I’ll preface this entry by saying that this particular story is not for everyone. The TV show Community has a brand of humor that can be caustic, dark and downright bizarre. Its characters are deeply flawed and rarely heroic; its setting is a place where people go when they’ve failed to achieve the typical milestones of life. However, if those features aren’t too off-putting for you, there is plenty to enjoy in Community.
The show centers around a study group at the fictitious Greendale Community College. Each character has a rather depressing reason for attending school there, starting with ex-lawer Jeff Winger, who lost his job upon the discovery that he faked his college degree. But this isn’t a show about school, though classes do sometimes provide the context for plot or theme (and almost every episode is titled to sound like a course at a community college). Nor is it a show about a group of unexpected friends forming a family, at least not in a consistently heartwarming manner. It’s a show…about a show. It comments on itself, and on the conventions of television and storytelling, almost constantly.
Much of this meta-commentary comes in the form of Abed Nadir. He’s possibly autistic, though it’s never stated explicitly, and he relates to the world purely through the lens of TV and movies. In the very first episode, he tries to make sense of their study group meeting by comparing it to the film The Breakfast Club. From then on, pop culture references abound in every episode. Sometimes it’s just a quote or a brief nod, and sometimes the entire episode is a pastiche of another show or film. There’s “Contemporary American Poultry,” wherein the study group morphs into a sort of cafeteria-mafia in a spoof on Goodfellas. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is a hilarious and surprisingly touching send-up of claymation holiday specials. “A Fistful of Paintballs” parodies westerns, and “For a Few Paintballs More” shifts into a Star Wars tribute.
The quality of each episode varies, frequently influenced by behind-the-scenes factors. The showrunner, Dan Harmon, was fired after season three, then asked to return for season five. Most fans agree that season four was the weakest. After NBC cancelled it, the show managed to get a final sixth season with Yahoo Streaming, of all things. But by then several of the core cast had left the show for various reasons, and even the best episodes of seasons 5 and 6 couldn’t quite capture the original magic.
The good news is, Community isn’t particularly serialized. There are a few multi-episode arcs, but for the most part, you can enjoy each episode on its own. Even “Paradigms of Human Memory,” which has the appearance of a clip show, is actually a sly jab at that laziest of TV-writing tropes, because almost none of the flashback clips are from actual previous episodes. This is a show that’s almost too clever for its own good, deconstructing convention after cliché after convention…but then we see how those conventions and clichés are such a comfort to Abed, allowing him to make sense of a chaotic world, and we see that for all Community is poking fun, it’s doing so lovingly. Just…tough love.
I haven’t even scratched the surface of its wry, sardonic, funhouse-mirror view of pop culture and television. It’s probably for the best that Community ended when it did, before it completely collapsed under the weight of its own self-awareness. The finale was about as satisfying as you can expect from a show that regularly recoiled from comfortable, pat resolutions. But like any other fan, I’m still holding out hope for the fulfillment of Abed’s mantra: Six seasons and a movie!