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“It’s TV; it’s comfort. It’s a friend you’ve known so well, and for so long you just let it be with you, and it needs to be okay for it to have a bad day or phone in a day, and it needs to be okay for it to get on a boat with Levar Burton and never come back. Because eventually, it all will.” – Abed Nadir.
The sitcom is the pizza of TV. It’s comforting and delicious and too much of it is probably bad for you but it’s always there when you need it. No matter where you are or what time it is in the world you can turn on a TV and bask in the warm glow of Friends or How I Met Your Mother or even (shudder) Two and a Half Men. They’re not prestige dramas or highly produced medieval fantasies. They’re comedies designed to comfort the heart more than the mind. Dan Harmon’s Community comforted both in equal measure.
To describe Community as popular or influential in terms of traditional TV would be wrong. It had consistently low ratings and its influence extended about as far as it’s fanfiction community and academics that studied the semiotics of cinema. You’re more likely to read about Community in an academic journal then you are on a pop-culture site these days. It was a show designed for streaming long before streaming was king. Despite all this Community remains the king of the sitcom. It never talked down to its audience and all the while it maintained a wit and warmth that never felt cloying or saccharine.
Former lawyer lothario Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has been barred from practicing law. In order to regain his high-flying life he enrols in Greendale Community College to get a real law degree. While trying to coast and get laid he forms a Spanish study group. It’s initial members include bumbling activist Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), pop-culture savant/shaman Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), immature football player Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), millionaire moist-towelette tycoon Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), proud but dangerous divorcee Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown) and recovering addict and obsessive over-achiever Annie Edison (Alison Brie). From there various hijinks, capers and farces sprawl across six seasons.
It’s hard to say how much Community meant to me. It was there for me throughout secondary school and well into my final year of college. I’d enjoyed Fraiser and Friends. I suffered through Two and a Half Men. I had worshipped The Simpsons. But Community was something else altogether. It didn’t seem bound by the laws of reality or logic. Here was a sitcom where paintball wars closed out four of the six seasons. It’s episode ‘App Development and Condiments’ did Black Mirror before Black Mirror had been written. Here was a show that had John Goodman as an incredibly self-conscious, all-powerful villain in its third season. Most importantly here was a sitcom that guided me through the dizzying highs and crushing lows that was the school and college experience.
TV is a lot of work done by a lot of different people. It’s why only in the last decade have we entered into this prestige, auteur driven period of TV. Mathew Weiner, David Simon and Damon Lindelof are all names synonymous with high quality shows that have aired in the last decade. If we can reduce the likes of The Wire or Mad Men to one man then we can easily reduce Community to Dan Harmon. Harmon, essentially the troll of modern TV, had a fool proof method of storytelling known as ‘the Story Circle’. Essentially a more broken down version of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ – think Luke Skywalker – the Story Circle begins with the hero leaving their comfort zone and ends with them returning to that zone having changed or learned something.
Of course for much of Community’s runtime it’s characters were deeply, deeply flawed people. Jeff was a vain commitment-phobe. Britta, Shirley and Annie held everyone to their own standards of activism, morality and intelligence. Abed was incapable of accepting change. Troy was a childish oaf. Pierce was, well, what wasn’t wrong with Pierce?
Over the course of six seasons we watched these people grow and become somewhat decent people. OK yeah they did nearly set a turtle on fire. And they did nearly bully a man into suicide. And yeah they might have nearly torn each other apart multiple times by exposing their darkest secrets. But all this is what sets Community apart.
Sitcoms are art in their own way and art is supposed to challenge us. It’s supposed to see how far we’re willing to go with these characters we love. Community had plenty of levity and love to give but to get there we often had to see these characters hurt each other. We had to watch characters like Troy or Pierce or Shirley leave. We had to be open to new characters like the equally hilarious tech wizard Elroy Patashnik (Keith David) and emotionally vapid admin Goddess Frankie Dart (Paget Brewster). We had to be open to forgiving the insane, dictatorial Ben Chang (Ken Jeong) and accept that Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash) would only get weirder.
Community gave a lot of its laughs freely. Others, like the ‘Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking’ episode after Pierce’s overdose in season two, we had to work for. One thing Dan Harmon never gave freely was romance. Community must be the only sitcom without a distinct focus on romance. Sure there’s Jeff and Britta’s on-off affair. Jeff and Annie’s long looks, stolen glances and heated kisses. And of course who could forget Tumblr’s favourite ambiguously gay duo Troy and Abed?
Romance formed some of Community’s key subplots but it never became the be-all and end-all of the show as happened with other sitcoms. Instead Harmon and his writers forced the characters through insane gauntlets and eventually pushed them towards saving the school they had come to call home. In Jeff’s immortal words: “Greendale may be a toilet, but it’s our toilet!”
Community’s lack of romance may have disappointed some fans but once you give in to that demand there are fewer places left to go. Places like ‘Paradigms of Human Memory’, a clip show episode that probably cost more than any other clip show episode ever. Places like the GI Joe-inspired animation episode that casts Britta as a saw-blade wielding Joe called Buzzkill. Places like ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ in which six different timelines – including the infamous goateed Darkest Timeline – are created by the toss of a dice. By not indulging in romance Community allowed itself breathing room and that breathing room, ten years after its airing and four years after its cancellation, gave Community life.
It’s hard to pick a favourite Community episode but mine might be ‘Paradigms of Human Memory’. At a time when the budget was running out Dan Harmon decided to make an expensive version of the usually cheap clip show episode. Made up of all new footage rather than a best-of collection it remains one of the funniest episodes of television ever made. ‘Paradigms of Human Memory’ features memories of cartel kidnappings, civil war ghosts and a phrase that would become the show’s rallying cry: “Six seasons and a movie!”
We got the six seasons after a great deal of struggle and a little protesting online and outside NBC’s offices. Although Community lost Dan Harmon in season four after a spat with Chevy Chase it would regain him in season five only to be cancelled after that. Yahoo Screen came to the rescue and effectively killed itself by acquiring, as its first big buy, an obscure show for its sixth season. We’re still waiting on the movie. The cast want it, Dan Harmon wants it and the fans definitely want it. It’s only a matter of time. Until then I’ll have the show’s wistful theme song – ‘At Least It Was Here’ by The 88 – stuck in my head. At least it was here… Now if only it could be again.