Features Television

Looking Back at COMMUNITY, Ten Years Later

Chi-tsung revisits Community 10 years after its premiere.

Ten years ago, Dan Harmon created Community (with the help of Chris McKenna and other writers), a show about a group of friends attending Greendale Community College. As a late-blooming fan of the show (I’d only started watching Community when season 5 was airing), I want to use this occasion to celebrate one of the best comedy series of all time with all the ardent supporters who have weathered the storms along the underappreciated show (and are probably still monitoring social media feeds for news of the promised TV movie now). Hopefully, with this article, I can pick up a new fan or two for the series. So fear not, readers—there will only be the mildest spoilers below.

It all started with a disgraced lawyer, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), trying to woo a fellow Spanish class student Britta (Gillian Jacobs) with his non-existent Spanish skills. With the lies he told, he accidentally started a study group made up of diverse misfits: Annie (Alison Brie), a model student who has just came back from rehab, Troy (Donald Glover), a star quarterback that no longer plays football, Abed (Danny Pudi), an aspiring filmmaker who has trouble connecting with people, Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), a devout Christian and divorced housewife, and finally, Pierce (Chevy Chase), an entrepreneur that inherited everything. What follows is a touching tale filled with laughter and surprising emotional depth, and it becomes so high concept it that make casual viewers who randomly switch to the channel goes: “Wait, this is a show about a community college?”

Community_TV_show.jpg
The study group, and Chang (Ken Jeong) – source: Sony Pictures Television

Community forever holds a special place in my heart. I find myself returning to the campus of Greendale again and again. What makes it special? It’s a unique combination of elements that sets Community apart from most sitcoms that made me fell in love. One thing immediately noticeable going in the show is the absence of laugh tracks. True, not using a laugh track is not in itself an achievement; there are plenty of other comedy shows that don’t make use of it, but the lack of a “designated laugh zone” is just one of the signs of Community’s confidence in the viewers’ ability to appreciate its humor. The show is not afraid to dip into complex or unconventional jokes (this is one of my favorites), and the sharp wit is often delivered with great flow, which not only infuses the show with a kinetic energy that is rare in western mainstream comedies, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nature also means Community is very re-watchable—picking up the details you missed the first time around is part of the fun, and the show remains absolutely hilarious every time.

Community is very much a conduit for and Dan Harmon’s love for pop culture. When Harmon is writing the show, it feels like he is writing his last (and it probably did feel that way during later seasons). What I mean by that, is Harmon poured so much of his passion for pop culture into the making of Community, that he couldn’t possibly be saving it for later. That genuine appreciation is also infectious, despite Harmon’s cynical worldview, which manifests in the show through his stand-in character, Jeff Winger— it makes Community’s charm irresistible.

community.jpeg
“Remedial Chaos Theory” – an unparalleled triumph of character study and non-linear storytelling – source: Sony Pictures Television

Speaking of charm, you can’t avoid mentioning the amazing characters and the cast portraying them! Annie and Troy are naive freshmen, but they each command a different domain of cuteness. Troy and Abed, the pair of nerds, have one of the most adorkable friendships ever depicted on TV, but as the unspoken center of the group, Abed offers incredible insights beyond his age. Pierce is out of touch and insensitive, but may sometimes offer sage counsel by accident. Shirley is a pie-baking guilt machine with fire beneath her sweet smiles. Britta, the needlessly defiant, is a constant source of laughter and drive that could match Annie’s go-getter spirit. And finally, Jeff Winger, the man who weaponized charm (and arguably as big a nerd as Abed), but with a big heart under his vanity. He always has a killer speech to save the day. While the whole cast excels at comedic timing, the three youngest actors—Brie, Pudi, and Glover—have the greatest physical performance that made some of the best non-verbal jokes on TV possible. Among them, Donald Glover is most commendable for his dedication to his craft—he always put in 110% effort, and frankly, I don’t remember a time he doesn’t nail the performance.

One defining trait of Community that made its fans fell in love with the show is its exploration of genre filmmaking, resulting in many episodes that take after iconic movies and TV shows. Off the top of my mind, there’s a mafia movie episode, a zombie outbreak, a buddy cop drama, a western, documentary, to name a few (and I’m barely scratching the surface here). And sometimes, Community shows its appreciation of different media by turning into other formats! In the series, there’s a claymation episode, a muppet one, 8-bit graphics like ye olde video games, and a G.I. Joe cartoon. The show goes places, and every trip is a delightful surprise.

MW_Study_group_united.png
Community S01E23 – “Modern Warfare”- source: Sony Pictures Television

The show doesn’t just pay homage to these influential works of the past, either. Community riffs on tropes and deconstructs formulas. These references aren’t treated as a cheap ploy to garner affection through familiarity à la Ready Player One novel. On the contrary, the show is endlessly creative in re-purposing existing tropes into vehicles for the story Community tells. Take the mafia family episode for example; when Abed proclaimed in Scorsese-style narration: “From then on, we stopped being a family, and became a family, in italics.”, it wasn’t just a framing device to recreate Goodfellas on campus ground. The show uses the uneasy relationships built upon hierarchy and materialism that are usually found in mafia movies to illustrate the power imbalance that would wreck friendships. Reenacting The Godfather’s iconic ending is merely the cherry on top.

There are some movies and shows that are “self-aware”, but none does it better than Community. If Jeff is an avatar of Dan Harmon’s ego and cynicism, then Abed is the representation of his enthusiasm in pop culture. The fledgling filmmaker on the spectrum connects with people through pop culture, and we the audience view the story through his lens (each school year is referred to as a “season”). Community maintains a fine balance of self-awareness that never veers into the realm of obnoxiousness. The meta-narrative always stops short of a full fourth-wall-break, and so even the show’s meta-commentary on its meta-ness never feels self-indulgent—each episode of Community is a pleasant conversation between the writers, the actors and the audience.  

One of the best things about Community is the tiny winks that acknowledges the changes the show goes through, and the show did go through a lot. While the series has been critically acclaimed during its airing, its TV ratings haven’t always enjoyed the same success. The history of Community is rocky, to say the least, and here are some possible explanations.

Community 2001.png
2001 – Source: Sony Pictures Television

I love the quick wit of Community, but I also recognize that the show’s greatest attributes may also be what’s keeping the show inaccessible to the mass populace. While the references in Community never get in the way of the story (you can still understand the plot without knowing any of them), it does require a certain level of cultural and media literacy to fully appreciate its conceptual humor. On the other hand, the post-modern spirit of Community flies in the face of conventions. Which probably explains why a geeky show such as The Big Bang Theory is vastly more popular despite classic movies and TV shows nerds place higher on the social hierarchy than comic books and video game nerds in the eyes of the public. People just like traditional sitcoms with laugh tracks.

Community builds and evolves. The characters change throughout the series. Most notably in season 1, where the show was still finding its footings—Troy quickly turned from a stereotypical jock to a naive goof, and Britta slowly devolved from cool gal into the laughing stock of the study group over time. Building upon past developments is the key to fulfilling emotional moments, but the self-referential nature of the humor (which I relish) involving the characters’ relationships and the show’s status is not exactly friendly to casual viewers, and the increasingly fantastical scenarios definitely didn’t help. 

CFS_Pulp_Fiction.png
Pulp Fiction themed party – source: Sony Pictures Television

Dan Harmon would then try to avoid serialization in Rick and Morty, an animated show he co-created with Justin Roiland, but that too didn’t last; with each release of the later seasons, it too grew more dependent on the previous ones. In fact, Roiland and Harmon urged the fans to catch up on the old episodes before watching the upcoming season.

During Community’s third school year, it was moved mid-season and went into hiatus. Anyone that follows television knows that’s a bad sign. Fans quickly took to social media to get the show back on the air, and eventually, it was. What was happening behind the scenes? Words around the street say that show creator Dan Harmon didn’t get along with Chevy Chase, who was the biggest name of Community at that time. Chevy Chase always had a reputation of being rude on set and being a bit of a diva. The feud seemed to have stemmed from his dissatisfaction with the role of Pierce Hawthorne, the insensitive and flatulent senior. The offensive behaviors of the character mirror the performer, and Pierce being relegated to the villain and punching bag of the group more and more often got on Chase’s nerve, and his discontent further fueled his general unprofessionalism. 

community pierce
“Windmill” – source: Sony Pictures Television

Dan Harmon, the other end of this feud, is a talented but arrogant creative. He would insist to rewrite all Community scripts after writers finished them. Harmon’s perfectionist attitude and unfiltered speech led him to clash with Chase and NBC/Sony executives, but it was his poor work ethic—alcoholism and procrastination—that put the most strain on production. By the end of season 3, Dan Harmon was fired from the show by NBC. 

I’ve seen many fans say the subsequent season 4 is bad, and in my opinion, that’s an unfair judgment encouraged by Harmon fanboyism. True, the fourth season doubled down on the self-reference while lacking the comedic edge of the previous seasons, which made the venture seem a tad pandering. The shortfalls are just more visible under the halved season length. And here’s the thing: even the weakest of Community is still top tier TV comedy. Sure, season 4 doesn’t measure up to the first three in consistency, but hey, neither do the Harmon-helmed later seasons.  

Yes, Dan Harmon was invited back to the show. Community, and more specifically, Dan Harmon, cultivated die-hard supporters, including male lead Joel McHale. It seems like the combination of vocal support on and off the set and the still dropping ratings of season 4 that made the executives bring Harmon back on board. But that didn’t last long, as Community was canceled (for real this time) by NBC. All hope seemed lost until Yahoo picked up the show on the expiration day of the cast’s contract for its (now shut down) streaming service, Yahoo Screens. At last, Community is one step closer to #SixSeasonsAndAMovie, the fans’ rallying call whenever the show is in peril—a catchphrase that caught on from Abed’s throwaway line.

community social network poster
The Social Network parody posters

Eventually, Dan Harmon made his peace with Chevy Chase, but the senior star is done with Community. Chevy Chase’s absence can already felt during Season 4, and when he left, there is only a cameo that serves as his unceremonious farewell at the beginning of Season 5. The departure of Donald Glover in the middle of Season 5 was the biggest blow to the show—Troy and Abed morning show is no more. 

Yvette Nicole Brown would become the third star to leave the show in season 6 to take care of her ailing father. While Troy and Shirley are irreplaceable, the new additions to the study room table do hold their own. Breaking Bad star John Hickey joined in as the rugged criminology teacher, Professor Hickey, and series (used to be) regular John Oliver made a return as well. Keith David and Page Brewster joined in the final season. All of them brought unique personalities to the table and opened up the study group for new dynamics.

When I rewatch Community, I almost always skip the series finale. It’s not because the episode is terrible, it’s actually quite the opposite and it’s a terrific finale the series deserves. The ending felt so definitive that I don’t feel like saying goodbye yet. I want to rewind time and restart from the pilot. But the party doesn’t last forever, at some point we all have to move on to new adventures, and some certainly did. Alison Brie and Gillian Jacobs each went on to star in a Netflix series, and Donald Glover stuffed several movie roles under his belt while he propelled his rap alter-ego Childish Gambino into superstar status. The Russos Brothers, who have directed and produced several best episodes of the series, are now best known for blockbusters such as the Captain America and Avengers series.

community-season-6-finale-recap
Saying goodbye – Source: Sony Pictures Television

Six seasons, and no movie. Realistically speaking, if none of the streaming platforms churning out TV movies of questionable quality have bought the rights to Community so far, the odds of the movie happening when the writers and stars are now deeply involved in their other respective projects are slim. Not long ago, a Russo brothers’ tweet rekindled the fans’ hopes, but alas, it was merely a teaser for the duo’s ComicCon panel. A false alarm, nothing more. Maybe we’ll never get the movie, and I’m not upset about it, because every time I see the hashtag pop up on the internet, it reminds me of the like-minded fans out there and of the incredible journey we’ve experienced together, and that will be enough. 

#SixSeasonsAndAMovie 

Advertisements

2 comments on “Looking Back at COMMUNITY, Ten Years Later

  1. Wonderful write-up on one of my favorite shows of all time. You’re right about taking on genre and formats. There’s a need for cultural literacy but Community made it so worth it. Also, the characters created a wonderful baseline. It starts with their relationships and goes from there. So many great episodes. Even to use a classic actor like Richard Erdman was a wonderful cultural reference.

    Like

    • Chi-Tsung Chang

      Thank you for your kind words! There are so many layers to the show, I think I’ll start my fifth rewatch later this year.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: