Thanks to our good friend COVID-19, there is little chance of me getting to a cinema to watch any new releases. With that, I thought it would be a good time to revisit this aborted attempt at an ongoing feature, with special emphasis on media available on popular streaming services (you know which one I mean) that people might want to check out while stuck at home. And where better to begin than with my favourite television show of all time?
Introduction – “Webster’s Dictionary Defines …”
Community was, for better or worse, ahead of its time.
Its DNA – anarchic metatextual humour laced with surprising sentimentality – is spread far and wide across the modern TV landscape. When It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia does a full film noir episode, complete with period-appropriate dialogue and black-and-white cinematography? That’s Community. When BoJack Horseman comes up with an episode that has no dialogue and an episode that is all monologue? That’s Community. The entirety of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? That’s Community. This is not to say that the creators of these respective (and excellent) shows were directly inspired by NBC’s cult TV show that ran from 2009-2015 (hell, Sunny (1) technically predates it), but Community was the vanguard that made it safe for these genre-bending experiments to exist and to be acceptable. It was the network TV show that carved out its own niche, that simultaneously embraced and rebelled against the constraints of the 22-minute sitcom episode, that became a genre unto itself and allowed all proceeding TV shows to be whatever they wanted to be. Its only reward (at least while it was on the air) was to be ignored, treated like dirt, and undermined by network executives who did not get it.
This is the irony of Community. It would be a smash hit if it was released today, but there is no way that could happen without the necessary groundwork that was set up by … Community.
Part 1 – “When you really know who you are and what you like about yourself, changing for other people isn’t such a big deal.”
On the face of it, the plot of Community is laughably simplistic. There are no The Good Place or Kimmy Schmidt style high concepts here. When smarmy, smooth-talking lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is revealed to have forged his degree, he is forced to enrol in Greendale Community College to get a real degree and reclaim his old life while doing as little work as possible. In a bid to get into the pants of resident cool girl Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), he sets up a fake study group, only for it to backfire and become all too real. Said study group consists of himself, Britta, ambiguously-on-the-spectrum aspiring filmmaker Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) divorced housewife Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), ex-high school football star Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), valedictorian recovering from a nervous breakdown Annie Edison (Alison Brie), and moist towelette magnate Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase). They also have to contend with ambiguously-on-the-Kinsey-scale Dean Craig Pelton (2) (Jim Rash) and unambiguously crazy Spanish professor Senor Chang (Ken Jeong).
And that’s it. It’s about a study group in a crappy community college. And yet, Community was so much more than that. At its peak, it was the closest approximation to a live-action version of The Simpsons, capturing that show’s wit, resonance, and hilarity in a way that nothing had done before or since. If you know about Community at all, it is probably as ‘that show with the genre episodes’. And no doubt, these episodes are some of the greatest joys the show has to offer, starting with the Season One one-two punch of ‘Contemporary American Poultry’ (a gangster movie pastiche with chicken fingers) and ‘Modern Warfare’ (a paintball game directed like an action movie). Season Two pushed the boundary even further by riffing not just on established genres, but even on television conventions, such as the ‘bottle episode’ (3) ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ or the episode ‘Paradigms of Human Memory’, which riffed on the established tradition of a ‘clip show’, only for the clips to be comprised of brand new material. By Season Three, the show was confident enough to deal with multiple timelines in ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ (we will talk about that later), present a pillow fight as a Ken Burns-style war documentary, and even have an episode set entirely in the world of a video game. With a stellar lineup of creative minds (which include no less than the directors of the biggest movie of all time) led by showrunner Dan Harmon, the show waltzed through different genres and tropes in a way that few works of media had ever done (or have done since).
Intermission – Best long-running line readings from each main cast member
- The way Yvette Nicole Brown says Bri-tta, with emphasis on the ‘t’ sound and always rising in tone.
- The way Danny Pudi says ‘cool. cool cool cool’ (obviously), inclusive of quick glance to the side.
- Joel Mchale thrusting his head forward and squinting every time he wants to make a point.
- Chevy Chase’s ‘Ay-bed’.
- Alison Brie’s arsenal of high-pitched squeaks and squeals.
- Too many for Donald Glover, but I’m very partial to the way he says ‘butt’.
- The way Gillian Jacobs says ‘I lived in New York’, but it could very well be the strident voice she uses whenever Britta is making a point.
Part 2 – “I looked inside Nicolas Cage and I found a secret: People are random and pointless.”
But anyone who characterises Community as ‘that show with the genre episodes’ does it a massive disservice. For one, Community, especially in its first season, did more than enough to prove that it could have been simply a great situational comedy in the vein of its NBC colleagues Parks and Recreation or The Office (US). The genre episodes were hardly the only highlights of the series – episodes like Debate 109, Physical Education or Romantic Expressionism would be high water marks for any sitcom. Furthermore, except for the horrorshow that is Season 4, (4) Community rarely ever did genre episodes just for the sake of it, with the point being to always mine the tropes and elements of a particular genre to extract meaningful and engaging storytelling. Great examples of this include using the group dynamics of Dungeons & Dragons to tell a story of feeling lonely and ostracised, or a post-apocalyptic Mad Max style episode to deal with the departure of a beloved cast member.
However, the key reason why Community was never just ‘that show that became GI Joe that one time’ was due to its relentless focus on story and character. Series creator Dan Harmon famously adheres to his eight-step ‘story circles’, a variant of the ‘hero’s journey’ narratives beloved by so many Hollywood screenwriters. While this style of plotting may seem prescriptive or formulaic, it works wonders with Community largely by grounding the weird flights of fancy to a recognisable story arc. This is also the reason why, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, the experimentation is always in the service of story, thanks to the propulsive narrative momentum that is the foundation of each episode.
Intermission 2 – Best running gags
- Troy and Abed in the mooooooooooorning!
- “I lived in New York!”
- The Dean’s outfits, culminating in that spectacular half-masc half-femme look that seemingly inspired a challenge on Rupaul’s Drag Race
- “That’s nice“
- Pierce having sex with Eartha Kitt in an airplane bathroom
- Jeff’s blue and black striped boxer briefs
- Britta’s increasingly ridiculous Halloween outfits (in a bid to avoid slutty costumes)
- Troy and Levar Burton
- The Jim Belushi of …
Part 3 – “I settled on a truth today that’s always going to be true. I would do anything for my friends.”
Yet anyone who has skimmed a book on writing can tell you that the foundation of story is not plot, but character. This was where Community truly shined. Six of the core seven are masterclasses in characterisation, and the one exception was largely due to unfortunate circumstances. Of the remaining six, it is interesting to see that half of them remained relatively stable from their inception while the other half went through substantial changes and refinement.
It was absolutely imperative for the show to get its protagonist right from the very beginning, and it did with Jeff right from the very beginning. The show does not work without Jeff Winger, and one of its greatest strengths has always been how it refuses to let Jeff off the hook for his amorality and manipulativeness. McHale and the writers also do a fantastic job at conveying the deep-seated insecurities that fuel Jeff, from his fear of aging to his abandonment issues, while never losing sight of his megawatt charisma and smooth confidence man patter. As for Shirley, Yvette Nicole Brown has gone on record to credit Dan Harmon from avoiding the obvious ‘sassy black woman’ stereotype (which, in typical Community style, is meta-referenced more than once) and making Shirley a rounded, complex character. Jeff and Shirley are obvious mirror images of each other, which is evident in the way these two characters pop (pop!) when paired with each other. Shirley, like Jeff, hides a dark side (repressed rage and an alcoholic past) beneath a veneer of acceptability, and like Jeff, it’s genuinely surprising how much the show takes her to task for her hypocrisy while never losing sight of the demons that lead her to those places. Brown plays all facets of the character beautifully, with a simmering anger always bubbling beneath the placid surface of the good Christian housewife.
Then there’s Annie, who has the closest thing the show has to a full character arc throughout its time on the air. The character that Alison Brie portrays is most definitely not the same in Season 1 as in Season 6, and there is a good argument to be made that Community is the coming-of-age story of Annie Edison. Yet, the character traits that make Annie – optimism, intellect, empathy, neuroticism, competitiveness – are the same character traits that exist in both the pilot and the finale, just tempered with age and maturity. There is also much to laud about Brie’s (5) performance, particularly in how nimble and deft it is, able to go from Disney Princess to Hector the Well-Endowed in a heartbeat.
The other three characters grew much more over the course of the show’s run, with the most obvious one being Danny Pudi’s Abed Nadir. This was less about any development in the character (though that certainly happened) and more about the change in the fabric of the show, with Abed’s role growing from quirky side character to deuteragonist as the show shifted from slightly off-kilter network sitcom to … well, Community. Pudi’s performance may also be the most feted one of the entire show and deservedly so. It manages to avoid (and in true Community fashion, comment on) the tropes of neurodivergent individuals and instead creates a character for the ages. Abed is a man of deep feeling and an inability to express it, and Pudi’s performance is remarkable for its subtlety and delicacy, two things not normally associated with network television. Of course, there is no Abed without Troy, and the chemistry between Pudi and Donald Glover was something special. Harmon has consistently said that he knew Glover’s star was too ascendant to be confined to the show, and there is no denying his comic timing and charisma as Troy transforms from the stereotypical dumb jock to become the complex, multi-faceted heart of the show. Also, in a cast of impossibly funny people, Glover was consistently the funniest of the lot, and that speaks volumes.
Finally, there is Britta. In a recent 10 year anniversary retrospective, Dan Harmon admitted that the character only ever existed as a prize for Jeff to strive for in the pilot, and this is reflected in the first few episodes, where Britta is nothing more than a shrill caricature of a slacktivist, and easily the least funny member of the group. Then something changed. It’s difficult to tell as to whether this was due to Jacobs, Harmon, or some combination of the two, but Britta soon became my favourite character on the show. A lot of it is down to Jacobs’ go-for-broke performance, which forgoes any sense of dignity to portray Britta as a loony oddball, including some of the finest physical comedy the show ever had to offer. The show also became merciless in savaging Britta’s pretension, which made the character far more loveable by creating a sense of audience sympathy. Britta transformed from a character defined by not trying to one who tries too hard, and this simple change made a world of difference. As for Pierce … I will just say that it was a pity that the idiotic feud between Harmon and Chevy Chase tanked what could have been a great character, leading to tonal inconsistency regarding Pierce’s motives and ethics, but more often than not, the strength of the writing and acting did enough to ensure that Pierce remained a valuable member of the ensemble.
Intermission 3 – The Best Episodes (in reverse order)
10a. ‘Debate 109’ (Season 1 Episode 9) – the ‘true’ first episode of Community, in my opinion. Codifies a number of ongoing motifs (the Jeff-Annie relationship, Troy’s propensity for crying, Abed seeing the world as a TV show) and just generally is the best episode of the entire first half of Season 1.
9. ‘Cooperative Polygraphy’ (Season 5 Episode 4) – a spiritual sequel to all-timer ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ (which will appear later on this list) that is the highest point (bar the finale) of post-Season 3 Community. The jokes are impeccably and rapidly delivered, the character work is never sharper, and it has one of the most bittersweet emotional endings of any episode.
8. ‘Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television’ (Season 6 Episode 13) – we will talk more about this later.
7. ‘Critical Film Studies’ (Season 2 Episode 19) – Mining Abed’s psyche has been a consistent source of resonance for the show, but it never did it better than this episode, which feinted in one direction (Pulp Fiction homage!) before pulling back the curtain in the final act to reveal something much deeper and sadder.
6. ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ (Season 2 Episode 8) – The aforementioned bottle episode, which turned the existing tension and friction between the study group up to eleven and provided some of its finest ever character work.
5. ‘Documentary Filmmaking: Redux’ (Season 3 Episode 8) – one of the sharpest ever satires on the artistic ego and taking one’s art too seriously … by a show which famously took its art very seriously. Also a very welcome showcase for Jim Rash’s Dean Pelton, essentially playing the lead in this episode.
4. ‘Modern Warfare’ (Season 1 Episode 23) – The most important episode of the show. If Debate 109 is the start of Community, this is its apotheosis. A perfectly executed parody of ridiculous action movies helmed by a director (Justin Lin of Fast Five) who would go on to make some of the best ones.
3. ‘Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’ (Season 2 Episode 14) – Community tackles depression and social isolation the only way it knows how. Through a game of D&D, featuring dead gnome waiters, Chang in blackface, and the best sex scene ever shown on network television. D&D relies on collective imagination and creativity, and it’s hard to argue that the show has ever shown more than in these 22 minutes.
2. ‘Paradigms of Human Memory’ (Season 2 Episode 21) – Crafted to resemble a clip show and using the format to analyse the patterns which people fall into and the ways that they can hurt each other. But beyond that, it’s just executed to such utter perfection, a Rube Goldberg machine of jokes within jokes and a winking understanding of the way the show tells its stories and of why it is so effective at them.
1. ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ (Season 3 Episode 4) – The only thing worth arguing about this episode is whether it is the best television episode of all time. Yes, you heard me. Writer Chris McKenna (who has moved onto the Marvel Cinematic Universe) was nominated for an Emmy for it, but in my humble opinion, nothing less than the Nobel Prize for Literature would do. It just packs so much into 22 minutes – 7 different timelines, a host of running gags, an analysis of exactly what every character brings to the show, and an ending message that doubles as the show’s thesis statement – that only if you open your heart and let down your defences can you find friendship, love, and yes, community. ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ is a goddamn masterpiece, and I will never have enough words to talk about how astoundingly brilliant it is.
Finale – “Life may pass by while we ignore or mistreat those close to us.”
By its end, Community was a shell of itself. It had bled out nearly 50% of the original core seven, had been unceremoniously canceled by NBC and revived on, of all things, Yahoo’s attempt at creating a streaming platform. While the remaining cast and crew gamely tried their best, there was no denying that Season 6 was leaden-footed in a way that this show never used to be. It is not bad by any means (and not even close to the execrable Season 4), but it is clearly the last gasp of a dying show. Watching it then, it felt like the best possible outcome – a season that was good enough to end gracefully on, but not so good that the viewer would want more. I was at peace.
Then the finale came, and I wept over this stupid thing originally designed to sell ad space on NBC. The finale of Community is, in many ways, the show in a microcosm. It is as experimental as it is formulaic, as cynical as it is sentimental, as analytical as it is emotional. Essentially (and don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything major) the show ends with its characters sitting around a table riffing on what the next season might look like, only to all arrive at the inevitable truth that there will be no next season. If anything, ‘Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television’ reminds me of Kobe Bryant’s (RIP) final NBA game. It is the aged, beaten-down lion in winter taking a meaningless event (an episode on Yahoo Screen, a pointless final game against Utah) and transforming it into high art by making it all about itself and exhibiting every single thing its audience loved about it. Is there more than a little self-indulgence to it? Of course. But, as Abed once said, it’s earned.
For such a funny show, the finale is filled with sadness and pain. It deals with fears of irrelevance, of loss, of loneliness and failed ambitions. It is a finale that ends on one of the show’s most alienating moments, a short film where the people in an ad realise they are not real, only to be interrupted by Dan Harmon spilling his guts out in a monologue that is part confession and part oral history of the show. And yet, like every great episode of Community, it drills past the pain to a moment of what Werner Herzog calls ‘the ecstatic truth’, that the people (or TV shows) you love will come and go, that life will pass by against our best efforts to try to maintain the happy moments, and to treasure the relationships with the people around you, even if they are fleeting.
Or, in other words, the only thing that gives life meaning is being in a community.
The show’s title has always been its thesis statement. A diverse group of dysfunctional weirdo losers come together and become a community stronger than the sum of its parts. There is no more fitting fate for the show than what it became, a rallying point for its own community of people who say ‘streets ahead’ and ‘shut up Leonard (RIP)’ and ‘bag-ul’ and who continue to keep the spirit of the show alive. (6) And, if you will forgive an entirely unearned attempt at gravitas, I will say that a historical moment like this is exactly when we need both community and Community. Now that the show is on Netflix, I expect it to find a larger audience who may have missed out on it the first time, and it is a chance for the community surrounding the show to grow. As Abed says in the finale, “it’s a friend you’ve known so well, and for so long you just let it be with you.” He was talking about television in general, but (as always) he was talking about Community, the show whose depth of feeling was not in spite of its meta, experimental nature but rather because of it. It was a wonderful, fleeting moment that enriched those within it (7) and those like myself who fell into its orbit. It is my favourite television show of all time, the one whose lessons and jokes and craftsmanship and artistic achievements became a part of me. It was a fucking beautiful thing, and I love it to bits.
- Which now has Community’s DNA within it, thanks to the presence of writer Megan Ganz on its writing and production staff.
- I finished writing this whole long thing only to realise I wrote nothing about The Dean, which I am now going to rectify. Jim Rash took what could have been purely a joke character and gave him a surprising amount of depth … while still ensuring that the Dean remained the funniest and most reliable sources of humour on the show.
- Industry slang for an episode produced as cheaply as possible by using limited locations, pre-existing sets, next to no guest stars, and scenes with little special preparation. Some classics of this sub-genre include Breaking Bad’s ‘Fly’, Seinfeld’s ‘The Chinese Restaurant’, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s ‘The Box’.
- More than anything, this is what doomed Season 4. I want this retrospective to be as positive as possible, so I will keep any discussion of Season 4 to this footnote. Basically, Dan Harmon got fired at the end of Season 3 thanks to low ratings and NBC believing that the show had become too esoteric for a mass audience. They hired two other showrunners to ‘fix’ the show, which led it to become a zombie version of itself, like a classic rock band with half of its members dead that exists only to play the hits on tour. Eventually, the show started bleeding out its core audience, which, along with Joel McHale’s insistence on bringing his former boss back, led to Harmon’s return and an improved (if not quite at the level of the first three) Season 5 and 6. Is Season 4 worth a watch? My answer is no, but I’ve heard that people find parts of it enjoyable, so you might as well give it a shot. My suggestion is to watch the first two to three eps, and if you (like me) cannot handle it, just jump straight to Season 5.
- Man, how unimpeachable is Alison Brie’s TV resume? Mad Men, Community, GLOW, BoJack, and Hannah Montana? That’s a hell of a career.
- My favourite piece of trivia is how the AV Club’s review of the finale became its own little pop culture forum, with fans popping in and out to discuss the show as well as other pop culture. Sadly, much of this was eliminated when the site migrated to a new commenting system, but at last count, it had a whopping 130,979 comments.
- Just look at how many of its main cast and crew moved on to bigger things, from the MCU to Rick and Morty to ‘Redbone’ to winning Oscars to headlining their own Netflix shows. The show all about pop culture ended up becoming an indelible gift to pop culture even after it ended.