I’ve wanted to write about Community for a long time, but I’ve been kind of afraid to—not just because I fear not doing it justice, but because I fear not adding anything new to the conversation. Because, really, what can I say about Community that hasn’t already been said? To heap well-deserved praise on it seems almost trite at this point (more on my hang-up re: triteness later) but apparently somehow there are still people who don’t watch it, so triteness be damned. Let’s talk about Community.
There are certain terms that invariably arise in a discussion of this show. Parody. High-concept. Pop culture. Meta. It’s touted as a show that’s immensely and intensely self-aware, a quality that is often hailed not only as what makes it great, but as what makes it seemingly unpalatable for larger audiences as well. And yes, that is a huge part of what Community is. The show and the people who make it take a lot of joy in pointing out, paying homage to, and putting spins on a whole array of tropes, styles, and formulas found not only in television, but in pop culture as a whole. If the question is, “Will your story acknowledge the very nature of stories?” (as posited by writer Megan Ganz in this week’s episode), Community’s answer is a resounding, “Yep!” That’s just a central part of what the show is.
But, of course, that’s not the only part. I would venture to say that it’s not even the most central part. Because at its core, Community is about people living in relationship with other people. Its namesake suggests as much, of course. But it goes so, so far beyond the name.
In the pilot episode, Jeff says to Abed at one point, “I see your value now.” He means this in a selfish context at the time, referring to Abed’s ability to mechanically relay spiels of information about girls he’s talked to—information that Jeff can take advantage of in order to get dates with said girls. By itself it’s a one-off joke, and a revealing moment for Jeff’s character. But, tellingly, Abed returns the compliment at the end of the episode in a scene where Jeff is welcomed back into the fold of the study group: “I’m sorry I called you Michael Douglas, and I see your value now.”
“I see your value now.” By repeating that, right off the bat the show is situating itself within a particular dialogic framework. It’s declaring to the viewer, “We’re going to talk about how people get along, and how people discover value in one another. That is the reason why we are here.”
Now, obviously this isn’t a terribly uncommon theme to explore in the grand scheme of things, but in that exact same scheme and in that exact same grandness… it’s one of the most important. The reality is, human beings are social creatures. We are connected. We affect and are affected by one another in huge, significant, often unseen and unacknowledged ways, and it’s when we forget about that that tragedy happens. The interactions, relationships, and dynamics that bind us determine so much about our lives that it behooves us not only to be aware of them, but to strive to make them more constructive and more meaningful on an interpersonal level.
Community is about that. Like Deadwood (a very different show from Community, but I like to think a substantial essay could be written about their thematic similarities), it’s about no less than the formation and consequent maintenance of a civilization. It’s a story about people congregating, brought together by circumstance and a common goal (in this case to pass a Spanish class) and forced to deal with each other’s differences, shortcomings, and quirks. It’s a story about individuals learning to love and care for one another in meaningful ways and to see value in each other despite (and sometimes because of) their flaws.
(For the record, aside from Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas—which for my money is the best episode of the series thus far, merging humor, homage, and pathos in a brilliantly moving story of friendship and fellowship—the best thesis statement for what the show is doing thematically comes, fittingly, from the creator himself, Dan Harmon:
“For all its apolitical, joyful, empty headed zaniness and experimentation, Community is a passionately humanitarian show. Its only religious and political point of view is that all people are good people, and while we often play the roles of villains and stereotypes to each other, it is always an illusion, shattered quickly by the briefest moment of honest connection.”
…Shit’s gold, right?)
So, switching gears here. All of that being said—why am I so afraid of triteness?
I don’t know, exactly. I’ve just always been self-conscious about whether or not what I’m saying or experiencing is original, fresh, and new. If it’s something that I know a lot of people have said or experienced before me, I’m immediately apologetic and self-dismissive, and I try to keep it to myself.
The flipside of that is that, when I hear things from other people over and over again, I tend to get annoyed and dismissive of them, too. And that started happening a lot recently—this week in particular. This week, Community’s passionate and rabid fanbase (of which I consider myself a slightly more reserved part) got nervous, scared, even outraged when it was announced that our beloved show was going to be shelved mid-season. Understandably, fans began to rally around the idea of saving the series and showing our support for what we consider to be one of the funniest and smartest sitcoms on TV. So, naturally, we needed a motto of some kind, the obvious one being “Six seasons and a movie!” (a reference to Troy and Abed’s obsession with making sure shows they like, such as The Cape and Cougar Town, survive long enough to be satisfying and successful).
Now, it’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. I’m seriously questioning whether or not I should even talk about it. But goddamn if I wasn’t immediately annoyed by how often I was hearing that goddamned quote. Community fans were popping into comment threads all over the Internet and saying with such dedication and fervor a line that we’ve all heard countless times, as if it was somehow new and exciting and original. Granted, that’s obviously not the point, the point is enthusiasm and solidarity, and I appreciate that now—but my gut reflex was to be annoyed. Much like, on Reddit, when someone posts a reference or a tidbit that has been posted scores of times before, I think to myself, “Jesus Christ, did you seriously think you were the first one to notice that? Come on.”
But what I’ve realized and remembered is that, in the end, the point isn’t to always be saying something new and different. The point is to be passionate. The point is to enjoy yourself and share that joy with others. Much like a character in an episode of Community, I realized something about myself: I realized I was being a douche. I was feeling such vitriol toward people who were only trying to share their love for something that I love just as much as they do—which is just stupid. And I immediately felt guilty. Much like Dean Pelton in this week’s episode (“I have failed this school. I have failed it because I thought I was better than Greendale”), I felt like I’d failed my fellow fans. I’d failed them because I thought I was better than them. And that’s just not the case.
I mean, really, why should I be annoyed by those oft-repeated quotes and references? Why should I care so much about not being trite? All of life is a history of triteness—patterns repeat, archetypes recur, stories are told again and again and again. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the nature of an organized universe. What we experience as new is, in fact, very, very old—or, at the very least, inextricably connected to something that is very, very old. But that shouldn’t change our desire to experience it, or take away the joy we feel in experiencing it. In the end, life’s too short to worry about being novel. (It’s also too short to get mad about stupid shit, which is a lesson that I find myself relearning constantly.)
Community tells stories about telling stories—tells, in fact, the oldest story of them all: the story of connection. And it does so while proudly and unabashedly referencing other stories, paying homage to its predecessors, situating itself within a history of narratives not by rejecting or ignoring what’s come before, but by appreciating it and being beholden to it. Yeah, it manages to be something qualitatively innovative at the same time, but it doesn’t trip over itself in the process. And it doesn’t get pissed off at its viewers for being passionate about it, quoting it repeatedly, ripping into it like a gerbil shredding a Quaker Oats box. That’s just people loving awesome shit—why be annoyed by that?
And so, here, at the end, as a human being who lives in relation with other human beings and loves a television show that exists in relation with other television shows, I am hereby proud to say:
SIX SEASONS AND A MOVIE!
Feels good, doesn’t it?
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