Help Me Unpack My Feelings About "Community"


#1

[Warning: This topic is likely to contain discussion of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. and sexual harassment, as well as spoilers for all six seasons of Community.]

I currently find myself finishing a semester abroad with little to do and littler money to do it with. Having taken advantage of a few non-US Netflix offerings already, I decided to get a Hulu trial while I have time to use it. Hulu has all six seasons of Dan Harmon’s cult sitcom Community. When the show premiered in 2009, I was a high school freshman and not yet TV-savvy, so its entire run, including all the drama and controversy of its production, passed me by. However, I have loved shows that share Community’s DNA, such as Arrested Development and It’s Always Sunny, so I trucked through its entire hundred-odd episode backlog. I have emerged on the other side, largely entertained, but also highly ambivalent.

Community is a highly flawed show. It utilizes troubling stereotypes and depictions of marginalized people in ways that are sometimes critical but often exploitative. Jeff and Annie’s attraction and flirtation was played straight as a dramatic thread (that kiss in the finale, ugh) and she is sexualized constantly, even though, when the show begins, he is in his late thirties and she is eighteen. Pierce is a character, which is bad enough, but the writing insists that he be treated as sympathetic. And, of course, this show should not be discussed without acknowledging the sexual harassment that creator Dan Harmon perpetrated against a female writer.

As far as the conventions of the show go, it lampshades out-of-place plot points and character beats to extreme excess. It leans on catchphrase and running gag, which grate even through the show’s wink-nod acknowledgement of them. Sitcoms aren’t known for excellent character arcs in general, but Community’s ever-regressing ever-dysfunctional cast seems a particularly bad instance.

However, there’s a lot to love. The joke writing is snappy, the high-concept and homage/spoof stuff is Extremely My Shit, and I loved Troy and Abed’s interplay. The first three seasons are really solid television.

But then there’s the behind-the-scenes stuff: Harmon getting replaced for season 4, resulting in the Gas Leak Year, Chevy Chase being himself and leaving the show, the replacement of main-cast characters who left with characters who, though still decent, never felt quite right. Basically, there’s a lot in both columns.

When I think about how I’ll look back on it, I know I’ll remember a lot of things fondly, but will also have a deep and abiding sense of Ugh about it. For those of you who have also seen the whole show, how do you feel? Did bingeing this show ruin it for me? Does the bad outweigh the good? Has Always Sunny destroyed this kind of show for me entirely?


#2

Community is definitely as problematic as you say, but aren’t Arrested Development and It’s Always Sunny problematic as well? Both shows trafficked in insensitive portrayals of marginalized folks and have scenes that are tough to watch through a 2018 lens. I personally can’t go back to any of those shows anymore, even though I loved them way back when. I certainly don’t think these were bad people making those shows, but they reflect the values of the less diverse writers rooms in the era they were made.


#3

Oh for sure. The thing that sets Sunny apart for me is that it acknowledges how awful its characters are. Most sitcom characters are monsters, but still want you to root for them, as Community does. Sunny condemns the Paddy’s gang up and down. That doesn’t excuse the portrayal, but it makes the difference for me being able to stomach it.


#4

Did it though? I specifically recall the show making repeated callbacks to a joke about a transgender person’s genitalia, or making fun of an incestuous family where one could reasonably conclude sexual assault has happened and remains ongoing. And that’s not even getting into the fact that by centering the plot and viewers’ perspective on awful people, the show to some extent endorses their worldview.

Let me be clear, I’m not condemning you or anyone else for liking Sunny. I myself loved it for the first couple of seasons. But I’m having a tough time singling out Community with the criticisms presented when I feel that Sunny checks the same boxes.


#5

Community definitely likes to have its cake and eat it too. Even when you s e t a s i d e the behaviour of Harmon during his time as showrunner, it’s a show that loves to use stereotypes and problematic tropes and then comment on the fact that it’s using them to avoid criticism.

“But they comment on it in another ep” is the get-out-of-jail-free card du jour for this era of network sitcom. Having the group frown when Pierce rips out another homophobic joke doesn’t mean the show doesn’t think shouting “gay” is inherently hilarious.

It reminds me of a lot of 30 Rock, a show which I still love. That show glorifies Jack while also trying to make the point that capitalism destroys creativity, a point they fail to make because all of TGS’ skits are uniformly awful. It lands some incredible zingers against liberals’ thinly veiled racism, misogyny, and general complacency during the Obama era while also having Tracy do his outlandish thing, Liz Lemon being something of a “cool girl” (oh Gone Girl, you didn’t ruin that trope soon enough), and Jack softening the image of Republicans.

Both shows exist at the intersection of incredible writing/acting talent and standard-issue Hollywood centrism circa 2009-2012.


#6

Community along with the Doctor Who reboot ushered in my partner and my current television habits back in 2011. Until that point the only television we watched was the odd cartoon or Adult Swim show. We decided to start watching television shows as we heard they were getting better and we thought it would be good English practice as partner’s second language is English. There were maybe two or three seasons of Community available for free on Hulu. It was pretty ideal for us at the time. The episodes were short, they were clever-ish but dead simple to follow, and though the leads were white, had a fairly diverse (if stereotyped) cast. My partner had also attended a community college a few years prior so she could relate to the setting. It had a great deal of problems but was still better than most other options and also was a pretty good indication for how many Americans behave, for better or worse.
We didn’t watch much beyond that and we tried to check back in a few years ago but found it pretty distasteful.

But it served us immensely at the time and we still will bring up something funny the Dean did or Abed said every once in a while.


#7

I think one of the main issues I have with it in retrospect is how weirdly they treated character development.

The first season set up some pretty obvious points of growth. They kinda went through with some of it (Troy noticeably changed the most by being less afraid to be himself and such), some of it they repeatedly reset (I’m pretty sure Jeff learned the exact same lesson 3x per season), and some characters regressed (mostly Britta, yikes Britta). It was kinda weird that it tried to transition to some extent a silly episodic show but at the same time try to have the serious character development that never quite lasted. The show even pointed it out that it does that multiple times, at times completely undercutting the message of the episode within the same episode.

I kinda feel like Britta becoming entirely a punchline contributed to a ton of issues. I mean she kinda was starting with episode 2 but they still took her seriously enough to call jeff out on his bs for a while before they decided that questioning shitty behavior was a killjoy. Kinda like Lisa Simpson tbh(though the simpsons took lisa seriously a lot longer…). I kinda wonder how she was written like that to begin with

I started watching it from the beginning again a couple weeks ago so its kinda fresh in my mind. When I originally watched it, I found the beginning boring(start through mid-season 1) and enjoyed it the more it picked up steam(mid-season 1 through season 3), this time I enjoyed the beginning more and found that it got more obnoxious over time (though some of the concept episodes were still quite enjoyable). Ofc not that its not problematic at points in the beginning but it had more of a feel that the characters might grow past it and the show might also but thats not really what ended up happening.


#8

That’s totally fair. As often as the joke was “these people make bad choices,” it was “these people exist in a certain way or have had something done to them.”


#9

Yeah, there’s a point when Jeff asks Britta when she became the group airhead. That’s my question too. That transition felt completely unearned and wrecked her character. As much as I know it wouldn’t hold up, I mostly wanted a Troy and Abed Show, as I felt their interactions contained some of the best writing and most genuine heart.

A couple days out from posting this, and I’m definitely feeling more grossed out than anything. This thing had potential and that shines through in a lot of places, but it’s buried in a whole lot of bullshit and once is starts going bad, it never gets better.


#10

the trans joke specifically was one that Glenn Howerton said he regretted putting in the show, in an interview from earlier this year. i do think generally the show is good about making sure that the right people are the butts of the jokes (i.e., predominantly the main cast) and the trans bit was easily their worst slip-up. it means a lot to me that he was able to point to that and recognize it as a mistake, i definitely think over the course of the show they’ve picked up on a lot of subtlety to what makes that kind of humour work


#11

Basically my thoughts. They come a long way since the pilot episode’s gay panic crap.

I kinda want to see what Archer is doing now and see if they’ve improved on their lesser elements. But now they’re going in pulpier directions so who knows.


#12

I recently rewatched the pilot and I had forgotten how Britta was basically a different (much stronger) character at the start of the show.


#13

I watched season 6 of community after my last post since i hadn’t seen it and was having trouble sleeping last night.
I really liked the inclusion of Frankie as a grounding character which i definitely feel was lacking for a long time. Having the conflict of her vs the group’s antics while still being fairly friendly worked out really well for the most part

“Queer Studies and Advanced Waxing” is a bad episode and both the dean a-plot and chang b-plot felt tone-deaf to me. I really don’t get the point of tackling the subjects since they just avoided addressing either of them

The episodes overall were lacking and their tonedeaf moments seemed worse since it definitely had a bit of a senior year vibe of just not taking things all that seriously. The sincerity I think in the early seasons is one of the main things that made its issues less apparent early on.


#14

I will second everything here, but also say that watching Community probably taught me more about characters than most other shows I’ve seen. I still find Jeff Winger to be one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever seen on television. He’s just… a bad person, which for the TV I grew up with, it was kind of unheard of. Like, the narrative knows he’s a bad person. He’s just a bad person who happens to care about a handful of people and will use his evil powers for their benefit. That isn’t an archetype I’d seen before Community, and it taught me some rad shit about how to, like… create characters with more complexity than a D&D alignment, if you get my drift.

I’ll always have nostalgia for the show, but it’s also not a show I’ll ever rewatch outside really stand out eps (any ep that focused on Shirley and Jeff’s friendship, the big pastiche episodes tho none was ever better than the first one, the D&D ep)

God, actually, the D&D ep was one of the first times I saw a depiction of suicidal ideation on network TV and I… super liked it. Fat Neal was great, and as a big gal myself who used to subsume my sadness in hobbies, that was a mirror held up to my face. And the morality of Jeff’s intervention, and everything-- I like that episode. I hope it stands up to the test of time but now I’m afraid I’m forgetting some Terrible part of it.

IDK if I were to ‘unpack’ Community, I would say that no piece of media is pure. All media is problematic. And if it isn’t today, it will seem so in 20 years. If we acknowledge the faults of the thing but still gain benefit from the overall work, that’s fine.

ETA: Also lets all be real for a sec, Community justified its own existence by giving us the greatest gif of all time with Troy returning with the pizza in Remedial Chaos Theory. God bless.


#15

i think a lot about Community in relation to Rick & Morty, where you can see how strains of the former landed horribly in the latter. both are shows focused on flawed-approaching-terrible people who are sort of trying to do better, while also navigating the sitcom world of traumatic weekly adventures which resolve neatly (but also, clearly, don’t).

the difference i think with Community is it had a lot of affection for its characters, and it experimented with narrative growth and change over time. that didn’t always land - sometimes it was wildly unearned, sometimes it went in weird directions, sometimes characters regressed - but in comparison to R&M, i found myself wanting to go on an emotional journey with these characters, to explore them and see where it went. i saw myself in their flaws, whereas in R&M, i just see a bottomless pit of self-pity and unexamined white dude anger.

also Community was funnier.


#16

I’ve been thinking about going back to watch Community, but have so far held back. The show has some great moments, particularly having to do with Troy and/or Abed, but it has some things that were… not great. For the most part I’ve decided to leave it where it is; I’ve forgotten a lot of the bad stuff but can still think back on what I enjoyed. The biblioteca song? Troy’s last stand against the Zombies? Abed delivering a baby IN THE BACKGROUND? Undeniably great moments, but I don’t need to be reminded of the moments that don’t hold up.


#17

I haven’t thought about Community in a while, but I come from a similar place when it comes to that show. I loved that show so much, that I started to regulary seek out reviews of it’s episodes (at the AV Club). It was the piece of media, that made me think of how writing works and it got me interested in media criticism. At the time I didn’t know that I was queer yet and I also didn’t identify as black. Thinking back and concidering some of the memories that were brought up in this discussion, the show very much reflects the world-view of a straight, white, cisgender guy, who thinks of identity politics as little more than fodder for bigoted jokes.

I used to be somewhat of a big Dan Harmon fan - I bought heavily into the myth of the tortured artist, which is something the guy loves to do, in order to absolve himself of taking responsibility. Self-aware harmful language and negativity is still harmful and negative.

I can’t really separate his shows from him anymore, especially since that harrassment thing came up again. I used to think that the problem with R&M was just Justin Roilands edge-lordy humor, but Dan Harmon is enabling him and he loves it just as much, even if he’s not always that vocal about it.


#18

It’s been a long time since I have watched Community but at the time I was interested enough to finish it. Looking back, I have the same general feeling - there are a few parts I liked about it and will remember, such as some of the high-concept episodes and the few good jokes and running gags. The writers never seemed to be able, or even know how, to tell a story or apply any serious meaning that stuck, and the characters were just a setting to keep telling “jokes” which really contrasted with how the whole show started.

The problematic material and how the characters of Britta and Chang were handled and written as “arcs” really soured me on the show. In the end, all I wanted was more Troy and Abed.


#19

This is gonna sound a lot more facetious than I intend, but now that I think about it, Community is maaaaybe the last sitcom I watched, and I’m curious if “characters as setting to keep telling jokes without advancement” is… not the case in sitcoms anymore? Because that was also shit like Friends and such when I was growing up. Has the genre evolved?


#20

My guess would be that the rising popularity of Netflix and the concept of binge-watching have had a huge effect on how we look at shows. Storylines and character arcs are planed and written to fit a certain amount of episodes from their inception. The writers are allowed to take their time, which can be very effective, but can also leave the impression that a series or season was just one or two episodes too long. Personaly, I prefer longer narratives and arcs, so I’m very happy with this development.

Another aspect might just be Dan Harmons’ writing style. Rick and Morty episodes still seem more disconnected than most other Netflix shows.