Tonight, the NBC comedy Community is airing an episode where the characters spend most of their time playing Dungeons & Dragons. Personally, were I to get stuck watching someone play a tableop RPG l would start wondering how my life got to that point, yet I can’t wait to see how Community will use this facet of fantasy culture.
Part of it is the absolutely stellar cast and part of it is a writing team so sharp they rescued Chevy Chase from 30+ years of comedic irrelevance (Chevy Chase, people!)
Mostly, however, I can’t wait to see tonight’s episode because the show has demonstrated time and time again that it knows science fiction/fantasy culture.
1.) Batman says hey.
Community started off slowly in regards to featuring SFF culture, couching references safely within its first Halloween episode, “Introduction to Statistics.” This episode itself is as funny as anything else on TV. (A feat in itself, considering that most shows take an entire season to shake off their sluggishness and really find a rhythm.) But as soon as pop culture cipher Abed (Danny Pudi) shows up as Batman, the show reaches a whole new level of absurdity.
What kills me the most is the wavering casualness of Abed’s Batman impression. One moment he’s warning of a storm on the horizon, the next he’s scoping out the snack situation and reassuring his best friend Troy (Donald Glover) of his attractiveness. Abed/Batman continues this throughout the episode, culminating with a literal heroic rescue and wanderingly triumphant monologue:
No, I can’t sleep. You sleep. I’m awake. I don’t sleep. I don’t blink. Am I bird? No, I’m Batman. Or am I? Yes, I’m Batman.
2.) My punches have the power of kicks; jokes not so much
Troy and Abed are the primary characters through which the show channels its SFF knowledge, and in first season episode “Romantic Expressionism,” the show gave us a peek into what they do for relaxation: consume bad sci-fi.
The scene manages to capture that perfect awkwardness that results whenever you get together with friends to riff on a so-bad-its-good movie. You’re not actually being funny if you look at it out of context (like the viewer is encouraged to do here), but within the context of the gathering you don’t have to be. That’s part of the fun! You don’t have to measure your jokes against everything the viewer has seen, just your friends.
The episode gets a lot of mileage out of the fake B-movie it features, too. Later on in the episode, Troy and Abed dress up as Kickpuncher and his arch-nemesis, Punchkicker, and act out a climactic battle between them. (Spoiler: Kickpuncher wins. I think.)
3.) Checkmate, Bitches
SFF jokes abounded in the show as it’s first season wrapped up. At one point, Abed unwittingly gains a talent for telling the future. Pierce (Chevy Chase) is tricked into dressing up like a wizard for a whole day. Robots are built. Klingon is passed off as Spanish. And an argument over Avatar is rehashed.
Near the end of the first season, however, Community raised the bar once more, turning its entire third-to-last episode “Modern Warfare” into an in-character homage to every action movie ever.
(NBC borked the original clip here so please enjoy the above clipfest from that episode, complete with random soundtrack inserted by user!)
What really made “Modern Warfare” rise above standard comedy homages was its commitment to integrating the show’s setting and the characters’s ongoing emotional arcs into this ridiculous situation. The result is surprisingly believable, making the trope-parodying all that more sublime.
4.) The Power of Imagination, The Search For Balance
With Community having broken the homage barrier in the most spectacular manner possible, episode-long parodies have since become far common. The current season’s episode “Basic Rocket Science,” was an Apollo 13 homage featuring the characters being trapped in an old space simulator sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken and featuring an Atari 2600-level computer program called “S.A.N.D.E.R.S.” (It stood for “Systematic Android Network Diode Energy Rocket System” and managed to be none of those things.)
The show has also tapped the conspiracy theory movie field, and the claymation Christmas, but it veered back into heavy, heavy SFF territory with its zombie-themed Halloween special, “Epidemiology.”
In the below clip, Troy manages to be the last uninfected and must get to the thermostat before everyone overheats from the cannibalistic fever (resulting from ingestion of military-grade experimental taco meat). To do so, he suits up in his Alien costume from earlier in the episode; a costume that had received so much ridicule that he briefly rejected being a nerd and his best friend Abed as a result.
Here, Troy reclaims his pride over being a nerd. Although he still can’t escape the very real fact that his costume was ridiculous.
The episode very adroitly deals with the fact that while being a nerd can be mind-expanding and huge fun, it can’t propel you entirely through life. There are problems that can’t be resolved like they are in SFF, issues that can’t be encapsulated so neatly, and important personal connections that can’t be made solely on shared pop culture memory. Best of all, this episode gets that point across without talking down to its audience and without mocking the SFF culture that the characters (and this particular viewer) embraces.
5.) Why We Retreat Into SFF
The show made a similar point regarding the structure of fiction in its second season premiere, “Anthropology 101.” In the climax of the episode, the study group leader Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) confronts Abed about his redressing of Jeff’s relationships into stupid sitcom tropes in order to give them pat, happy endings. This prompts Abed to explain why he confronts the world in that manner:
I can tell life from TV, Jeff. TV makes sense; it has structure, logic, rules, and likable leading men. In life, we have this. We have you.
Abed’s short explanation expertly sums up why a lot of us are so invested in science fiction and fantasy—in reading, basically—in the first place. There’s a certain transference that occurs when a character (or characters) finally save the world after a seventeen book series. We feel their triumph personally and having all the drama and arcs wrapped up give us a unique sense of accomplishment.
That makes us feel better about our own untidy, sometimes small-scale, lives and in turn inspires us to achieve that accomplishment for ourselves.
6.) The Greatest Stories Ever Endlessly Re-told
SFF references both insightful and random continue to pepper the show and, sometimes, impede it. Here, the climax of “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” is interrupted so Abed can have a discussion about how Spock is like Jesus and SFF a natural extension of the Bible’s resurrection story.
7.) Conflict Resolution Skills
And sometimes everything has to come to a stop so Cabbage Jedi Professor Duncan (John Oliver) can use a restraining order to Force-push Chang (Ken Jeong) out of the school cafeteria.
I haven’t even covered the entirety of the SFF references in Community. (A recent episode had someone use a pick-up line referencing The Last Starfighter extensively and it actually worked.) It’s certainly not the first show to pepper itself liberally with nerd references, but it’s the first comedy I’ve watched in a long time that actually uses SFF tropes and culture as serious motivation. SFF isn’t just a punchline on Community and because of that the show speaks to SFF fans on a more realistic keel than a TV show would otherwise be expected to do. Hilariously so.
For the record, despite what Community claims, in no way was Stargate ever better than Farscape.
Chris Greenland really hated cutting the clip of Annie doing the robot.