Dan Harmon, 2009–

When I lived in Orange County in the late '90s, I almost never went to Blockbuster, because on the corner of Yorba Linda Boulevard and Imperial Highway there was a specialty store that rented nothing but laserdiscs, which as far as I was concerned were the only acceptable video format.  Then DVDs became a thing and the laserdisc place added a DVD shelf for the early adopters.  At the end of 1998 I needed a new computer, and the hot brand was Dell: not only could you buy a computer right off the Dell web site, but you could customize it from bow to stern — even laptops!  Pick a screen size, pick a processor speed, pick an amount of memory, select or decline as many peripherals as you liked.  I saw that a DVD drive was one of the options, and I decided to spring for it — imagine watching little laserdiscs on a machine you could fit into a backpack!  Thus, several cross-country moves later, it was easy to leave my television behind when I left Massachusetts in 2005 — I'd been using my computer as my primary media device since the 20th century.  I could even use it to watch the TV shows I saw people talking about online.

The flip side of this is that the TV shows I saw people talking about online quickly became the only ones I was aware of.  When I owned a television, even if I only watched a given channel for half an hour a month, the network made sure that by the end of that half hour I was familiar with pretty much its entire lineup.  I was never going to watch that "His father is the district attorney!" show, but I was nevertheless well aware that his father was the district attorney.  Now I don't know who the district attorney is.  I hear about, and often end up watching, the big hour-long tentpole dramas — The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, stuff like that — but that's basically it.  And sometimes, available time and/or sleepiness and/or stress means that I'm more in the mood to watch a half-hour comedy.  Until recently this has meant firing up a '90s or even '80s rerun of something.  So many overheard answering machine messages.  But I decided that, by gum, I would check out something more recent.  I'd seen some tweets recommending Community and on that basis I decided to give it a shot.

Community is about a diverse group of people who study together and gradually become friends as they attend community college.  There's a millionaire, a housewife, a movie nut, a fraudulent professor, a girl-next-door type… to call it Gilligan's Juco would not be entirely off base.  But that's content, and Community is not so much about content.  The real premise of Community is that it's a sitcom that's aware of  It is, as I would have said in grad school, "in dialogue with" the history of television and with other media; not only do the writers play around with the sitcom format, but they stand there pointing at what they're doing while they're doing it.  E.g., when they do an entire show that takes place in one room, the pop-culture-obsessed Aspie character keeps repeating that it's a "bottle episode."  Several times this predilection for postmodernity has led to theme episodes in which the entire show is a zombie movie, or a stop-motion animated Christmas special, or a Nintendo game.  Then again, Gilligan's Island did a bunch of theme episodes too so maybe it's not as cutting-edge as all that.

The theme episodes are the best ones; I liked the D&D episode and the Nintendo episode quite a bit, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken episode and multiple universe episode weren't too shabby either.  It helps that these episodes devote their 21 minutes to one story, while the non-theme episodes tend to divide up their scant running time into an "A plot" and an often perfunctory "B plot" — the cousin of the "three-beat arc" I talked about a while back.  But that doesn't mean that the most urgent problem the non-theme episodes face is that their premises are insufficiently inventive.  An inventive premise is a great thing to add to a comedy that already works, but, well, let me put it this way.  There's a place down the street from me called the Hot Shop that makes honey-curry burritos, and they are great — I'm glad the guy who runs the place came up with the idea, because they're definitely among the best burritos the Hot Shop offers.  But if I'm running Taco Bell, adding honey-curry burritos to the menu should not be my priority.  My priority should be making Taco Bell suck less.  This is not to suggest that Community is the Taco Bell of TV shows — for one thing, ratings-wise it's more like the El Pollo Loco.  But, yes, not only would improving the core of the show help the standard episodes, but the theme episodes might benefit even more.  Because while "TV show done as a Nintendo game" is an intriguing premise, it has to be instantiated as "one specific show done as a Nintendo game," and Community probably wouldn't be my first choice. 

So what would boost Community from "decent" to "really good"?  For me, two issues come to the fore:

The first has to do with tone.  I am a firm believer that comedy and serious emotion can and should coexist.  What's more, genuine feeling can arise from even the most preposterous situations.  My favorite TV show of all time is probably Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  One episode concludes with the heroine pretending to be a robot in order to learn that a Billy Idol clone of a vampire had let himself be tortured in order to protect a sentient collection of interdimensional energy — and it's one of the most affecting moments in the series.  But Community doesn't quite make it work.  All too many episodes radiate a detached, postmodern vibe, but then bolt on a mawkish homily about the importance of the surrogate family the characters have formed, and it seems like we're actually supposed to find these touching.  It's tempting to say that the lesson here is that if you want us to care about a set of characters, you should probably treat them less like constructs within a deconstructivist freeplay of tropes and more like people… but I don't even know whether I necessarily think that's always the case.  I think the problem may just be execution.  Maybe the sentimental speeches fall flat not because of the tonal clash but because the writers' strengths do not include sentimental speeches.  Or maybe it's just that sentimental speeches about these characters fall flat because they're hard to get sentimental about.

Which brings me to the second issue: a running theme in my last few articles has been that comedy benefits from being packaged with other pleasures.  In an ensemble sitcom, that secondary pleasure is pretty much always vicariously hanging out with a bunch of people you like — and often that's not even secondary.  Now look at the dramatis personae of Community:

  • Jeff:  Jeff is an asshole.  He's enough of an asshole that I almost didn't watch the second episode.  The saving grace was that he got a comeuppance at the end of the pilot, signaling that the character's arc was going to be "asshole is influenced by people he formerly looked down on and becomes less of an asshole," which is better than "asshole acts like an asshole, and you laugh at him out of contempt," and much better than "asshole acts like an asshole, and you enjoy his behavior because you would act the same way if you could."  But even as an asshole in recovery, he's still not especially enjoyable to be around — and he's the main character!

  • Pierce:  Pierce is an asshole — sort of an elderly Chevy Chase type, which makes sense, given that he is played by an elderly Chevy Chase.  The premise of this character actually is "asshole acts like an asshole, and you laugh at him out of contempt."  See, it's funny, because he's a racist, misogynistic homophobe, and that's not cool anymore, so you laugh.  Get it?

  • Shirley:  I once read an interview in which creator Dan Harmon admitted, "I don't know how to access the character of Shirley. I don't know who she is. All I know about her is how big her purse is and that she talks like Miss Piggy and Gary Coleman in alternation."  Seems like that might have been something to figure out before the show started.  Really, I'm having trouble getting my head around the basic concept here — if you don't get a particular character, why put her in the show in the first place?  Did the network create the character and demand that she be included?  In any event, as the show progressed, more emphasis was put on the fact that Shirley is a fundamentalist Christian.  Suffice it to say that this move did not increase her "fun to be around" quotient.

  • Troy and Abed:  These are basically a pair of eight-year-old boys in 20-year-old bodies, making blanket forts, sleeping in bunk beds, watching dumb action movies, etc.  Abed started out as a pop-culture-obsessed Aspie and retained this element of his character; Troy started out as a dumb, arrogant jock and quickly lost that element almost entirely, becoming Abed's affable sidekick and not much more.  They range from moderately amusing to moderately annoying — let's call this one a push.

  • Chang and the Dean:  These two are the worst.  How insufferable are they?  They speak primarily by incorporating their own names into their dialogue like they were Pokemans: "Changnesia" for "amnesia," "season's Deanings" for "season's greetings."  The bright side is that neither one is part of the main group, but that's a pretty small mercy.

Put them all together and they don't add up to a gang I'm eager to spend a lot of time with.  To be fair, there are two characters who are pretty successful.  One is Annie, the bright-eyed youngling of the group.  She turns out to be a fairly nuanced character: innocent, but not that innocent; a hyper-achiever, but one who ended up stuck in community college; a daughter of privilege living on her own in a terrible neighborhood.  And while most of the actors on Community are quite good, Alison Brie is a particular standout — she manages to steal the D&D episode in about 55 seconds of screen time.  Then there's Britta.  Initially it looks like she's going to be a manic hipster dream girl, the character with enough of a cool quotient to be able to snark at Jeff while simultaneously validating him through sexual tension.  But as the series progresses, her character drifts off in an unexpected direction, becoming awkwardly goofy and kind of a fuckup, which makes her much more likeable than being the cool girl does.  Now, again, I'm not saying that likeability is the be-all and end-all in character creation.  The reason I haven't written a Calendar article in two months is that I've been tackling a set of studio notes that demanded that a particular character be likeable right from page one — one who was a pretty nasty piece of work in the source material, and whose redemption was kind of the whole point of the original story.  I did my best, but I thought it was a mistake.  So why am I echoing the studio where Jeff Winger is concerned?  After all, there have been plenty of sitcoms who did well with unlikeable characters — Seinfeld became a landmark of '90s culture by detailing the adventures of a bunch of self-absorbed cretins.  But Seinfeld's motto was "no hugging, no learning."  If you want the hugging, as the creators of Community really, really seem to, then it might be best to have a smaller percentage of characters who belong in the Seinfeld jail cell.

reply via
comment on
return to the
Calendar page