Checking In With Community

STORY BY David Eskridge

Published: May 2, 2013

In its first three seasons on NBC, the sitcom Community blended rapid-fire snark, ironic TV meta-commentary, and genuine heart to a small but rabidly devoted audience.  While this audience was enough to keep the show perennially on the right side of cancellation, it was not enough for NBC to allow the show’s creator and guiding voice, Dan Harmon, to stay on as executive producer after the third season ended last spring (Harmon’s notoriously headstrong and difficult attitude probably didn’t help). While nodding toward Harmon’s vision (they claimed that he’d stay involved as a “consulting producer”, a title that Harmon rejected as ridiculous), NBC brought in veteran writer/producers Moses Port and David Guarascio to run the show.  The layoff between that time and the start of the truncated fourth season this February saw even more turnover in the writing and production staff, leaving fans anxious about whether their show would return as a shuffling zombie under this new creative staff.  Eleven episodes into the season and two weeks out from the season finale, I thought that we’d check in to see just how founded these fears turned out to be.

The results, while not terrible, have been pretty shaky.  To start with, Port and Guarascio, perhaps for fear of ruining beloved characters, seem to have pared many of them down to simple bullet points—the characters hit the one note for which they are best known, loudly and repeatedly.  For instance, Abed was always a lovably detached oddball that dealt with confusing realities through the lens of pop culture.  Now, the writers have so committed him to turning every situation into a movie parody or pop culture bit that they have done little to explore the emotional possibilities of an “emotionless” character.  In earlier seasons, much of the character’s humor came from the idea that he seemed disconnected from what few emotions he did experience.  Like a robot, he could intellectually recognize a positive or negative reaction to a stimulus—he could want and not want certain outcomes—but he was not wired to experience these reactions as visceral feelings the way that most people do.  The heart and depth of Abed’s character, the pathos, came from his subtle longing to be a “real boy”, not so that he could fit in but so that he could help the people that he cared about know what they meant to him in terms that they could understand (such as in the hilarious-to-heartbreaking short film about his parents’ breakup that he made in season one’s “Introduction to Film”).  This simple question of whether the desire to be fully human can make one fully human (think of the vampire Spike’s quest for a soul on Buffy The Vampire Slayer) made for some compelling television.  Small moments like Abed flatly and directly asking his friends for help reacting to something that he doesn’t understand (as in last season’s “Origins of Vampire Mythology”) blended this humor and pathos with a perfect pitch that has been missing from this season’s escapades such as Abed’s attempt to recreate The Shawshank Redemption at a Thanksgiving dinner or his munching on popcorn as if watching a movie when the group took a professor hostage in Jeff’s apartment.  The show has admirably continued the Harmon-era tradition of never outright naming Abed’s condition (although all signs point to an autistic spectrum disorder)—to do so might limit the storytelling possibilities by reducing it, in the eyes of viewers unfamiliar with such disorders, to a medical issue that can be more easily understood and treated.  While I applaud the urge to leave that door open, I do wish that the writers would walk us through it.

Similarly, while erstwhile jock Troy’s bizarre, codependent, lost-little-kid bond with Abed has long been a reliable source of comedy and character-building.  Last season, the show mined this for humor but also as the catalyst for a story about growing up, growing apart, and taking responsibility for your life (the HVAC/blanket fort story arc).  Harmon and his crew didn’t handle this perfectly either—in a rare misstep (or perhaps because he sensed cancellation looming and wanted to give his characters a happier ending), Harmon hit the reset button on this storyline at the end of the season, just as it threatened to provide interesting stakes and changes for the characters.  While it’s encouraging that the new showrunners seem to want to pick up this loose thread and show how Troy’s devotion to Abed prevents him from connecting to his girlfriend, Britta, there have been far too many throwaway jokes that seem to seek laughs just from the mere idea of how devoted these two are to each other.  We’re familiar enough with this idea by now that it only works in small, well-timed doses or on the strength of a particularly fantastic bit but the show seems content to just remind us of the relationship and hope that that will be enough. 

The show has a similar problem with the Dean Pelton character:  there has to be more to him than simply lusting after Jeff and putting on silly costumes for every minute occasion.  These kinds of broad, wacky gags also work best in small doses unless they are so strong that they simply beg to be done (and gags like “Dean-ochio”, his Pinochio-outfitted character from “Intro to Felt Surrogacy”, simply don’t make the cut).  One of the funniest moments of the first three seasons was when the dean, after dressing the right half of his body in female attire to demonstrate the “duali-dean” of man, breaks down in front of the study group, admits that he’s gone too far (“I have to go to the bank today!”), and exhorts himself to get his life together.  This tiny peek behind the dean’s campy, cheery façade is not only a sharply-observed joke but also goes miles toward humanizing and filling out the character and suggesting new directions for him.   If he’s simply an occasional side-character (the way the great Starburns was earlier in the show’s run), then trot him out sparingly.  If he’s a full-on member of the main cast, then let’s find out more about him and see what kinds of new jokes and stories we can tell.  See 30 Rock for a master class in how to do this—they found endless outlets for and variations on Tracy’s eccentricity, Jenna’s narcissism, Jack’s cool masculinity, et cetera.  30 Rock had it both ways—they leaned on existing character traits with strong, hard jokes that were clearly the product of endless writer’s room pitching but they also explored new and different aspects of these characters’ personalities to make them fuller and more complex.  They didn’t bang the same drum over and over again unless there was a very funny reason to do so. 

Port and Guarascio also seem committed to continuing the “stunt” episodes that gave the show its reputation for innovation but this season’s two attempts—“Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” and “Intro to Felt Surrogacy”—felt engineered.  Previous stunt episodes like the classic “A Fistful of Paintballs”, in which the campus devolves into a lawless, Old West-style warzone during a high-stakes paintball game, found humor by blending the show’s world with the world being parodied in an organic way that made sense for the characters (such as Pierce insulating himself in a way station/saloon, complete with a dead-eyed co-ed morosely dancing for the patrons).  It was an homage and a new story at the same time.  Contrast that with “Intro to Felt Surrogacy”, this season’s “puppet episode”, which didn’t incorporate any of the tropes of that Jim Henson style of puppetry—it simply told a straightforward story with puppets the same way that it would have with human actors.  It was more pastiche than homage and, while the puppets were cute and the songs were fun and everything was executed with technical aplomb, it lacked the intelligence and wit and thoroughness of previous seasons.

This is not to say that all the news is bad—there are signs of hope.  The cast is as talented and game as ever and I still have a ton of affection for the characters—although the new regime hasn’t done much to build on them, it also hasn’t ruined or changed them significantly, which is one of a fan’s biggest fears when his show changes hands.  The new staff’s admiration for Harmon’s seasons really comes through in the writing—you can sense that they’re trying, even if they haven’t figured it out yet, to preserve that balance of cynicism and sentimentality, of wackiness and grounded emotional beats.  And I actually like (though I suspect that I’m in the minority on this) what they’ve done with Chang this season:  by essentially rebooting his character (even if the audience knows that his amnesia is fake), they’ve found a way to tone down a lot of what many fans found grating about the character (the broad tone, the aggression, the tendency to hijack storylines that might have been headed in more nuanced directions) and find a more subdued, charmingly childlike version of his weird social awkwardness.  Overall, the show is still entertaining and worth sticking with, not just to see if it improves but on its own merit. 

But what frustrates me most is that all of these pros and cons would matter a lot less if the show was simply funnier.  This is a comedy and it’s going to live and die largely by the strength of its jokes—and this season’s are weaker.  Inventive storytelling and meaningful character arcs aside, Community used to be good for at least two or three laugh-out-loud moments per episode and a few “pause the DVR to recover” moments per season; this season has barely had any of either.  The jokes that are not overly familiar reminders of existing character traits too often seem to have migrated in from a particularly cutesy rerun of Friends (in “Intro to Knots”, Jeff’s invitation to Annie to redecorate his apartment—“Mi casa es su art project”—made me want to punch my television set).  Don’t get me wrong—if Community finished out its run at its current level of quality, it would retire as a clever and amusing little show that was funnier than most of the aggressively unfunny schlock found on more popular network sitcoms.  A lot of shows would kill for that summation.  But that would be a shame for a show that, just a year ago, packed each episode so full of brains, emotion, and belly laughs that it often required multiple viewings.  Community deserves better than that.

Other Stories by David Eskridge
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