I remember the first time I stepped foot inside the walls of Greendale Community College. It was the fall semester of 2009 and the Quad was only beginning to glisten with the turning leaves. The anxiety of freshmen was, as always, palatable and the professors were just bracing themselves for the punctuation in their research that was undergraduate students. Everyone was making their awesome Halloween plans months in advance and only time would tell how life changing it would all be.
Actually, I’m remembering my final go-around in college before hitting the real world. Even so, I can still associate that fleeting time with the first season of the most free wheeling and liberated sitcom on television. Born from the eccentric mind of Dan Harmon, Community is a feverishly mad show that is about seven misfits finding each other and communal purpose in a collegiate setting that feels simultaneously earnest and mocking. It’s also focused on everything other than the technical schooling and overall higher education world it romantically spoofs. Community is, in short, an oddball of a show that’s so eerily self-aware that it is beyond breaking the fourth wall. There are no walls for the NBC program and no rules that it can follow.
It’s for that reason, along with its zany infatuation for all facets of pop culture and television, that it has burrowed its way into the hearts of many a Geek…and out of many an NBC executive’s. Yep, despite being on the once celebrated Thursday Night Line Up at the Peacock, Community is the definition of a cult show. For Harmon and the many personalities behind the camera, that has always been a struggle. But for us? It’s been a blessing in an age of network comedy that is oversaturated to the brim with laugh tracks, mockumentaries and 20-something “friends.” So, like a Palestinian-Polish film student with Aspergers obsessing over the intertextual worth of a cafeteria chicken finger racket, we at Den of Geek want to grab our Constable Reggie and look back on Community. The series finally returns to the air this week after a long exile in the wilderness and there’s no better time to figure out why it’s just so damn Streets Ahead.
On paper, Community has always been the simple story of a study group of broken people who learn to accept their cracked selves through one another. Hoping to be fixed may be too much, but finding kooky savants who embrace the other’s fractured self is the essence of humanity. According to Harmon, it is based on his real life experiences as a student at Glendale Community College. He attended Spanish there in attempt to salvage his relationship with a future ex-girlfriend. What he lost in love, he gained in camaraderie when he befriended a group of disparate pals in a study group. “They had nothing to do with the film industry and I had nothing to gain from them and nothing to offer them,” Harmon said during the early press for the show. As someone who describes himself as self-centered, the experience taught him the value of friendship and truthfully did offer him something very important: The premise for a TV show.
In its original inception, Community is about Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) recovering from a disgraced legal career after it’s learned he lied about passing the bar and even going to college. Thus, he is forced to shamefully attend Greendale Community College where he takes Spanish 101 with perpetual activist Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs). To get in her pants, Jeff creates a study group in the library to convince her he isn’t as shallow as his smarmy smile (truthfully) implies. But a funny thing happens. His study group of loons turns out to be a group of lovable people who, like quicksand, embrace him the more he struggles. There’s Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), a sugary sweet divorced mother of two who will pile on the Christian guilt thicker than a closeted Republican politician; Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) is a lifelong loser with a string of ex-wives who, in his empty life, goes to Greendale solely to meet (and intentionally annoy) people; Annie Edison (Alison Brie) is the high-strung and repressed good girl who would be in an Ivy League school if she didn’t have an Adderall-fueled breakdown during her last semester of high school that landed her in a mental institution; Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) who went to high school with Annie and tries to play the good looking jock he was, but in reality is an impressionable manchild waiting for his inner-Geek to be set free; and then there’s Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), the liberator of Troy’s Geek and the audience’s proxy who, on some level, knows he’s on a TV show…because he’s seen every other one ever made.
This whacky cast of characters was meant to get into college themed hijinks every week and they achieved just that in its early episodes. Jeff, abandoned by his father at a young age and Pierce would form an awkward father/son pairing during a doomed Spanish project. The group would come together to condemn Britta’s new boyfriend, a song writing hippie with a passion for hacky sack. Jeff and Annie would rehearse for a school debate that would lead to an awkward makeout session considering he’s in his 30s and she’s 19. It was all completely fine, but ultimately pretty generic sitcom stuff. What really carried the early episodes was a cast that had the right chemistry. McHale, a smalltime celebrity best known for mocking bigger ones on The Soup, hit the perfect tone of a sardonic jerk who is just low rent charismatic enough to slouch into the hearts of his friends and the audience. Harmon says he was looking for Bill Murray circa 1983 when casting the part and McHale deftly succeeds at making us love this obviously empty suit. Likewise, Jacobs’s Britta, written initially as the Rachel to Jeff’s Ross, perfectly sums up that 30-something aging hipster who thinks she still has street cred because she lived in New York as a failed artist for ten years. The rest of the cast also has fun subverting the pop culture clichés their appearances suggest, such as a large Black Christian woman (Shirley), a grumpy old man (Pierce) or an obsessive Jewish girl (Annie). It could be funny and touching in turn every week. It was the show NBC wanted, but it did not reflect the screwball mind of its writers or distinguish itself from most other network sitcoms on the air. In the same year, fellow freshman Modern Family was combining the workplace mockumentary formula NBC relied upon with a 21st century family situation at ABC. Fox had the hour long comedy about a (high) school group of misfits who came together to form…a glee club. Ryan Murphy’s Glee would go on to be the bane of Community’s existence. But what did Harmon’s show have that could make it stand out? Around the seventh episode they figured it out: Abed.
Jeff Winger is and will always be the lead of the quirky ensemble. But there’s one character who is not only unique for the sitcom trope, but also pop culture at large. Pudi’s film student seemed initially created to be the audience-winking sidekick to Jeff’s disgruntled square jaw. Kramer to his Seinfeld. Radar to his Hawkeye (a comparison Abed even makes when he is shaking martinis for Jeff’s short stint as the school paper’s corrupt editor). Apparently loosely based on a Harmon friend of the same name, Abed is an isolated genius who uses a backlog of references to mainstream movies and television to pass as his interaction with other human beings. One of the best such moments is in the second season when he invites Jeff to a fancy restaurant for his birthday to have a “real conversation” devoid of movie trivia and superfluous minutia. Of course, after Jeff has a breakthrough about childhood trauma, he discovers Abed is still basing this bonding on the classic, My Dinner with Andre (1981). Abed is a paradoxical creation who is only considered crazy by all those on the show for realizing they’re in one. Like the lone prisoner in Plato’s “The Cave,” Abed knows what is beyond the four walls of the frame and is therefore the most aware and removed of any character on television. And in Community’s seventh episode, where the school celebrates Halloween, everyone starts seeing things more from his perspective.
In “Introduction to Statistics,” Greendale continues to prove it is the most ineptly run community college in the world by spending funds on its umpteenth high school-esque dance. In this one, Abed comes dressed as Christian Bale’s Batman and does the whole show in the “Bat-voice.” At one point Jeff chastises him for it, but in reality all the characters start treating him like the silent guardian of Nolan’s opaque shadows. It’s freaking hilarious. In a moment, the show goes from being a sitcom about college friends, one of whom is obsessed with meta-winks to pop culture, to being its own self-aware entity for whom the constraints of continuity and verisimilitude are irrelevant matters to be thrown to the wind. Overnight, Community transformed into what it always seemed destined to be, an unbridled celebration of all things Geeky and a haven for those who know the “TV tropes” better than supposed Geek programming of formulaic shtick like The Big Bang Theory. It became the “hip” and knowing show for those who prefer self-mocking satire over comfy, repeatable status quo. As Abed would say, it became cool, cool, cool.
During the majority of its first season, Community grew into a trendy series about whatever niche nerd passions resided in the souls of Harmon and his fellow writers. Jeff quit being the reluctant leader of this gang of screw-ups and turned into their self-adoring savior who captained them through narcissistic adventures. We were to love them, in spite of the show often reminding us that they may not all be very good people. They celebrate Christmas by having Shirley guilt Jeff into loving her like Jesus or being unwelcome in her gatherings where she tries to ostracize Annie’s Jewish religion. Jeff sleeps with Pierce’s stepdaughter (Katherine McPhee), but it’s okay because Pierce is only paying her to pretend to love him. Pierce is such a lifetime fail that he manages to drown in a sailing class. Taught in a parking lot. Twice.
It’s a lovingly mocking show about deranged people who may imagine their dead mother’s voices lecturing them during pottery class and who have way too many school functions to properly pay for classes. By the end of the season, the generic “Will they or won’t they” storyline staple, the centerpiece of 90 percent of sitcoms, between Jeff and Britta is thrown out the window in favor of them having continuous, self-hating, meaningless sex The comedy even subverts that trope by ending the season on the awkward coupling of Jeff and Annie. They share a kiss that can be viewed as equal parts sweet and creepy. They could be the “opposites attract” love story of a young, idealistic go-getter and a vain, grumpy cynic balancing each other out…or they could be the story of a leering pervert seducing a young, naïve girl. For comedic purposes the show likes having it both ways in the subsequent seasons, however it is ultimately still an unresolved joke. It’s not supposed to keep audiences coming back to see another kiss. The show assumes that we, like Abed, have seen it a million times and couldn’t care less. But we may love seeing that old convention parodied in a way that’s alternately touching and slyly hysterical because, again like Abed, it’s the true M.O. of the show.
The most defining episode of the first season, and perhaps the whole series, is “Modern Warfare.” In that episode, Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) offers a friendly game of paintball assassins to his students (who again aren’t in class), but makes the prize the freakishly coveted priority registration. An hour later, the campus has descended into a surreal paint-torn landscape of multi colored wet walls and pastel oozing trash cans. The lone survivors can only endure by aping what they’ve seen in movies, like the theatrical gangs of The Warriors (1979) or Abed doing his best Michael Biehn in Terminator impression. It all comes down to a paint-soaked love scene between Jeff and Britta in the study’s group library who are then cornered by Spanish teacher Senor Chang (Ken Jeong). The demented instructor goes John Woo on them, complete with slow motion machine gun (paint) fire and doves, but he is no match for Jeff’s Die Hard callback. In that moment, the show broke its last tethers to sitcom formula and was playing in Abed’s world now.
When the second season begins, all the characters are much broader and more cartoonishly defined. I do not mean this as an insult. Like many animated sitcoms, such as South Park or The Simpsons, the characters were widely reimagined as archetypes who can be used in unbounded storylines to deconstruct their world and many others. When the show opens, they are all in their own, character defining apartments. Pierce sleeps in an ‘80s waterbed under a portrait of young Chevy, obviously mocking how Pierce (and some would say Chevy) worships himself. Troy is truly a child in a man’s body who wears Spider-Man pajamas (also self-referential as Donald Glover pursued the role of Spidey in The Amazing Spider-Man and is said to be the inspiration for Miles Morales in Ultimate Spider-Man). And Annie has a pink girl’s bedroom as she daydreams about Jeff’s kiss. Sigh. All Abed can say is, “We’re back.”
In many ways, the show became more open and more niche in its second season. The cast was finally allowed to have adventures off campus and to be seen in their homes. We were allowed to see what Jeff’s law firm of sharks looked like. Also, most importantly, the bit players like Dean Pelton and Chang became unofficial members of the gang. Pelton, a not so secretly Gay man, has a fetish for men dressed up as Dalmatians and Jeff Winger. And in the second season he’s all out of Dalmatian costumes. His good-natured stalking is both hilarious and more insidiously funny than most network comedy. While in comparison, Chang makes the cross-dressing Pelton look like a Disney character with his twisted machinations to join the study group. In the show’s premiere, he is recovering from being dismissed as an instructor from Greendale and ends the episode by revealing he will either join the Study Group or destroy them in a humorously weird tip of the hat to Gollum.
The show’s snappier pace and plotting became great for those who like their comedy as free styling as a forced Village poetry read. There’s an episode where they all pose as NASA astronauts when their “space simulator” RV gets stolen with the study group trapped inside. In another, Abed literally compares himself to Jesus Christ as he films a self-aware film about him filming a film about making Shirley’s Jesus web-series. To quote Shirley, “That sounds very appealing to filmmakers…I mean c’mon Charlie Kauffman, some of us have work in the morning!” My favorite of these meta-parodies include one where the entire school is turned into zombies from taco meat which a Gaga-dressed Pelton buys on discount before trapping them all in the library with zombies and ABBA music. Another is when Jeff and Annie try to solve the conspiracy behind the Conspiracy Theory night class Jeff made up turning out to really exist. As they crack the mystery, they also cross paths with Troy and Abed’s bustling school-wide “Blanket Town,” complete with a Turkish district and a permit-legal Latvian Independence Day Parade.
The show’s meta-satire of even itself became increasingly more obscure and indulgent. Even Abed may wonder if he saw the show if the snake risked eating itself tail first. While some thrived under its new demeanor, Jacobs became comically ingenious when Britta was rewritten as a counterculture poser who fails at everything, others were not so hot on it. Reportedly Chevy was never happy that his character was frequently the butt of others’ jokes and not the one dishing them like Fletch. His bumbling persona gave way for one of true malevolence and evil. Given how the second half of Season 2 revolved around how evil and mean-spirited Pierce is, including trying to drive a suicidal Dungeons & Dragons player to the edge, one has to question if it was in response to the frosty relationship between Harmon and Chase. Also, the show had long quit being the collegiate set comedy that NBC greenlit. Sure, there were occasional episodes of Betty White as their new Anthropology teacher, but the show was just as likely to do a faux “Clips Episode” with clips to adventures we never saw or a parody of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Community will likely always be a cult classic for those who can catch even a fraction of its references, but for the everyday viewer, the lack of formula or reliable sameness could be more sin than virtue. As the show’s creative integrity grew, its ratings fell and Community became a network sitcom that only could make it to a third season because it was on the least watched network.
The second season ended with another paintball war, this one a two parter, themed around Sergio Leone westerns for the first half and Star Wars films for the second. With Abed playing Han Solo and Annie having For A Few Dollars More influenced flashbacks, the show had pretty much given up on attracting casual viewers. The third season became even more defiantly peculiar with an entire episode devoted to the concept of multiple universes and string theory. Instead of Abed giving homage to only mainstream blockbusters like The Dark Knight (which he still did), his passion became a show-within-a-show parody of British cult series Doctor Who. For those of us who know the difference between a Dalek and a Sonic Screwdriver, Troy and Abed converting their extra bedroom into a playroom/“Imaginarium” where they can dress up as Inspector Spacetime and Constable Reggie is as cool as a bowtie and fess cap. But for a viewer whose idea of a good punch line involves canned studio laughter, it is just freaking weird.
Season 3 did return to some of the heart of Community’s first semester with Jeff letting go of his desire to be a lawyer again. The second half was driven in large part by Troy learning to grow up while also accepting that Abed cannot. Even Annie seemingly gets over her crush for Jeff. However, between Harmon and Chase’s feud becoming public and its ever more fantastical writing (the last few episodes of the season involve a Ken Burns mockumentary about Pillows and Blankets, Chang trying to blow up the school after kidnapping the Dean for months and an episode told nearly all in 8-bit videogame graphics), it is no surprise that NBC let creator Harmon go. The last episode of Harmon’s run is entitled “Introduction to Finality” and is about Jeff accepting his new life and letting go of his vanity; Abed also lets go of his Evil Abed split-personality who is hell bent on cutting Jeff’s arm off. It could be argued that this is the show’s real series finale.
Yet, here we are awaiting, with baited breath, Community’s return. David Guarascio and Moses Port, writers on the friendly Happy Endings, have taken over as showrunners from Harmon. They promise it will still be the show that the Cult of Community loves, but it remains to be seen whether that is true or if it still works. Ominous harbingers of the show’s fate abound. Even with Harmon gone, Chase and NBC have already announced the actor will leave at the end of the season. Albeit, since the show was meant to premiere last October and got moved to February, it seems unlikely there will even be a fifth season.
During the fake clip episode of Season 2, Abed has an episode-long arc of becoming obsessed with NBC’s short-lived superhero show, The Cape. When cancellation seemed imminent (and it was), Abed insisted that it would have “six seasons and a movie!” Six seasons and a movie has become the rallying cry for Community’s community of fans. They are determined to see that self-referential joke be delivered upon in two more years. I doubt that’s remotely possible given the show’s previous ratings and NBC’s growing upswing in viewership. However, four years may be just enough for a show about collegiate life (never mind most only spend two years in community college). Even if this potentially senior year is its last, we can look back on it and see a fleeting moment of brilliance. Like most cult TV shows, it will have a shelf life that will long outlast its final network airing. For some, the memories of Greendale’s Quad will be as real as their own. That sort of legacy will keep this show always Streets Ahead of the vast majority of programming on television. Still, six seasons would be cool…cool, cool.