No, no, wait. Don’t skip down to comments. Not yet. Much of the time, when I say this, people give me a funny look, like I’ve said something vaguely sacrilegious. For whatever reason, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of cross-pollination between Glee fans and Community fans, even though the similarities between the two shows make me think it’s all but certain that if the latter aired after the former on Tuesday nights, it’d be a top 20 hit, too. Try watching episodes of each show in rapid succession; it’ll become even more evident.
I don’t mean this as a statement of quality. When I say the two are pretty much the same show, I’m not saying that they’re at the same level of skillfulness or enjoyability. Indeed, looking at some of the ways in which Community succeeds where Glee fails can help us understand why the former is a better show, even if it’s made of similar DNA. And if we flip things around a bit, looking at the things Glee does that Community doesn’t could suggest reasons the former is a hit, while the latter has an outside shot at being canceled at the end of the season, despite a rabid cult fan base and ecstatic critical notices. (And, to be fair, Glee has its wildly adoring fans and the critics who love it—though there are fewer of them these days.)
So here are five reasons Community and Glee are pretty much the same show:
1. They’re both about makeshift families that allow people to better themselves.
The glee club in Glee serves largely the same function the study group does on Community: a group of motley characters coming together to overcome their personal failings and learn to grow up, just a little. Granted, on Glee, these characters are mostly teenagers, while on Community, they range from their early twenties to late sixties, but the principle remains the same. Now, if this were the only similarity between the two shows, there would be little to discuss. Shows where assorted, unlikely characters come together to make each other better have existed since the beginning of television, and they’ve become almost de rigueur since the heyday of ’70s sitcoms, where every other show was about this broad theme. No, what makes these two shows so similar is the fact that…
2. They both feature characters who seem broadly stereotypical at first, but soon reveal hidden depths.
Glee has the wannabe superstar teenage girl, the shy-about-singing football player who learns to be a leader, the heavy-set African-American girl who can belt, and the bitchy cheerleader (as well as countless others). Community has the inappropriately behaving old man, the too-cool-for-school jackass, the uptight feminist, and the Jesus-loving African-American single mother. Since their pilot episodes, however, both shows have deepened these characters considerably, revealing unknown layers beneath their TV-friendly facades. (As to the consistency of that development? We’ll get to that in a bit.)
3. Both shows are as much about appropriating—or outright recycling—the culture around them as they are about creating their own stories.
Look at the Billboard charts. The only evidence you need of Glee’s status as cultural monolith is all of the hits the show has racked up (now more than Elvis!). Yet the vast majority of these songs—indeed, nearly all of them—are simply cover versions of the original hits, peddled to fans of the show who either don’t know any better or just like hearing their favorite characters sing these songs. Similarly, look at the show’s frequent homages (or thefts, some would argue) to famous music videos and musical-theater performances. Many of these are shot-for-shot remakes, the only difference between the originals and the Glee versions being the actors and the elimination of certain moments to fit in the TV timeframe. (Arguably, this fits within the show’s theatrical milieu, where nearly every famous show has been done thousands upon thousands of times, with little variation.) Sure, the show does a few strikingly original covers, but they’re few and far between. Community is more skillful with its approach to pop-culture smoothies, but it too is interested in appropriating and recycling stories and items from the culture at large. Just as Glee constantly calls attention to itself as a musical (it would be hard for it not to), Community constantly calls attention to itself as a TV sitcom, reminding us at all times of the artificiality of what we’re watching.
4. Both shows mask cores of deep sentiment and wrenching sadness with outsized emotions and production values.
Granted, Glee has lost the thread of its sadness a bit this season, but in its best episodes this season and in most of its much better first season, the series was as much about a bunch of high-school kids who love to sing and dance as it was about the fact that most of them would never see their dreams come true. The show’s most recent terrific episode, its Valentine’s Day hour, is almost entirely about the futility of teenage love, the fact that even the good relationships will likely be over within a couple of months, and the inability of teens without love to pay attention to much of anything else. It goes down easier with songs, but the show’s core remains fundamentally sad, at least when it stops to remember that fact. Community, meanwhile, buries its sentiment even deeper beneath its rat-a-tat pacing and joke-a-minute writing; but inevitably, in every episode, there’s a moment where one of the characters realizes how much the others mean to him or her. Sometimes, as in the recent drug-awareness episode, this feels unearned and unbearably cheesy. At other times, as in last year’s Christmas episode, the difference between the jokes and the darkness beneath them is stark and occasionally even unnerving.
5. Both shows have an incredibly elastic relationship with reality.
Ask yourself this: If the characters on Glee entered an action movie parody next week, would you bat an eye? On the flipside of that, if the characters on Community suddenly began singing everything they said and covering the greatest hits of Poison, would anybody find it at all out of the ordinary? The greatest thing linking Glee and Community—and the thing they really only have in common with animated sitcoms like The Simpsons and a handful of older, surrealist sitcoms like Green Acres—is the fact that reality can change. Glee can be about a bunch of kids competing in a sweet, old-fashioned duet competition one week and about one of their teachers putting on a terrible version of Rocky Horror in order to win his love away from John Stamos the next week. Community can be about the gang battling zombies one week and about the guys finding a mystical trampoline the next. Much has been made of both shows’ “theme episodes” (Madonna for Glee; action movies for Community), but the only reason either can get away with such a thing is because reality is flexible in both shows’ universes.
Certainly we could point to other shows that share any one of these traits. Chuck, for instance, features plenty of pop-culture recyclables, while Parks And Recreation is a fundamentally sad series in a lot of ways. But shows that share all five of those traits at the same time, at a basic, structural level? That pretty much comes down to just Glee and Community. And if we wanted to get into other, even more specific details, we could draw even more comparisons. Both shows have rabid fan bases that can be isolating for those who are not part of the fan base. Both shows occasionally seem to be made solely for the cult fan base. The shows have very similar character dynamics on a number of levels. Both shows have often struggled to figure out what to do with their male lead characters in their second seasons, often just throwing to the talented supporting casts. The wardrobes for Glee’s Lea Michele and Community’s Alison Brie are frequently quite similar. And so on and so on.
Yet as both shows have gotten ever more insane and detached from reality in their second seasons, Glee has become a bigger and bigger hit, while Community has struggled to hang on to its very modest audience. At the same time, Community has attracted critical hosannas (save for a few hardcore detractors), while Glee has attracted more and more critical grumbles (save for a few diehard defenders). It’s not enough to note the similarities; it’s also important to try to understand what has made Community thrive where Glee has struggled and what has made Glee such a hit where Community has been unable to attract as much of an audience. (Aside from the fact that Community airs in one of the toughest timeslots on television; though, to be fair, Glee does, too.)
The answer to both questions, I think, lies in the fifth similarity. While these shows share so many similarities, they also share one key, crucial difference in how they approach the elasticity of their respective realities. On Community, the baseline reality of the show will change from episode to episode, with each new half-hour setting up a completely new set of circumstances for the characters to navigate through. In the second season, the basic premise of the show itself—a group of characters comes together at a community college—hasn’t always been the premise. Sometimes, they’re not at the college but in the desert. Sometimes, they’re fighting zombies. Sometimes, they’re animated. It’s been audacious, to be sure, but the series has managed to work its way through most of these episodes by keeping the characters mostly consistent. The level of detail work the writers have done on the characters is remarkable, meaning that Britta and Annie will react roughly similarly whether they’re taking a class on feminism or battling in an all-out paintball war. The circumstances of the show change; the characters do not.
The exact opposite is true on Glee. The writers of Glee will change the characters to suit whatever whims they have that week. (The only character who’s been written with even an ounce of consistency in season two is Kurt, and he’s too often been made a saint.) The most glaring example of this is lead character Will, the teacher of the glee club. One minute he’s a fundamentally good guy, doing charity work and helping his kids; the next, he’s a borderline deviant, trying to break up a happy relationship and forcing the kids to perform hyper-sexual songs. If the many different portrayals of Will added up to one basic, core individual, the show might get points for complex characterization, but the show mostly just makes him do whatever it needs him to do to get the plot rolling, rather than giving him a believable set of motivations and drives. It’s the same for every other Glee character, but the basic circumstances of the show are always the same. It’s always a high-school dramedy about kids in a glee club. The high school is always a fairly realistic place, even if the people who go to school and work there are outsized. The basic love triangles are always the same, even if the people in them act differently from week to week.
It’s this crucial difference that explains both why critics love Community and have turned on Glee and why audiences embrace Glee but can’t seem to be bothered with Community. TV, to some degree, has always been predicated on predictability. For as much mileage as Glee has gotten out of the idea that anything can happen, anything can’t happen. It has certain iron-clad rules it lives by, on a conceptual level, and it mostly sticks to those. When viewers tune in to Glee, they know what they’re going to get, and if there’s no solid foundation of character for the show to stand on, well, who’s gonna notice that but a buncha critics, right? What’s more important is that the show makes sure to provide four to five musical numbers a week and a certain amount of teenage heartbreak and sassy comebacks. When viewers tune in to Community, however, there’s no guarantee of what the hell the show will be up to that week. A horror movie? An animated special? A fantasy epic set entirely in one room? It all must feel like a mess to someone who only tunes in once in a while. It works for critics because we’re trained to reward audaciousness, particularly audaciousness that keeps one foot planted firmly in reality, as Community does with its solid character foundation. But for people who are just tuning in, it must feel like a show that has no idea what it wants to be. Better go see if somebody’s singing somewhere.