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How Community is Quietly Revolutionizing the Television Sitcom

Arts & Culture | March 9, 2012
By Kumar Ramanathan

 

On March 15, nerds across the country and the world will breathe a collective sigh of relief. One of cult television’s favorite shows, Community, will return to the air after an indeterminate hiatus announced last fall. A show that has been critically lauded for its creativity and weirdness, Community has gained a strong cult following over its past two-and-a-half seasons.

However, like most cult shows, its popularity has not translated into great ratings, despite its prestigious Thursday 8 pm timeslot. The third season saw viewership slip even further as it went up against CBS’s powerhouse The Big Bang Theory, prompting NBC’s decision to put it on hiatus.

For the uninitiated, Community, at its barest, is a sitcom about a group of students making their way through community college. Why they have ended up at a lumbering Ohio community college of all places is only briefly explored. The show is driven by the friendships and tensions of this makeshift group of the weird and the weirder. Over its three years on the air, the show has pushed the boundaries of the sitcom genre, producing episodes ranging from action movie homages (with over 100 specific references to boot) to one based entirely on a game of Dungeons & Dragons.

When NBC announced in November 2011 that Community would be off its lineup in January, the reaction of its fanbase was formidable. Within the bubble of nerd-friendly online news sites, it seemed as if the very core of network television had been shattered. A “Save Community” campaign emerged overnight, featuring everything from a high-profile CollegeHumor video series to flash mobs outside NBC headquarters in New York. And this was all in response to an indeterminate hiatus; the signs were ominous, but there had been no word of cancellation.

This kind of campaign is nothing new to the lives of cult shows. From the innovative protests of Star Trek fans in the late 1960s, which brought the show back for a third season, to the strength of fan interest in Firefly, encouraging its creator to make a wrap-up movie after cancellation, fanbases of cult shows have never sat quietly as their shows were cancelled.

And yet, it is rare to see this level of fan devotion to a sitcom of Community’s nature. With the notable exception of Arrested Development, such cult responses are usually reserved for shows with the characteristic genre shadings of period dramas or sci-fi, which keep them from mainstream success.

What is it about Community that inspires such cult devotion? A primetime sitcom that has failed to gain traction in the mainstream, it nonetheless lies close to the hearts of many in the nerdier audience (google “community fansite” and you will immediately see what I mean). At its heart is a defiant revolutionary spirit that, despite its mundane premise, makes it one of the most radical and innovative shows currently on television.

The show begins with hotshot lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) as the ostensible protagonist, who has to go back to community college to replace his faked qualifications. Within the first two episodes, however, the show transforms into an ensemble cast of outcasts—a preppy girl with lost ambitions (Alison Brie), a bitter but caring middle-aged divorcee (Yvette Brown), a self-important former jock (Donald Glover) a pop-culture obsessed nerd (Danny Pudi), a self-righteous twenty something (Gillian Jacobs) and Chevy Chase as an oafish geriatric.

The characters are immediately definable television tropes, but they change radically throughout their time with each other (and not always in good ways). As is the mark of any great television show, the characters become friends over time—not just with each other but with the audience as well. Great characters alone do not make a masterpiece, however. Community’s genius lies in how it uses those characters.
In discussing the nature of good film criticism, Roger Ebert famously said that “a film is not what it is about, but about how it is about it.” To understand the revolutionary nature of Community, one has to look beyond what the show is and towards how it is made that way.

A profile of Community’s creator Dan Harmon in Wired delved into his process of writing the show. Harmon uses a circle with eight segments to track the development of each arc within an episode—an alluringly simple system that gives symmetry to the show’s backbone. It would be easy to misconstrue this process as lazy, formulaic screenwriting, but Harmon’s creativity defies any such temptation by using this formula in a radical way.

His rigorous structure is reminiscent of Joseph Campell’s literary theory of the Hero’s Journey, which asserts that the mythologies of the world could be distilled into a “monomyth,” a cycle that follows a hero’s call to journey and the subsequent adventure, resulting in his enlightened return to familiar society.

It is no mistake that Harmon’s style mirrors the tropes of mythological storytelling. Community’s formula is the greatest of them all—the monomyth, the ultimate story of humanity. In his mundane setting, Harmon uses his dynamic characters to challenge what television can do. He brings them closer to the maturity we expect from masterpieces of literature and film, manipulating the tools of storytelling to explore what it means to be human.

For this revolution to work, it is important that Community recognizes itself as a sitcom. Harmon’s circle is an explicit acceptance of that; any episode of Frasier or Modern Family could be molded to fit into that circle. At the heart of the show’s devoted following is still the fact that it is a good sitcom with sharp wit and funny jokes. But where Community becomes revolutionary is in how it transcends that genre.

By the halfway point of the first season, the show had entrenched itself in a level of pop culture referencing that would make Quentin Tarantino jealous. By the second season, it had become standard practice for episodes to jump across genres, featuring anything from an action movie-esque episode (centering around a campus-wide paintball tournament) to a Goodfellas-type crime thriller episode (based on a mafia that controlled the dining hall supply of chicken fingers). Its episodes are always comedic, but the show has no fear of jumping between styles and genres to serve its central function. Whatever the circle demands, Community will give.

In defying the constraints of genre, Community opens itself up to being a member of TV’s rarest breed: the philosophical sitcom. With the aura of the monomyth and the wide potential that genre-hopping allows, the show innovatively explores a handful of tough central concepts—friendship, ego, love, tolerance, maturity, and self-identity—in fascinating ways. It allows the characters to tire of each other and depend on each other, giving life to television in a way rarely seen.

In the most mundane of places, Community has been taking television in bold new directions by defying the artificial restrictions that most shows have found themselves bound by. Why not do a stop-motion musical episode? Why not have alternate timelines? This is a show that dares to serve its story in the best way possible and constantly defies expectations along the way. As comparisons go, the most apt are metafiction-infused films such as Being John Malkovich or earlier radical shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Community challenges what television means, transforming it into a new form of greatness. The show’s complexity and weirdness can be off-putting, as the ratings have shown, but few shows on-air are tapping into the potential of television like Community. I, for one, will welcome it back on March 15 like an old friend—a mentor who drops by for half an hour every week for a few laughs, powerful perspective, and some sage advice. For fans of the show, I need make no appeal. And if this is all new to you, give it a go, and help us save television’s quiet revolution.