Fri
Apr 20 2012 12:00pm
Community: Subverting the Genre

Community: Subverting the Genre

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.

Community: Subverting the Genre

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.

Community: Subverting the Genre

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.

Community: Subverting the Genre

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.

Community: Subverting the Genre

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.”

Streets ahead.


Mordicai Knode is a pretty even split between an “Abed” and a “Britta,” and probably has hoarded way too many animated Annie gifs. He’ll share them with you on Twitter if you ask.

16 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
Last night's episode couldn't have made my point any more eloquently-- a mash-up of Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodek, Doctor Who, Grey's Anatomy & ultimately & above all...a poignant character study on the alienation that comes from not being neurotypical.
Desertpaladin
2. Desertpaladin
Great Review and so True. Community is a great show and never ceases to amaze me.
Francesco Paonessa
3. ErrantKnave
It seems like every episode is about finding friendship. The characters learn to care, and I think that's why the fans in turn care about them.
Mordicai Knode
4. mordicai
"DesertPaladin," "ErrantKnave," I'm starting to think I'm in the plot of Homestuck & these are my session's "WaywardVagabond" & "PeregrineMendicant" types!

3. ErrantKnave

I'd agree with the caveat that it is often more complex than just finding friendship, but deepening it, surviving rifts in it, letting it bloom in surprising places-- it is about sort of an ur-tribe of humans, finding their way in the bleak & quirky setting of...community college.
Desertpaladin
5. Kingtycoon
Nice dance moves snowy - but let me tell you about a show called Parker Lewis Can't Loose.

And the Adventures of Pete and Pete - I mean - I know you're down with Buffy - but I'm telling you - popular surrealism has been around.
Francesco Paonessa
6. ErrantKnave
4. @mordicai, Absolutely. It is as complex as you say. It makes me wonder how Dan Harmon first boiled down the concept into a 30-second elevator pitch without leaving out so much.

Heh... I've had this name for a while. Kickpuncher was already taken.
Desertpaladin
7. Improbable Joe
I've only seen the one episode, like last week's episode I guess? The vampire one. It seemed pretty obvious that this is a "show with a lot of heart" and sort of covers it up in a mishmash of semi-random cultural stuffs. I guess I'll be going back and watching it from the beginning now. Great.
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai
5. Kingtycoon

Don't come at me with that Parker Lews Can't Lose like I don't know about the Kube & how Jerry's trench came from NASA. That is a really good comparison, however, & I would pay GOOD CASH MONEY to see Jeff as Parker, Britta as Mikey, Abed as Jerry, the Dean as Musso, Chang as Lemmer, Annie as Shelly, & given Shirley's history as a bully, she can be Kube.
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
7. Improbable Joe

The mish-mash is less random & more "carefully calculated in order to prep your subconcious to put it in the appropriate state to receive the narrative."
Mordicai Knode
10. mordicai
6. ErrantKnave

If you want to see Dan Harmon basically having a constant seizure of elevator pitches, his Channel 101 & Acceptable.TV stuff is that in a nutshell. I'm particularly fond of "Homeless James Bond."
Desertpaladin
11. Mariah
1. mordicai

What really sold me on last night's episode was that it WAS a character story, and WAS poignant. It could have all too easily been "Oh, poor Abed, he is different and has such problems." But instead it was "Abed has the same insecurities as the rest of the group, but is unique in his expression of them." Gold!

Abed's character to me has always been played a bit odd: quirky, but we'll let it slide because it's Abed. He's neuroatypical, he's fluffy and cute and very self aware of it, he's downright creepy at times, and he can be a serious dick. I'm glad the events since the pillowfight episode have explored the downside of Abed more.

(Long side note: did you notice that in Abed's Robocop vision in "Aerodynamics of Gender," he was listing the girls' menstrual cycles on the left? Which was used in the next episode when they were searching the notebooks and found Abed was charting them in the notebook. Which was used to determine that Shirley was ovulating when she had sex with Chang in the Zombie episode, which became a major storyline until Abed helped deliver the baby, which was set up for in "The Psychology of Letting Go" when he delivered a baby in the background, which was accidentally set up for when everyone is told at the Sex Fair not to wear condoms, etc... It is absurdly awesome to me how a show which relies so little on being linear to develop its characters can maintain such a rigid sense of continuity!)

Anyhow, Abed. When Abed has been a jerk to his friends, people are very quick to rush in and try to patiently explain, "well, he's Asperger's!" Claiming to be on the autism spectrum is "in" right now -- it means that everyone has to think of you as brilliant by design, but at once has to excuse your horrible behavior. I like that the show is aware of this: Abed is mentally quick enough to be cute and cuddly and likeable to people outside of the group, but to people who have to spend more time with him, his behavior can be tiresome, and sometimes, yes -- Abed is a dick. It's not just that he has Asperger's. He really can be a dick to the people who care about him sometimes, and *just like* the rest of the group -- when he is a dick, is it most often out of his sense of insecurity, his desire to be accepted. Human is human!
Mordicai Knode
13. mordicai
6. ErrantKnave
&
12. Kickpuncher

This sounds like the origin story of...Punchkicker!
Sky Thibedeau
14. SkylarkThibedeau
Alas this may be the Last Hurrah,

DARN YOU CHEDDAR CHEESE! DARN YOU TO HECK!
alex
15. jerec84
What I really love his how Community will make fun of the characters. Usually it's Abed pointing out what people will do, because he understands plots, but in this most recent episode, as Abed was pretending to be everyone else, in reality it was all the other actors trying to be their own characters with Abed mannerisms. Very noticable when there's two Annie's on screen - one is still very clearly Abed.

It reminded me of a scene earlier this season where Jeff does a spot on impersonation of the Dean as an attempt to parody him for the commercial.
Mordicai Knode
16. mordicai
15. jerec84


Yeah; I think that inclination to self-parody is an indicator of how deep in everyone's had the writers & cast are. I mean, that is a level of meta removed-- not just "actor pretending to be character" but "actor pretending to be character pretending to be other character" (& "writing a character" versus "writing a character doing a good impression of another character.")

These are such things as dreams are made of!

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