Community

While acknowledging that it’s impossible to argue someone into loving something they hate, and vice versa, it’s still often enjoyable to attempt the argument. When we talk to people whose opinions directly contradict ours, we’re forced to defend our tastes, define our opinions, and analyze why we react the way we do. In Why Don’t You Like This?, two of our staffers will attempt to discover whether people with opposing opinions can get beyond “No, you’re wrong!” and have a civil, constructive, and possibly even convincing discussion about their points of contention. Because no matter what talk radio says, there’s still a middle ground between “We agree utterly” and “I’m right, and you’re stupid and evil.”

Steven: Hey Todd, as I’m sure you know, Community returns to NBC’s Thursday-night schedule tonight. While the show’s ratings suggest that this is a minor matter in the larger culture, it’s big news in our neck of the woods. And yet while so many people around me are ecstatic, I can’t help but respond with the same ambivalence I’ve long felt toward the show.

On the off chance that anybody is actually still reading this (rather than skimming the headline and skipping ahead to the comments section), let me state a few things for the record: There’s a lot to admire about Community. It’s one of the most distinctive, inventive shows on network television. The level of passion it has inspired in its fan base is incredible, and should be the envy of all TV programs, even those with far more viewers. On a personal note, I was even the first A.V. Clubber to interview the show’s creator and executive producer, Dan Harmon, way back when Community debuted in 2009. 

So I’ve watched Community pretty much since the beginning. And yet my feelings about it remain as complicated (and conflicted) as ever. On one hand, Community at its best makes me laugh as much as any show on television, and wows me with the blinding intelligence it applies to deconstructing genres, narrative forms, and the very essence of what sitcoms are supposed to be. On the other hand, there’s something somewhat… troubling about Community

This is a show that plays, directly and openly, to the vanity of people like you and me. You have to be extremely well-versed in pop culture, Internet memes, and, increasingly, the Community universe itself in order to “get” it, validating what’s otherwise a lot of useless knowledge. I don’t have a problem with TV that caters to media-savvy viewers or rewards loyal watchers with in-jokes. But Community, in my view at least, is smart in a pretty narrow, blinkered way. It’s genius when it comes to pointing out the conventions of movies and TV shows, and pretty dumb about everything else. Which is why, for as much as I appreciate Community’s frequently dazzling formalism, I’m just as turned off by how emotionally malnourished it is. 

Take maybe the most celebrated Community episode ever, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which famously shows how the same gathering among the show’s principles unfolds differently in seven different timelines. Harmon’s habit of meticulously mapping out episodes via a series of embryonic circles paid obvious dividends here: “Remedial Chaos Theory” is a unique, undeniably well-conceived 22-or-so minutes of television. But to what end? So we could see, once again, that Jeff Winger is a jerk whose toxic presence is poisoning his supposed friends? Or that Harmon and his writing staff, once again, have proved themselves to be very clever?

This gets to the heart of what bugs about this show: Is Community about its characters, or its brilliant (yet empty) self-reflexive mastery of whatever storytelling form it touches? If it’s the latter, and I suspect it is, am I really getting anything meaningful out of watching Community? Or is it just patting me on the back for recognizing the stealthily employed references and skewered conventions?

I nodded in agreement while reading Larry Fitzmaurice’s recent piece in GQ which called out Community, for all its stylistic ambition, as being a highly formulaic show, right down to the “clear-hearts-full-assholes speech” from Jeff that frequently comes at the end of the episode, unearthing the heart that’s supposedly buried amid the wacky artifice of the previous 20 minutes. Yes, it’s true that no other sitcom would devote entire episodes to expertly parodying ’80s action movies or My Dinner With Andre. But in the realm of Community, this is part of the safe, predictable, and hermetically sealed world that the show has created. Clearly this is what people love about the show—that it has created its own universe—but for me, Community is an airless terrain where nothing is allowed to grow, deepen, or evolve. Even really good episodes have the emotional payoff of a Funny Or Die sketch.

As Fitzmaurice writes, “watching these characters step on the same rake over and over again has devolved into pure frustration.” And it makes me wonder why I (or anybody not already enamored with the show) should care. Todd, I know you’re a big fan of Community, and I’m sure you’re psyched about its return. But I suspect that the comeback won’t be long-lived. Do you think Community has any hope of reaching a wider audience? And am I wrong about any of this stuff? 

Todd: It’s fascinating to me that we’re having this discussion, Steven, since it was one of your pieces that helped me key in to just what I like about the show so much. When you wrote about how LCD Soundsystem functioned as both a musical act and a music critic, similar to how Quentin Tarantino is both director and film critic, something about Dan Harmon’s work snapped into place for me. There’s an alternate universe where he has my job, and he’s killing it. That said, I’m glad we live in this one, where we get to see this show.

The problem always is as you succinctly described above: Do we buy that the show really wants us to invest in these characters and their journeys? Or do we think it’s just there to salute us for being clever enough to get its jokes? The answer, as it always is in things like this, is probably both. The show wants us to be enthralled by how clever it is and moved by how thoroughly it understands its characters. It’s that old showman thing, where the “Ta da!” is accompanied by an earnest exhortation about whether you really cared about the rabbit that got pulled out of the hat.

It’s interesting to me that you brought up the GQ piece, because it struck me as one of the more fundamentally wrong-headed things I’ve read about the show since it debuted. Don’t get me wrong. I’m fine with criticism of the show, which flies its cult flag high and is never going to be for everyone. Our own Ryan McGee wrote a pretty strong, not-so-pleased appraisal of the show last spring, and Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan wrote some well-considered criticisms of the show as well, before inevitably being converted by “Remedial Chaos Theory.” 

But Fitzmaurice seems as if he’s watching an entirely different program than I am, like that article that argued that Parks And Recreation had gotten worse since its first season. Worst of all is a paragraph where it almost seems as if the guy’s greatest problem with the series is its fandom (hey, I’ve been there, man), in which he seems to assert that Community fans don’t care about the show or its characters so much as they care about the ability to make Tumblrs and animated GIFs. And maybe that’s true for some portion of the fandom, but the portion I’m aware of (the sizable portion that hangs out here) posts lengthy essays every week about how the characters are growing and evolving, dissects the interplay between them, and adds to the sizable amount of information we already know about each of the seven study-group members with the new little bits dropped in each episode. Fitzmaurice claims these people haven’t realized the show is emotionally hollow, while they’d claim he hasn’t realized the show is emotionally rich. 

The central problem with Community for a lot of people is always going to be that it’s a lot of work for the show to be both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. You have to travel a lot further to find these characters at all loveable (or, better, empathetic) than you do with a show like Parks And Rec. It’s a series that purposefully holds its audience at a bit of a distance, and dares said audience to find it off-putting. It’s totally legitimate to find it ridiculous to put in that much work for something that is, fundamentally, rather silly. There are weeks I’d agree with that criticism, actually, and there’s nothing wrong with being annoyed by the show’s insistence you recognize how clever it is. It’s a show almost built for people to review it week to week, but not everybody wants to put in that level of work. This ensures it will remain low-rated, but maintain such a hold over its cult that it’ll probably get at least another renewal. It’s easy to monetize a niche. (Also, what’s up with Fitzmaurice’s apparent gladness that the show has low ratings? Ugh. That article is so smug and awful!)

But just because it’s a lot of work to get down to the level where this show is emotionally satisfying doesn’t mean you can categorically claim it’s an empty show, only interested in satisfying its own masturbatory need to appear super-awesome. Any show that can produce episodes as genuinely moving as “Mixology Certification,” “Critical Film Studies,” or, yes, “Remedial Chaos Theory” shouldn’t need to defend itself against claims of being emotionally shallow, no matter how much it occasionally strains to satisfy on an emotional level.

All of which brings me back to where we started, with the notion of Harmon as both TV writer and TV critic. Fitzmaurice’s grand closing argument against Community is that the show is formulaic because it follows that eight-point formula. He acts as if this is a proof-positive case against the show, but it’s a ridiculous notion to make, because all TV is formulaic. Literally any television show in the history of the medium is built on two sturdy thematic and structural templates that get used over and over and over and over, until they either break or are hardened into something fundamentally true. Harmon is a student of the medium. He knows this. He uses Community’s own formula to be critical both of the medium the show exists in, and of the show itself. Again, that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean the people who really like that tea are wrong.

I’m sorry. You picked an article I really hated, and now I’ve gotten sidetracked. It seems to me that a lot of what’s happening here is a disconnect between how we watch TV comedy and TV drama. It takes a lot for the TV-savvy out there to complain about a drama making them work too hard, while we often ask comedies to present it all to us right there on a silver platter. First of all: Do you think I’m right about this (especially in regards to Community)? Second of all: Why is that? I’ve always loved having lots of homework, so, clearly, I’m not going to understand this mentality.

Steven: You’ve seized upon the weakness of that GQ story: It’s never a good idea to criticize something through its audience. No matter my problems with Community, I can’t deny the genuine passion fans have for it. You’re right: Those who love Community do think it has emotional resonance, and they care deeply about the characters. The question is: Why does such a relatively small group of viewers feel this way? 

Before I answer that, let me quickly address your questions. You raise an interesting point about how our expectations for TV dramas and comedies differ. But I don’t think Community does poorly in the ratings because it requires “lots of homework.” Mad Men makes viewers work harder than any show on television, but it’s a different (and I’d argue more rewarding) kind of work than what’s asked for from Community. As Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner recently told the New York Times, he wants viewers to think of his characters as having lives outside of what they see on the show. When Mad Men returns later this month, it’s likely that the experiences Don Draper had off-screen will play a part in the new season’s narrative. That’s where the work comes in: Weiner expects us to accept this, and have the patience to let these things gradually come out, even if we don’t always know what’s going on. 

More than that, Mad Men takes place in a larger world; it incorporates historical events from the ’60s, and illustrates the social and political changes of the era via the interplay of the characters. You don’t need to be aware of that context to appreciate Mad Men, but it helps. As much as we’re focused on Don, we never lose sight of what’s happening on the margins of the narrative—even when it’s not spelled out—and how what we’re seeing provides insight into both the period and the overall nature of interpersonal relationships between men and women that’s still relatable today. In other words, Mad Men has a richness that elevates it above the standard TV drama. Community also rewards a deeper perspective and invites—some might say implores—viewers to think about it once it’s over. But the larger world of Community is constructed of Netflix queues, Tumblr accounts, and—most distressingly—Internet comments from the show’s fans. This is why Community, to me, feels empty: It takes place in a vast but ultimately ephemeral sphere that seems more and more closed off to outsiders. 

I said earlier that criticizing Community for its loyal cult following is wrong-headed, but it’s not wrong to point out that Harmon’s admitted willingness to play to hardcore fans hurts the show. When Community premiered, it appeared to be following the Scrubs model, playfully messing with the sitcom format while more or less telling stories that were satisfying in a traditional sitcom way, with irreverent but recognizably archetypal characters. (Remember when Troy was a jock?) It was quirky, but for the most part still user-friendly for new viewers dropping in. As Community’s ambitions have grown—again, in ways that I find admirable at times—it’s become a lot less welcoming for “non-groupers.” I’m not saying that I wish Community were more like Scrubs, a show I don’t really like. My point is this: As the show has blown out its ambitions, its scope has actually grown narrower and narrower. 

A running theme in Community is how dysfunctional the central study-group dynamic is. The members of the gang claim to love each other, but underneath the surface is a destructive co-dependence that’s crippling their personal growth. I’d argue that the audience is the invisible eighth member of this group; the love viewers have for “their” show is real and deep, but is that love really good for Community, or has it kept it mired in the minutia of obsessions that are cloistered off from the rest of us? The clubbiness of Community’s backers is fine when confined to the Internet, but it’s become oppressive as it’s infected the show itself. Community once invited one of its most vocal backers, TV critic Alan Sepinwall, to do a cameo; can the proprietors of fuckyeahcommunity.tumblr.com be far behind?

I’m happy that fans have new episodes of Community to love. In spite of my misgivings, I appreciate that a show as idiosyncratic as Community can exist on American network television. Speaking of which—can fans give NBC some props on that one? The point has been made often, but it bears repeating: It’s sort of a miracle that Community has lasted this long. And I think NBC has actually done right by Community as far as giving it ample opportunities to find an audience. It’s not like the network put it on at 9 p.m. Saturday night; Community is part of NBC’s most prestigious night of primetime programming going back 25 years. As far as I can tell, the network hasn’t pressured Harmon to make Community more accessible or sitcom-y; NBC appears to have rightly recognized that doing so would be a disaster, because it would kill the only audience the show has. But make no mistake: Community is low-rated because of how the show is wired, not the failings of NBC or the public.

Since you and I are paid to think way too hard about things that boil down to a matter of personal taste, I pose this question: Can Community truly be a capital-G great TV show—and I get the feeling that you believe it is—when it appeals to such a specific audience? I’m not just talking about its low ratings; Parks And Recreation doesn’t have lots of viewers, but that seems flukier than it is for Community, which is clearly geared to a very particular sensibility. TV, unlike music or even movies, is a mass medium, and for the most part, the greatest shows ever connected with large groups of people. We have no way of knowing this for sure, of course, but my feeling is that Community will end up being remembered as a curious footnote rather than a major show. What do you think?

Todd: Oh. Well, gee. If we’re going to compare Community to Mad Men, then, yes, I think Mad Men is better than Community. You can make a very good argument that’s an all-time classic in the making! But it also suffers from almost every single one of the “flaws” you ascribe to Community. It’s a coolly closed-off show that has a tendency to puzzle and even antagonize those who don’t reside within its audience. It’s a show that requires a certain degree of familiarity with its universe and characters, and it’s a show that takes a while to weave its spell properly, often causing the less patient to give it the boot. And do you really find it that hard to imagine what might be up with the Community folks when they’re not on screen? I’ll agree Mad Men does more with creating a world that exists off-screen and letting us fill in the details of that world than Community does, but it also does that more than any other show on television.

In some ways, it feels like you’re pining for a kind of show that simply doesn’t exist anymore: the really great, mass-market hit. The last one might have been Everybody Loves Raymond, and we live in a world where a show like, say, The Office can be considered a “hit,” even though it’s watched by less than 2 percent of the American population. Outside of The Sopranos, the show that kicked our current Golden Age of Television off, and Lost, the shows that make up the Golden Age are low-rated, niche hits, shows that have to live and die by attracting a fervent, cult audience that sticks around week after week. (Even The Good Wife draws a much smaller audience than most of the other shows on its network.) The Wire was low-rated enough to face cancellation once, only returning for a fifth season after a two-year hiatus. Arrested Development couldn’t find an audience even when Fox gave it its two best time slots for a comedy. Breaking Bad, Deadwood, 30 Rock, Homeland, Friday Night Lights, Game Of Thrones: All are watched by a mere fraction of the people who watch NCIS, a fraction that keeps getting smaller when you expand to the TV-viewing audience or the population at large.

I’m not trying to say that Community should give up on trying to recruit new viewers or that NCIS is a bad show. I’m saying that the reasons Community isn’t a hit have less to do with its quality or insular nature and more to do with the fact that it airs in a timeslot that’s opposite two of the 10 biggest shows on television. (What ABC and The CW program there both do horribly as well, but it’s rarely held up as an example of how The People have rejected good television like the struggles of Community and P&R are held up.) Community isn’t a hit under the usual means, but it’s a big fish in a new TV comedy ecosystem, one where the way you make money isn’t by attracting the largest audience, but the most passionate one. (See also: the struggles of Cougar Town.) To a degree, insularity is the point of the new, great TV. If you’re in the tribe—as you and I are with Mad Men—it seems self-evident that the show is the greatest thing ever. If you’re not—as many, many people are with all of these shows—the whole thing seems a little silly.

I think what you’re getting at is best exemplified when you compare the show to Scrubs and ask what happened to the relatively traditional show this once was. (Troy’s not a jock anymore because he, like Britta, evolved into a character that played more to the actor’s strengths.) The thing about good TV is that it evolves, that it grows and changes direction as the years go by. That used to happen very slowly, over eons, but nowadays, it happens at warp speed. It’s possible to love a series, then have it evolve into one that doesn’t click with you nearly as much. (It happened to me with 30 Rock, a show that was once one of my favorites on TV and now mostly disappoints me.) The thing I love about Community is that if you don’t like a particular episode, something new will be along the next week and the next. The show flits from hilarious to groundbreaking to darkly moving, often within the same episode. Yeah, I suspect that will wear well with time, in the same way as Taxi, another genre-bending comedy Dan Harmon’s listed as an influence.

But, again, this is probably falling on deaf ears. More than any other television form, the sitcom requires that viewers fall in love with the characters on some level. And if you don’t, then it often seems as if they speak a language that’s somewhat alien to you. This can be off-putting. But I really feel like the question of “Does this show work for someone not in the Tribe?” is a chicken-egg sort of thing. The show seems like it only works if you’re in the Tribe if you’re not in the Tribe; it seems like it should entertain any and all if you’re in it. And when you’re not in the Tribe, it’s the most annoying thing ever. I can think of numerous shows where I just felt completely adrift from the fandom, where I thought it was fine, but not the be-all, end-all, and it always sucks to feel so… left out. Then the fan evangelism gets irritating and weird, but fan evangelism is the only way to find new viewers who might be interested but just haven’t heard of it. But the flipside of that is what happens in our Big Bang Theory comments every Thursday, when fans of Community go in and needlessly antagonize a bunch of people who just want to talk about Sheldon Cooper.

I’m supposed to be trying to convince you to like the show here, I know, but I’m not sure that’s any more possible than it is for me to tell my friends who hate Mad Men that there are untold depths there, and it’s not just a surface-level breeze. It’s a world for cults, now, and those of us who nostalgically remember Cheers or Seinfeld are going to get fewer and fewer. That’s just the inevitable future of this medium. Community, I think, will last because it’s one of the first signs on the road to a place where everybody has a show that’s made just for them.