Fans of pop culture often ask each other variations of a question involving an island, complete isolation and the availability of a single piece of creative expression. Though such questions are posed in order to glean opinions regarding the merit or appeal of a certain song, movie or TV show, they’re not avenues for objective considerations. If they were, perhaps none would be better qualified in the category of television sitcoms than Community.
Casual fans of television might find such a claim surprising. After all, Community struggled in ratings during its six-season run, prompting cancellation by NBC before being resurrected on Yahoo! Screen for its final year.
The show, created by Dan Harmon, focuses on the exploits of a group of friends who study in a fictional community college.
Unlike its sitcom predecessors such as Seinfeld, Frasier and Friends who became rating juggernauts and global sensations, Community does not have a laugh track or multiple cameras.
Some of its contemporaries have harnessed such setups to either reap countless awards (example: Modern Family) or establish itself as the most-watched show among millennials (The Office).
Community, however, remains unremarkable in terms of such metrics.
It would be easy then, to seek refuge behind the notion Community was misunderstood and far ahead of its time. However, that would be inaccurate, for the truth is more complicated.
Community wasn’t misunderstood, it was just appreciated by far too few, and not because it came to our screens too early but because not all of us have spent enough time in front of screens.
Community is one of the best examples of a “meta-comedy”, a relatively small subgenre of situational comedy. Harmon, who would go on to make the acclaimed Rick and Morty, described it as making the audience aware they were watching a TV show and not a story anchored by reality.
This kind of self-awareness isn’t unique to Community.
Fans of the hit TV show Friends would have chuckled when Brad Pitt appeared on screen as Rachel’s high school “friend” who hates her. Not because of a hilarious in-show visual gag, but because they knew Jennifer Aniston, who plays Rachel, was in fact married to Brad Pitt at the time.
Community takes such winks at the audience and expands on it until it has dissected, explored, critiqued, countered and ultimately celebrated not just sitcoms, but pop culture as a whole.
To understand how the show pulls this off requires multiple viewings of specific episodes. For example, in the first minute of the episode “Basic RV Repair and Palmistry,” the character Abed Nadir (who is the heart of the show) shuts his eyes and announces out loud: “Three weeks ago!”
It’s a meta-joke about how TV episodes often start in the middle of the story and then lean upon flashbacks to further the narrative. However, while most shows would pat themselves on the back for such a reference and then move on, Community commits.
So over the course of the next 20 minutes, we are not just viewing a well written episode about certain characters on the TV show. We’re also viewing a commentary on a narrative technique.
To top it all off, through the characters and story, the episode’s writers end up providing a critique of the narrative technique as well. Abed remarks how the episode made sense even without a backstory, highlighting the overuse of such techniques in television.
We laugh, we learn and we reflect.
However, Community doesn’t cover just narrative techniques, storytelling devices and overused television tropes. It combines that yearning for deconstruction with the desire to celebrate the best of pop culture.
As a result, over the course of 110 episodes Community pulls off incredible narratives that draw upon established genres, conventions and visual aesthetics.
The adventures of seven friends who are part of a study group should never have spawned episodes such as “Modern Warfare” or “App Development and Condiments”.
In the former, an innocent paintball competition turns into a pastiche of action films such as Die Hard and The Matrix, while the latter is a parody of dystopian movies that holds its own against anything Black Mirror has to offer.
If the terms pastiche and parody seem confusing, there’s no need to be alarmed. Not all viewers will be aware of the intertextuality that’s ever-present within the episodes of Community.
They may not realize the episode where the characters start an illegal chicken delivery service in the college cafeteria is an homage to the classic gangster movies of Scorsese. Or when these students have to find out who “killed” the yam they were growing in biology class, the investigation that unfolds is a pitch-perfect parody (as well as a celebration) of Dick Wolf’s iconic TV show Law and Order.
Community reminds us there’s more to the sitcom genre and television in general than just laughter. It shows us the true potential of sitcoms.
It assures us even the most imaginative or absurd comedy shows can have genuine heart and emotions. It allows us to celebrate all the tropes in television we love, and perhaps more importantly, provides us much-required catharsis by mocking those genre conventions that’ve soured our viewing experiences in the past.
Community may or may not appeal to new television viewers. But it’s designed to resonate with veteran ones.
Such a statement might sound exclusionary, but it isn’t.
Community is written in such a way that there are countless layers to be peeled back. So viewers are rewarded every time they rewatch the whole show, because as their knowledge of pop culture increases, so does their ability to appreciate all the allusions contained within.
That is also why the show struggled in the first place. Airing on television with far too little support from the network meant Community was lauded only by critics and a niche group of fans.
Thankfully, in May 2020, the show finally debuted on Netflix and has begun attracting a new generation of fans.
Many of them will go on to watch the whole show several times over. Not because it’ll provide a sense of comfort or because it’s bland enough to play in the background.
But because with each new viewing, they would have understood something new about comedy or television or life…or all three.