Saturday, November 26, 2011

Meta-Sitcoms are People Too: Reflections on the Murky Future of NBC’s Community

Donald Glover and Danny Pudi in Community.

NBC’s Community, you may be growing tired of hearing, is one of the most original sitcoms on network television right now. And there is no small amount of irony in the fact that the reason you are hearing it said so much these days is because it appears Community won’t be on TV for much longer. Last Monday, when NBC announced its mid-season schedule, Community (which currently airs at 8pm on Thursdays) was nowhere to be found. After only ten episodes into its 22-episode order, the ratings-challenged Community will disappear from NBC, and no promise has been made yet as to when the rest of its current season will air. This, as you may imagine, is not good news.

Now in the middle of its third season, from a fan’s perspective, Community has been doing everything right. It regularly takes chances, but remains one of television’s most consistently funny sitcoms – and there is hardly a single recent episode that hasn’t been brilliant in my book. But when a critically acclaimed but low-rated show enters its third season (consider Arrested Development and Veronica Mars – both of which spent their third, and final, seasons in perennial struggle with their lagging ratings), there is really one key question on the minds of executives: the worry that the show sets too high a barrier for new viewers. Season-long or even multi-season story arcs, humour or drama that depends on familiarity with the characters, their stories, and their world: all these virtues of quality television become deficits when trying to figure out how to find a new audience for a not-quite-new series. The tinkering that results is rarely good – see the aforementioned third season of Veronica Mars, and the audacious mid-series reboot of J.J. Abrams’ Alias. Smart, playful and always hilarious, Community no doubt runs the risk of alienating the uninitiated (i.e. precisely all those who aren’t watching). And as the fate of Arrested Development demonstrated, this is also a recipe for the death of a network show.

When Community premiered in September 2009, I didn't quite know what to expect. Hearing it was set at a struggling community college, I looked forward to a spoof of academic life through the lens of a low-level academic institution, and its first season did offer some of that – through the antics of Señor Chang's (Ken Jeong) Spanish class, and the recurring angst of John Oliver's underachieving psychology professor. But after a few episodes – with its strong ensemble cast and demonstrated willingness to push against the boundaries of half hour storytelling – Community quickly established itself as something else entirely: a sitcom about sitcoms. It could effectively take its small cast, and relatively confined college setting, and play out a noir story, a Western, even a horror film. It often reminds me of the best of the Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright films (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), movies which could stand as both genre parodies and just as often entertaining examples of that same genre. In a TV universe with an epidemic of The Office-style mockumentary series’ (Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, Reno 911!, Trailer Park Boys, MTV's recent Death Valley), Community is self-aware without being self-conscious. It is the work of people who love TV, for people who love TV. This isn’t the self-referentiality of cynical cultural producers, but of sincere cultural consumers. Community isn’t a show about making TV, it’s a show about watching TV (and movies) – and that makes all the difference. And this is what makes Community so unique in this ever-growing universe of self-aware media: it isn’t an insider’s show, but a fan’s.

The cast of Community in the episode "Remedial Chaos Theory"

Media scholar Jason Mittell tweeted only yesterday (a timely reminder of the old post-structuralist dictum): "all fiction is metafiction." All stories borrow from other stories and every story is written and read amongst other stories – stories told and stories untold. But pointing out that a key subject of all storytelling is storytelling itself, doesn’t mean that these stories are thereby about nothing, or are simply self-referential onanism – because the fact remains that we are ourselves made of stories. All fiction is metafiction, and Community just wears its meta-creds more on its face than other shows.

In-jokes flatter the audience, and often risk patronizing them, however well intended they may be. But there is a crucial difference between the name-dropping and viral video references of a show like Family Guy, and the self-aware storytelling one finds on Community. The risks of too topical humour are clear: pop culture references have a limited shelf life and limited communicability. An uninitiated viewer who doesn't recognize the name of the celebrity or the details of the latest scandal will be lost completely. Family Guy embraces this risk, and makes up for it by sheer volume. Not entirely sure who Jerry Sandusky is? Aren't intimately familiar with the ups and downs of Ashton and Demi’s relationship? Don’t worry: wait 10 seconds and another more suitable reference is already waiting for you.

Community is a different beast altogether. Creator and head writer Dan Harmon tells stories – stories with a rich and shifting pop cultural vocabulary, yes, but stories nonetheless. And the humour in Community always remains character driven. The meta aspects of the telling enrich what is there, but it isn't the only thing there. Building upon a talented cast of actors (including comedy veteran Chevy Chase, and writer, comedian and musician Donald Glover) at the centre of every episode are the characters and their interactions.

If you aren't familiar with zombie movies or if haven’t yet seen the 1991 documentary, Hearts of Darkness, which chronicles the infamous insanity behind Francis Ford Coppola's filming of Apocalypse Now, then there might be levels of a joke or two that you won’t get, but you won't be lost. The stories and the characters move on their own power, and not merely on the borrowed steam of cultural references. The self-awareness of the construction doesn't take place of the story, it complements and enriches the telling. The meta here isn't what is told, but simply how it is told. The stories use the full talents of the actors and are always built with and upon established characters and relations.

A scene from "Epidemiology"
Last year's Halloween episode (“Epidemiology”, Oct. 28, 2010), with its zombie virus and Men in Black-style memory erasure, on any other series would be a standalone episode par excellence. But that episode, for all its surreality and ambition, contained not a few substantial moments of human connection, and in fact consequences of that episode reverberated through the rest of the season. The best episodes of Community rise and fall on the relations between the characters, whatever conceit a particular story takes on.

For example, “Remedial Chaos Theory” (Oct 13, 2011) is a recent episode that highlights all the strengths of the series. From a production value standpoint, it is the polar opposite of “Epidemiology” – which boasted impressive make-up, surprisingly effective camera-work, and genuine scares. All of the flash of “Remedial Chaos Theory” – basically a bottle episode, taking place entirely within the (let us say) four walls of Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed’s (Danny Pudi) new apartment – lay in its complex narrative structures: multiple, non-overlapping timelines, telling and retelling the same few minutes over the course of a single episode. But what is so brilliant, and so funny, about the episode wasn’t simply how effectively it delivered on this clever idea, but rather how it opened to subtleties of interpersonal dynamics between the characters in ways previously unavailable to the show.

When you love television, you quickly resign yourself to the fickleness of the industry. Even more so than movies, the life and death of our most beloved shows are subject to network whims and alien forces that come to either complicate or interrupt the creative process. But in this case, we should not resign ourselves too soon: Community’s fate may be uncertain, but it is not yet closed. Two episodes have yet to air. Watch them, rent the DVDs, and let NBC know you want to see more. And sign the petition here.

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.


  1. This was an amazing article, and thanks for putting that out there. You’ve really nailed the charm and appeal of Community, and why so many people, like me, absolutely love the show. For me it’s my favorite Sitcom, ever. You can have Cheers and Seinfeld and Friends, and though I enjoyed those shows (particularly Seinfeld) not one episode of any of them has the amazing re-watchability factor of Community. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched “Remedial Chaos Theory” or “Contemporary American Poultry” or ANY of the paintball episodes. I love nothing more than kicking back on my lunch break at DISH Network and watching an episode on my iPhone, using my TV Everywhere App, or the same thing at the airport, waiting for a flight, or at the dentist office, in the waiting room. This is truly a show with heart, and intelligence, and brilliance, and I love it. #SaveCommunity.

  2. You lost me at "stories with a rich and shifting pop cultural vocabulary". That kind of TV just bores the hell out of me. "All fiction is meta fiction" is an interesting thing to think about, but, a lot of people just see this kind of storytelling as a wank. They're not wrong.

    It's like overhearing fans talk about comic books. I'm sure THEY find it endlessly fascinating. But, it's really not. :-)

    It's always the case when you like a show it seems 'fickle' when it gets cancelled. In the case of Community it makes sense that it wouldn't make the cut. I'm surprised it got this far -- which goes to how well it was done I guess.