A common occurrence I see in the most popular American sitcoms is a strong, obvious emotional core, or a thematic tapping of nostalgia or political and real life insecurities. There’s usually something about these shows that endears them to their audience, capturing a friendlier version of their views or how they interpret the world. But the near adult youth of 2009 were in a strange spot. Things were bad, but mainly in aftermath, and most of them lacked a context for it. If they did understand the mortgage bubble and the USA’s normalization of constant war, they were just now going to college and didn’t really know how to deal with it. So what sort of TV would they watch? The answer ended up being shows that engaged with meta humor, like The Office toying with story telling techniques, or the absurdist segways of 30 Rock.
There was a detached, uncaring quality to these shows, existing in their own little world, but capturing something real to the audience. They reflected not insecurity, but the almost comical ridiculous status of things by refusing to meaningfully engage and instead poke holes in. The king of those shows ended up becoming Dan Harmon’s Community, and today, I’d like to point out what it’s true core strength was. Community is remembered for its meta nature, but it’s real power was absolutely refusing to make its characters actual people. Community is a show powered by tropes and conventions. It’s time to examine why.
Before Community, Harmon’s most significant credit was co-creating The Sarah Silverman Program, which certainly bares some of Community’s DNA in it. The joke of the series was that Silverman’s character was a selfish child in a grown woman’s body, and she also knew curse words. Comedy ensued. Instead of putting her in the real world, Silverman lives in a generic TV world that seems real, yet has odd absurdities lying inside. I mean, they had an entire episode about a serial killer triggered by queefing. Silverman’s show was far less ambitious than Community, mainly a one woman show that didn’t really have a goal beyond packaging shock humor in the most unexpected way possible. The sitcom parody didn’t do much other than serve Silverman’s dirty joke of the episode. Community, on the other hand, instead became a deconstruction of the sitcom genre.
Community sets itself in Greendale Community College, a campus filled with society rejects and older citizens trying to keep their minds sharp and keep busy. Scumbag lawyer Jeff ends up becoming friends with a colorful study group and learns to be a better person. Pretty much every episode has the exact structure and expected beats of your average sitcom episode, at least at first. As the series goes on, more and more episodes start experimenting with genre and parody, like the oh so popular paintball episodes playing with action movie tropes, but eventually stops just deconstructing the sitcom and starts deconstructing itself.
Something to remember about these meta sitcom shows, despite how structurally destructive they are, is that they all do genuinely care about the growth of their cast. Community manages to make its expansive cast likable and layered, though not through subtle means. In fact, the show seems to scoff at the very idea of ever being subtle about anything. Community gives the “what I learned” speech at the end of every episode almost religiously. The characters exclaim what their growth is, and how they feel their dynamic has changed. Eventually, the show introduces sci-fi elements and goes from background joke to plot affecting, and it’s all treated sincerely.
I mean, there’s an entire episode dedicated to the cast playing a VR game, in where Abed falls in love with an NPC and breaks every single game system. The show originally ended its NBC run with a meteor destroying the planet, revealing the main continuity as the real darkest timeline, and this was done solely as a big wink to the audience. There is absolutely no ambiguity or subtext ANYWHERE in the series. Amazingly, this complete disregard for traditional signs of “good” or “mature” storytelling allows it to accomplish everything it tries. There is no subtext, only narrative trickery, and it all relies on what the audience expects.
That’s where the shows meta qualities come into play. Community loves putting lampshades on tired plot beats and character types, up to the point that Chevy Chase’s character is constantly confusing the cast on whether he’s the villain or not for the episode or arc. At the same time, it plays a lot of these straight, or they end up being the key to solve a seemingly impossible situation. A late series episode has an evil Abed from an alternate universe (this would be the late Family Matters era of the show) coming to the main one to make it as bad as his was, but a “what I learned” speech from Jeff ends up saving everyone and giving long lost hope to the evil doppelganger.
Often, lampshading is just done by drawing attention to the trope or beat by focusing so much on it, like the show’s first bottle episode being announced in episode by Abed so as to avoid it, only to end with a joke in the first act where Jeff declares they’re having a bottle episode. The lampshading actually makes what would be a tired episode funny by changing the context, making the characters and audience on a similar page, but then giving the characters a solid reason for taking part in the trope anyways. This happens all the time, and it’s a clever way to poke fun at how much of our choices come down to our emotional states and not logical thinking. It’s why there’s an episode that reveals that Abed is the only sane member of the cast, as he’s the most constantly aware of the absurd rules that guide his world and existence.
Like Rick and Morty (which Harmon helped co-create, if you remember), these meta elements are balanced out by the heart of the show. But unlike Rick and Morty, Community is purposefully simplistic. Jeff is a jerk who learns to not be a jerk, Britta is an activist who needs to understand what it truly means to be an activist, Troy is a former football star that needs to stop with the ego and discover himself, ect ect. All of the arcs of every cast member fits neatly in the simple and easy to follow sitcom structure, with obvious end points for every arc, though the meta elements allows the show to start screwing around with what the audience expects from those arcs.
Take Troy. It seems like his learn to be humble arc would be his major focus, but he ends up becoming friends with Abed, whom you will remember is the most self-aware character in the ensemble. Abed is the key to the show’s more absurdist elements and subversive moments, and Troy is a great early example. Donald Glover naturally leaves his jerk persona fairly quickly and becomes Abed’s dorky buddy, joining in with group shenanigans and becoming a team player fairly easily. However, there’s still an arc for him based around understanding himself, breaking away from his identity as a sports star and trying to find something new to give him meaning. This allows the show to introduce even more guest characters and odd story lines, including the hilarious air conditioning school plot with John Goodman.
Abed’s constant talking of the world as one of his TV shows ends up affecting the other characters as well, as they start thinking on similar lines on occasion. Thus Chevy Chase’s Pierce, a rich old guy who lacks basic socialization and most any ability to emphasize with others. He wants to fit in, but has trouble doing so and eventually becomes the show’s “villain” for awhile. He’s like a child wanting any sort of attention, but unable to get positive attention because he lacks common ground with everyone else. His villain shtick allows the series to deal with his expected arc, but constantly turn it on its head with every episode through other sitcom story lines and tropes. He becomes a way for the show to distract the audience from other plots its making, or to instigate ones that require an antagonist, and then makes the fact it’s doing that as part of the joke. That is not easy to do, especially when also trying to keep Pierce’s human core part of his character. The second paintball arc does a great job of not only using Pierce as a misdirection, but another villain of the week as well.
Community’s entire identity is existential, but not with Rick and Morty’s nihilistic edge. Instead, it’s very hopeful. It doesn’t despise sitcoms, because it often plays many of the sitcom’s conventions straight. It doesn’t rage at the world or terrible people within it, but instead tries to humanize them. Shirley is easily the best example of this, a Conservative Christian mother who has issues moving past prejudices cemented in her by the culture she grew up in. Everyone in Greendale is either poor or held back by a crippling flaw, but they tend to iron out those flaws or find joy even in the rough patches. Community’s big secret of success is that when it deconstructs the sitcom, it doesn’t do it to attack it, but to celebrate what it is at its core. It looks at the cheerful, hopeful view of the sitcom and embraces it genuinely, but presents it in a new way that really highlights the power of that positive outlook. By making the audience aware that they are watching a sitcom, they manage to play with the expected beats and find new ways to engage an audience who would normally be sick of their formula.
Oh, and remember that amusing image at top, where I quote Garth Marebghi’s Dark Place of all things? It’s certainly a good jab at bad writing styles, but sitcoms are those rare example immune to that rule. They can have subtext, but it really isn’t necessary. Sometimes, all they have to do is capture something simple and real, to make you laugh while basing that humor in something familiar. The best sitcoms don’t really need subtext, like That 70s Show or Rosanne, but Community sticks out as the one the most honest about it.
I was just out of high school as Community started. I wasn’t able to attend college because my mother worked in the mortgage industry right when it crashed and had trouble finding scholarships, let alone a ride to campuses far off from my home. I was paralyzed with anxiety over what my future held. I had never really thought about it much, and I was a few years now into my shift leftwards in politics without really understanding much about them. I still hadn’t realized my sexuality, and all I could really do was make crappy blog posts on ScrewAttack and watch internet reviewers. It honestly felt like there was no place for me in the world, so I just …wallowed.
I didn’t understand why at the time, but Community just clicked for me. It was different from the viciously angry Malcom in the Middle and the so straightforwardly hopeful and thoughtful My Name is Earl. It almost seemed uncaring for any sort of point, but it clearly did have one. Just watching Community made things feel fine for awhile, something I never felt watching a TV show before. It made me feel like that, maybe, just maybe, there was a place in the world for some high school shut-in who had no idea what to do with themselves. It communicated with me subconsciously entirely through those meta elements, showing me a cast of losers who were clearly not real people, but had strong emotional cores. I could understand and even relate to them within just a single scene. That’s something sitcoms have been able to do with their structure for decades, but Community being so aware of this made it feel fresh and new. It was unlike anything I had ever seen.
Meta humor done badly is an obnoxious one trick pony, but Community understood that self-awareness can be used to say something, to reflect on something human. Community’s biggest success is that it tapped into all of a generation’s insecurities, fears and doubts, and showed that generation a world where those issues could be overcome. We could find common ground with others and become more than we were, even if we were just some weird not-kids, not-adults who had no idea what to do. We could be more than we were, just like so much of the study group, a collection of nearly terrible people who find ways to still do good and grow as people alongside each other. Community is the ultimate sitcom for my generation, because it does what every true classic sitcom should do. It captures the mood of the world at that moment, and made you feel like there was hope in the dark. It cured numb souls just a bit, enough to finally find the strength to move forward. Rick and Morty is genius because it lets us explore our worst qualities and understand them, but Community is genius because it reminds us that we are far more than the worst parts of ourselves, and I will always be thankful to it for that.