceremoniously the viewer is ushered from one setup to the next. When Abed serves as a bridge (or better yet, the lens) for an archetypal episode, the events of an episode can at least be placed by the viewer. When, on the other hand, the strangeness occurring in a given episode is given only the slightest nod, things don’t tend to go well. Community is, for me, a show that works best when it revels in its ability to be so many things. Without that specific reveling, however, the show is just unstable and adrift… a trend that I’ve noticed an upsetting number of times so far this season.

  4. Posted February 23, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    That’s both constructive and helpful, thanks Real Talk!

  5. John Holmes
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Did you love last season? I did, yet have been incredibly underwhelmed by this season. Last season felt organic. Everything this season feels painfully forced.

  6. Bryan Hadley
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I’ve had a hard time liking this season as much as the first, too, and you’ve hit a lot of nails on the head for me. What won me over to the show in the first season was that the characters were all fundamentally sad, lonely people. As much as I love Die Hard jokes, the modern Warfare episode wouldn’t have worked for me had I not already bought into the actual community of Community. Part of my problems with this season (with a few exceptions, especially Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) is, like you say, being able to see the architecture rather than the home.

    The Pierce problem is deeper than I think you give it credit for, though. It seems to me that a majority of episodes this year are animated by the study group existing distatse for each other (e.g., Britta starts the episode being rude and condescending to Shirley) rather than having plot complications bring out the worst in the characters. The episodes are hard for me to buy into because I can’t figure out why these characters even want to hang out with each other to start with. Except for Troy and Abed, none of them really seem to like each other, which makes the end of episode resolution ring false.

  7. pbcarl
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Very interesting read. I fall closer to Yuse’s perspective on the show: I can enjoy without really being frustrated over the lack of continuity. I like the show and it generally has me laughing every week, but I don’t think I could ever say I love the show like I do Parks & Rec.

    Thanks for the write-up. I feel like I only read effusive praise of Community and it’s nice to see a different perspective, even if I fall somewhere between your POV and said effusive praise.

    And I’d argue that Real Talk at least thought over his/her response before posting. At least he/she didn’t write “your a fucking idiot.”

  8. Miken
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I didn’t like this article…BECAUSE YOU SUCK!

    Kidding aside, I think you raise good points. I respectfully disagree with a lot of your viewpoints, but I completely understand where they are coming from. I do feel like you are slightly overanalyzing some of it though.

    I liken Community to something like Cougartown: you’re either on the show’s wavelength or your not.

    Some people who love the show won’t have any of these issues ever cross their mind. I for one only had a problem with Pierce when he wasn’t funny and since they’ve made him inherently evil, I now find him hilarious. I know it doesn’t make sense within the context of the show, but as long as it’s making me laugh, I’m not sure I care.

  9. snapthejap
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    As a big fan of Community, I read as much as I can about the show. With anything I enjoy, I go out of my way to read differing viewpoints or why people dislike something I do like. (I’m like this when buying products, too– and I don’t mean to use the word “like” THIS much) There are always two sides to everything and at the very least I’ll learn something new about WHY someone dislikes a show. (though it’s not my responsibility, I apologize for the yahoos that feel the need to express their displeasure to a differing viewpoint, with the use of monosyllabic slurs or derogatory name-calling… It actually bothers me MORE when I share a like/love of something with a person so overcome by insecurity and the inability to use reason).

  10. Reasonable Person
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    So let me get this straight… Bottle episode = good; acknowledging that it’s a bottle episode = bad. Pushing the boundaries of a 22 min show = good; doing that on purpose = bad… There are plenty of shows to watch if you want to see the characters change and grow with continuity, but Community’s conceit has always been the meta/pop culture element and the characters themselves rightfully take a backseat to the writing… which is why people like it! It’s a different experience to watch a bottle episode when one of the characters is constantly reminding you of what it was. I guess that’s problematic if you watch to see how Abed grows this week rather than watching to see what the writers came up with this week, but if that’s your main focus, you’re better off with HIMYM or something similar.

  11. Posted February 23, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Reasonable Person: So, by that logic, “Community” should just be a series of scripts, not actually a produced television show, right?

    And I think “Community” DOES strive for continuity and character growth, but that its emphasis on structure hinders that attempt. A lot of people disagree with me on that point, thinking that those elements are successful. To say people enjoy the show as a whole because the writing takes center stage over the characters seems a bit off to me. But hey, I could be wrong.

  12. Troy Barnes
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Have fun eating fiber and watching The Mentalist.

  13. Posted February 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    This is one of those shows that I really want to love because friends and critics I usually agree with love it. I think your explanation really gets to why I can’t get into the show, even though it seems like a show that I would enjoy (on the surface).

    So thanks for this post, because now I feel I have something to point to when people ask me why I don’t like “Community.”

  14. Posted February 23, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    RP’s comment hilariously sums up this essay.

    We want the show to focus on meta elements and creative conceits; if you want a show with “character growth,” and “stories” and “writing,” then go hang out with the hacks over at HIMYM.

    I could note that if you want to see tricks performed, you could go hang out at the boardwalk at watch a guy juggle bowling pins, but that would be piling on.

  15. Posted February 23, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this article because, for me, it describes my dislike for shows like “Modern Family” and “Glee.” I couldn’t put my finger on why everyone else was agog while I was either bored or super annoyed, but I think your “seeing the blueprint” argument hits on it. I didn’t like those shows because they were either so clearly made for a specific audience and being tailored to keep them rather than just be themselves, but then were not admitting they were built on a plan. BUT I like “Community” because it does show the blueprint and doesn’t try to pretend it doesn’t have one…and I guess I just value honesty.
    The thing that is bothering me about this season of “Community” is what Bryan said, “The episodes are hard for me to buy into because I can’t figure out why these characters even want to hang out with each other.” Yep, last season they were meeting as a study group, this season they seem to be just meeting as friends, but they clearly aren’t friends, so what the what???

  16. Posted February 23, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Question (which I sent via Twitter too): What other shows are engaging in this structure-oriented/deconstruction style approach. It feels like since Lost is gone, and Whedon is Avenging (and Arrested Development died), that Community is it. ?

  17. Anoel
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    This is a really thoughtful commentary that I really agree with. God knows I’ve TRIED to like the show and like you, I did up to Modern Warefare which turned me off the show for good until I went back to check just in case I may have made a mistake. But that sensation of having things happen TO the characters and for them to be there more for the sake of the references and to make crazy stuff happen annoys me. I can’t connect to the characters and I feel like any real emotion isn’t taken seriously but made fun of in a TV tradition or whatnot. Funny you mentioned Lost because that’s another show where I lost feeling for the characters after I felt that they became devices for the plot instead of themselves.

  18. chasenheimer
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Way to put yourself out there, Ryan. As you can see, you’ve invited conflict. I salute your bravery because when Todd most likely links to this in his review this week, you’re gonna need a bomb shelter. Hahaha.

    I love the show. But I definitely didn’t when it started. I was like you in that it all added up yet the sum wasn’t equal on both sides. Why didn’t I love it? Eventually though in the back half of season one, it just…clicked. I have no idea why but all of a sudden I couldn’t wait for the show to air. I feel the same way now, and while I don’t agree the show has gotten worse, I can see why people feel it’s forced.

    I like your points about how it’s made for us who got so geeked out on stuff like LOST. While that rubs you the wrong way, that might just be why I’m so into it. Different strokes though.

    And @debbie, I had plenty of friends I met freshman year and hung out with for the other three years. Thinking back to who some of them were, I can’t for the life of me explain why I stayed friends with them. That kind of thing happens. But I do understand your need to see some kind of connection within the show.

  19. Matt
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Season one for me was about Jeff’s quest for Britta, and Modern Warfare worked for me because it couched the culmination and release of their sexual tension within a paintball tournament while giving a lot of great character moments to everyone. Season two seems to lack such a focus, and while I don’t necessarily need it to be Jeff/Britta, it could benefit from the continuity that season one gained from that storyline.

    That said, I thought this past week’s episode failed on a lot of levels. I think the Pierce concetration was way too high without delving into why he’s such a jerk in a satisfactory way.

    I’ll keep watching because I’m invested in the characters, but I’m hoping for more continuity should NBC see fit to pick up a third season.

  20. Posted February 23, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    @chasenheimer: I’d like to think, and so have been proven right, that there’s every opportunity to have an open discussion between people of different POVs if the initial foray into the topic is made honestly and without overt attacks upon those on the other side of the fence.

    As is hopefully clear: all I’m doing here is expressing my opinion. Doing so doesn’t invalidate anyone else’s. If this piece has value at all outside of me being able to work through my perspective on the show, it’s in perhaps giving voice to a segment of the “Community” viewer base that hasn’t yet been adequately expressed to date. But it is definitely NOT a piece that’s attacking anyone else’s appreciation of the show.

  21. Grabov
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    “the show is 100% structure” - what does this even mean?

  22. Posted February 23, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    @Grabov: It means exactly what I say in the article. I define my terms. I offer up plenty of definition, even going far at one point to say, “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.”

    You might not agree with it, but you can’t say I didn’t define it.

  23. Snowcool
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Every Thursday night, a group of my friends get together to watch a bunch of comedies. The list includes: Modern Family, Community, Parks and Rec, The Office and Tosh.0. Community seems to be the one we all aren’t enjoying as much anymore.

    We always describe it as the characters hate each other and realistically wouldn’t hang out with each other. The most enjoyable part of the show is the last 30 seconds at the end of the episode with Troy and Abed. That’s the only time we feel that the characters genuinely like each other and are having fun.

    We’ll still watch the show because it has some good moments, but it’s slowly not becoming fun to watch anymore.

  24. Katie
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Really interesting article, Ryan, I enjoyed reading it. It’s interesting that you’d mention your frustration at the lack of character development (or most particularly, the lack of developmental continuity), because how they deal with that is one of my favorite things about Community. It’s certainly a bit of a fantasy world, but I don’t think that automatically detrimental to character. Sure, it’s gimmicky to have the school suddenly become the epicenter of a zombie uprising, but I don’t think that hampers characterization in any real way - at it’s best moments, it can even amplify it beyond what a more traditional show could do. I also appreciate the way Community’s continuity is a bit loose - things are dropped for a bit and picked up again, but I always get the impression that it’s done not because the writers are bored at having to deal with it, but because the characters are fairly realistic people, and they’re not going to be harping on about the same issues every single week. I like that they only pop up now and again.

    That said, I’d agree that there’s a bit of a Pierce problem, especially recently. Some weeks they want him to be the outright villain, but other weeks they want us to feel sorry for him, and make us believe that the group would still tolerate his actions. I feel like the writers are close to a very, very interesting storyline with that, but it’s been a bit too abrupt from week to week to make it work properly.

    And in response to what several other people have mentioned, I think the group would absolutely consider themselves to be friends by now, and the majority of the time they seem to enjoy each others company. They bicker a lot, but I think they fundamentally like each other, at least to a certain extent.

  25. Ill One
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    I don’t agree one bit that the stories are “imposed” upon the characters, but on the contrary, I would say the stories on “Community” on the whole totally come forth FROM character.

    ie, No other sitcom can do a stop motion xmas episode and have it feel even remotely native to the show, because no other show has a character like Abed — a borderline autistic who has a psychotic break due to his dysfunctional family situation which causes him to temporarily see the world as a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer type of claymation episode. Say what you will about gimmicks, or show-offiness, this story came DIRECTLY out of character (Abed’s family situation which was set up in season one and his insistence on seeing the world through a pop cultural filter) and therefore was totally earned.

    The bottle episode only happened because Annie is crazy anal and wanted to know who stole her precious pen. Story = character.

    The hospital episode happened because Pierce is in a place where he is sick of being shunned by the group, whether deservedly or not. Story = character.

    D&D happened because Jeff was callous towards a fellow classmate, but because he is essentially a good person, he felt guilty and tried to make amends. In so doing he decided to not invite Pierce because he knew Pierce would not be sensitive. But his plan backfired. Story = character.

    There are exceptions to this rule (as there are exceptional episodes in most series’ seasons of 22 episodes), ie. Halloween… but in my mind, even this was an earned exception… it was a holiday episode that made no bones about what it was. Fun Halloween episode roller coaster ride. (That still managed to tell a friendship story about Troy and Abed.)

    Jane Espensen (BUFFY, BATTLESTAR) puts it a lot more eloquently on her blog entry from last year:

    http://www.janeespenson.com/archives/00000608.php

  26. Not Grabov
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    “the stories come not from these characters, but are imposed upon them”

    What does THAT mean?

  27. tuco
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of Community for a long time, and your criticisms definitely have some merit. The show wastes potential to be great by slapping on the pandering plotlines. My favorite episodes, the ones that keep me a fan, are quiet and character-driven. Maybe the Community people will see this and make some changes. Right now it has the makings of a classic, but everything somehow it adds up to be less than the sum of its parts

  28. Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Great article Ryan, it’s always interesting to hear what other people dislike in a show that I like and to hear different opinions.

    Community works for me on the simplest level that a comedy could work. I enjoy watching the show, it makes me laugh (sometimes), and it has enough character material that I want to continue to see how they grow (it’s not a simple comedy). That’s all that I could ask for from a half-hour and that’s what Community delivers on a weekly basis. They are able to continue to do funny storylines (like aspects of last week’s episode-namely LeVar Burton).

    I will agree with you though that Pierce’s behavior has become a crutch to the show. He was the worst part of the Dungeons and Dragons episode and the hospital episode from last week.

    I really do love this show and even though it has its problems it’s a show that I enjoy watching.

  29. Roscoe Joyce
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    My own journey in sort-of-liking Community goes like this: I loved the cast when it was announced and the setting/concept seemed a little promising but the pilot was very underwhelming.

    However I stuck with it and from episodes roughly 2 to 10 it developed a sweet, loopy style from the introduction of the Human Being to the catapulting debator. The Debate and first Halloween episodes just seemed so well written, achieving a serene confidence of storytelling mixed with some fun jokes and plenty of sight gags. I was hooked.

    But then the show started to fall apart a bit, most noticeably in the grating 1st Christmas episode. I wasn’t sure what was wrong but it seemed to be a combination of selling out major character biographical points for immediate jokes mixed with an increasing Scrubs-like quality which draws attention more to the writers than the characters. Makes things more cartoony and one dimensional for a laugh.

    Like Ryan Mcgee, I realized my interest in the show was doomed when the vaguely funny Modern Warfare became heralded as this huge deal which it didn’t seem to be to me. It was attention getting to be sure, but it seems easier to do loud stuff like that than the quieter fun moments I had seen earlier.

    This season has been pretty flat to me, even as the show climbed to heights unexpected in critical reviews. The episode with Jeff at the law firm was fun but it was very close in structure to the first Halloween ep so it was not a good sign that they were already copying themselves.

    What would help the series in my opinion: knock it off with the constant fan service. That goes for the Abed/Troy “bromance”, the Jeff/Annie stuff and the over the theme-of-the-week episodes like Zombies or Space.

    Get back to writing interesting stories with that lovable loopy charm we saw this season come back fleetingly in the Conspiracies episode with Professor Professorson which yes did feature some Jeff and Annie moments. As long as they get things more in the right ballpark, the fanservice is easier to tolerate. Now that was the Community I had liked in early season 1.

    But I doubt that will happen. The show seems to have a new set of fans, ones that are not into the original concept of older adults going back to school like Pierce, Britta and Joel - such a ripe and interesting topic - but just want the focus to be on the younger set Troy, Abed and Annie with Jeff as the cool guy off to the side and Pierce as the villain. Okay, but that’s not for me so I’m just not that into it anymore.

    One final thought: I really miss the way it was earlier on where there was a regular succession of quirky, fun “professors of the week”. You know, back when the show was about community college and not just themes and how they each feel about each other. Back before it was 20 minutes of brutal bitterness followed by 2 minutes of sanctimonious treacle.

  30. Tom
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    Great article. I’m somewhat new to Community (have seen most of the first season, and every ep so far this one), and just…don’t like it. I think my major problem is that I just don’t *like* any of the characters, save Abed and Troy, the only reasons I still watch. I almost feel like the show doesnt *want* us to like the characters. And the lack of continuity is a problem with characters like Jeff and Pierce, who have some sort of redemption alsmot every episode.

    I think the most perfect comedy on TV right now is Parks and Rec. It’s sweet, positive, really loves it’s characters, and the characters care for each other. Pretty much everything community isn’t. But maybe I’m just an optimist and Community is for my pessimist counterparts.

  31. Troy
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article. While I genuinely do like the show I agree with everyone of your critiques. These things also hamper my enjoyment of the show and why I’m left befuddled by the seemingly unanimous praise it receives. I find it enjoyable enough, but am baffled by the hype.

  32. Katie
    Posted February 24, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I see what you’re saying, Tom, but I wouldn’t say that Community is pessimistic (and I certainly wouldn’t consider myself to be a pessimist). It can certainly be a bit more snide in its tone, but that these people have come to genuinely care about each other despite the fact that they’re all quite different and their relationships aren’t always smooth seems like a really optimistic sentiment.

  33. chasenheimer
    Posted February 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Ryan, I didn’t say your were attacking other viewpoints. I just said you invited conflict, and that definitely happened. That’s all.

    I’m not one to shut-out other people’s views because they aren’t aligned with mine. I liked the piece.

  34. Alison
    Posted February 25, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m coming late to this, but just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading it. It’s an interesting,smart take on how the show ticks that really made me think.

    It’s simply the comedy I enjoy the most this year. I’m not really sure why exactly, and I think many of your criticisms have weight. Some of my enjoyment might just be identification - my “backstory” is not unlike Britta’s, and I’ve been involved in groups of diverse people brought together by something random who really bonded. They kinda love each other, like family, and sometimes that trumps “like” or “have stuff in common”. And one thing I think they all have in common is inability to make easy connections/friendships with others. Sure Jeff can charm the pants off anyone, but they’ve set him up as someone who has trouble moving to intimacy.

    I seem to be alone in not minding the Pierce development. It’s been interesting to me for the writers to play with how the group deals with someone who is becoming intolerable - who is so unlikeable that he strains the “you’re one of us” dynamic. And Chase plays a great villian.

  35. Andy
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    I would like to preface my comment by saying that I am one of the people who absolutely love this show. In fact, I came here because I was trying to find a well-thought out explanation for how somebody could NOT love Community. I think you raised some valid points, but I also would like to address some of your problems. Firstly the unlikeability of characters. The reason that it sometimes seems like these characters don’t like each other is because: sometimes they don’t. They lie to each other, they take advantage of each other, they manipulate each other, in other words, they’re real people. Jim Halpert doesn’t exist on Community, the group isn’t made of the archetypal “good” people found on a lot of tv shows. Instead its made of real people who have conflicts with each other that arent resolved in a nice 22 minute arc. This is why i never really saw Pierce as a problem. I have a friend who actually reminds me a lot of Pierce. He’s selfish, inappropriate, and kind of a douche. He’s oftentimes not a great person. But, he’s my friend. You don’t always have to love your friends, sometimes you screen their calls because you dont want to deal with them.

    As to the point about structure being elevated over the characters I feel like this does happen sometimes, but not near as often as you think. It happened with the Star Wars finale, and maybe with Christmas, but, if you notice, every time they do some broad structural motif episode it always has an emotional core that drives the characters forward. D&D was Jeff seeking redemption for his actions against Fat Neil. Paintball had Jeff and Britta finally hooking up and dealing with their “sexual tension”, zombies had Troy fully embracing his “nerd” status and leaving the shallow jock behind. While its true that these episodes amp up the structure they always amp up character development as well. As for your problem with Abed addressing the bottle episode I think it would have been way worse if he hadn’t said anything. It would have been out of character. By drawing attention to the structure they were being honest to who Abed is: someone who sees life through the lens of television.

    Essentially the show is never JUST an homage. Within Pulp Fiction/My Dinner with Andre we see Abed’s attempt to reconnect with Jeff. Abed is using the references to further the emotional impact. The homages aren’t being forced upon Abed and the others as you seem to suggest. They originate from them.

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