I like my movies dark, but my television with some levity. Maybe it’s because the impact of well-constructed dark movies, while finite within their time allotment, will linger in my mind well past the end credits. This is why many of my television obsessions (sans a few exceptions) are mainly comedies: I use shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Office, and Parks and Recreation as opportunities to wash the taste of emotional intensity out of my brain’s mouth. It’s like movies are a steak dinner (complete with mashed potatoes)—it’s an enriching experience, but sometimes you just want to pass time with a bag of chips or, television. You’re popping each episode in your mouth without any real thought to it, but it’s satisfying in its own way. Let’s be real, the three shows I listed are funny as hell and I enjoy them immensely, but they’re not the deepest material to have graced the medium, but nor are they trying to be. I like their comfort.
That’s why I was surprised when I discovered Community.
Having exhausted my fifth re-watch of The Office this past fall, I began searching for new shows to watch. I recalled seeing Donald Glover in his show Atlanta over the summer, so I searched for other stuff he’s done. Enter my now-favorite show of all time.
Though it will be flippantly referred to as “that wacky show with all the parodies and movie references,” Community, a show about a study group of seven misfits’ adventures at a community college, is great because it’s not your typical sitcom. Many sitcoms today, especially the Disney Channel variety (though those don’t really count), lean into meanness and cynicism to pass as “comedy.” Alternatively, you have the How I Met Your Mothers, those series which seem to be made by and for “dreamers;” those sentimental shows which wear their hearts on their sleeves. Community is both of these types of shows: its characters may be cynical, but they ultimately crave acceptance and want to understand what life’s all about.
Dan Harmon’s creation is a sitcom, but it has an authentic voice that doesn’t shy away from the melancholy of life’s baggage, and yet it allows itself to be genuine, where meanness is played off as character insecurities, rather than the punchline. In fact, it is actually the one who would normally be the butt of the joke who gets to deliver it. Abed Nadir, one of the members of the study group, relates his life through the lens of movie references, a result of his implied Asperger’s. When Jeff Winger, leader of the group, in an angry tirade, aggressively admonishes him for not being able to tell life from TV, Abed replies,
“I can tell life from TV, Jeff. It has structure, logic, rules, and likable leading men. In life, we have this. We have you.”
This is one of the emotionally impactful moments that Community sells so well. Where Abed’s Asperger’s might have been the joke, it is not being used like that here. No, the comment is used at Jeff’s expense. Jeff, supposedly the “cool” one of the group, actually suffers from daddy abandonment issues, and is dismissive and aloof as a defense mechanism. We see that Jeff’s anger, while directed at Abed, is really about himself. And Jeff eventually sees that, too. It sounds cheesy, but I feel that, out of a lot of shows that lack characters with self-awareness, showcasing how a group battles with their insecurities is a bold step for Community. Its writers understand the all-too-prominent “life” themes of failure, rejection, and loss, and insert them into the story not for exploitation, but to help the audience understand, too, once they’re put into the context of jokes.
Community is also not just self-aware with its characters, but with its existence as a TV show. Aside from Abed’s constant breaking of the fourth wall (he refers to their school years as “seasons”) the show is also one of the most experimental and eccentric comedy shows I’ve seen because of its insane amount of pop-culture references. There’s an episode shot like Law and Order, as they solve the case of their broken biology project. An innocent game of on-campus Paintball Assassin soon turns into a Michael Bay action homage, filled with the clichés of the genre. Even Ken Burns’ documentary style is copied when Abed and his best friend Troy fight over which is better for a fort: pillows or blankets.
It’s wacky, it’s goofy, and it’s off-the-walls insane. You probably won’t find this much experimentation on another “traditional” sitcom, and its inventiveness lends for unique comedy. It’s funny because it’s unexpected, but also because it’s executed with commitment—seriously, check out that Paintball episode. The show is not like this all the time, but even its “normal” episodes survive on the comedic talents and sheer chemistry of its cast, and wittiness of the writers.
You may be questioning how offbeat this show can get, and the answer is “pretty offbeat.” But, if you find the constraints of the sitcom arena too limiting, try Community for a ride. Its charming gang of misfits may just suck you in with a laugh and refuse to let go because of its heart.
MARK BAUTISTA | Sun Chip Eater | KXSU Arts Reporter