People like to say that Community is a show about references, but that only tells the most humble slice of the story. Saying Community is a show about references is like saying Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a parody of horror films — true in the loosest of respects, but missing the essential kernel of truth. Community is about the semiotics of the sitcom, it is about the tropes of every single genre, it is about the cinematic language and the shared culture we all bring piecemeal to the table when we sit down as audiences. I don’t mean to toss out a lot of fifty-cent jargon and leave it there, but Community isn’t what it seems to be at first glance.
Unless, that is, your first impression is “hilarious,” because you’ve got me there, it is that. Community does what lots of deconstructed stories fail to do — be good.
Let’s take a quick example; “Remedial Chaos Theory.” Do you need to have parallel dimensions explained to you? Of course not; a couple of tossed off lines including the phrase “alternate timelines” and you are good to go, because we share the same memes. We’ve been exposed to enough science-fiction over the years; we’ve got it. As for the so called…darkest timeline? You know about evil twins in alternate dimension. You know all about Spock’s beard. Of course you do.
And when a Dark Abed shows up in “Contemporary Impressionists” with a svelte goatee, that moment is dripping with menace and meaning, because it isn’t a reference, it is a hieroglyph. It is a complex symbol laden with information that you understand in a flash.
References are spoon-fed to you; Community is a buffet. It would be difficult for a viewer to pick up every single allusion to literature and pop culture on a single viewing, but that is alright. Better than alright — that is part of the point; every viewer finds their own path. The riddle game is unique for everyone who watches an episode; it a treasure map to personal significance. Maybe the Ken Burns documentary doesn’t do anything for you but Malcolm Jamal Warner’s character saying his dad gave him his dopey sweater makes you tear up. Perhaps the Doctor Who shibboleths being bandied about are not your cup of tea (You aren’t going to make your very own Inspector Spacetime Confession?) but the homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey made you gasp “my god!” The whole Glee pastiche went over your head (Invasion of the Body Snatchers is what now?) but the sight of Alison Brie in quasi-Resident Evil garb sent you into conniptions. Community leaves a unique fingerprint on the viewer.
I mentioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I really do think it is the best comparison — not in tone, but in tenor. Buffy is in many ways based on an inversion of the slasher movie cliché of the scream queen victim; the blonde girl preyed upon by the masked killer…only, of course, Buffy is the turn of the table, the doe-eyed cheerleader who’ll stake and slash her way through hell.
Community is a similar exegesis on the sitcom, particularly the high concept sitcoms of the 80s and 90s — wind up your wacky premise and let the chips fall where they may. Community subverts the tropes by using the oldest trick in the book: making you care about the characters. The kooky theme of an episode isn’t a set piece, it is set dressing.
Ultimately Jeff, Britta, Abed, Shirley, Annie, Troy, and Pierce are the heart of the story; they are our Moorcockian Eternal Champions, and whether they are stuck in a stop motion holiday film, competing to dominate the Model UN or fighting off a literal horde of literal zombies, the story is about them. It is a character study, and when Community bombards you with a hodge-podge of influences what it is really giving you is a set of tools, of crowbars and DSM-IVs.
Dan Harmon is Ariadne, tossing you a ball of twine and hoping you can find your way out of the labyrinth which is the deeply dysfunctional and deeply charming psychology of our ragtag cast of misfits. The cracks in the Fourth Wall, the sly acknowledgements of the show’s inaccessibility are just the post-modern icing on the cake. No. Not “post-modern.”