With an epic narrative to rival the trials of Odysseus and his men, any fan of Dan Harmon’s “Community” can recount its constant struggle to remain on the air. In fact, the current hashtag on Twitter when defending the show is #sixseasonsandamovie, making a reference to the characters’ obsession with the short-lived NBC superhero drama, “The Cape.” One of the characters Abed Nadir, remains confident that “The Cape” will return and carry out its destiny of six full seasons and movie. “Community” fans are just as fervent and believe their show holds the same destiny. This type of self-awareness is what makes “Community” a fan favorite: it provides a metacommentary for those who participate in the ironic, cult fandom of the 21st century.
In “Paradigms of Human Memory,” Abed, dressed as the superhero from “The Cape,” sneaks up on Jeff Winger as he is eating lunch in the cafeteria. Abed throws out his cape with a flourish and knocks over Jeff’s lunch. There is a beat of comedic silence as Jeff turns to snap at Abed. Before he can do so, Abed flees the scene with Jeff shouting angrily after him, “Show’s going to last three weeks!” Abed spins around with another flourish and responds, “Six seasons and a movie!” The battle cry of “six seasons and a movie” has taken on a life of its own; the same can be said for the cult NBC show. The Twitter mark #sixseasonsandamovie illustrates the fervor of “Community” fans: like Abed, they must watch their show face extinction during each season renewal and, like Abed, they know every line, every reference, and every character nuance. Based on the misadventures of a community college student group, “Community” outlines a cast of weirdos whose hang-ups, behavioral issues, and personality disorders make for a very strange situational comedy. The core protagonists, the Study Group, make up the primary narrative thread; every member has been through a traumatic life event and every member wishes to make something of themselves at Greendale Community College (which is itself a college for social pariahs and misfits). “Community” encourages an honest weirdness in a hipster heavy, “ultra cool” culture. With reality TV shows dictating the way to behave and episodic shows promoting flashy storylines, the show offers a quiet reprieve where a bunch of misfits can come together and celebrate their absurdities.
When the show first premiered, it carried the image of a typical NBC sitcom: six “nobodies” form an unlikely friendship as they attend the poorly managed Greendale Community College. The primary hero’s journey centers around the Study Group’s lead Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale of “The Soup” fame). Jeff begins his story in the pilot as a fallen hero – he has been exposed as a fraud in his law firm. Although he is the best lawyer they have, the joke lies in the realization that even the unscrupulous law firm has standards. As a result, Jeff must redeem himself by proving he can complete a degree. He enters the school ready to coast by and enlists the help of his friend/Greendale professor, Dr. Ian Duncan, who has misgivings about Jeff’s plan to cheat his way through community college:
Duncan: I thought you had a Bachelor’s from Columbia?
Jeff: And now I have to get one from America (“Pilot”).
Jeff sees Greendale for what it is: a home for those who failed at the American Dream and he doesn’t belong within its walls. Greendale is temporary and Jeff plans to manipulate his way through its system.
In an attempt to hook up with the “hot blonde” in his Spanish class, Jeff forms a study group made up of tragic misfits: Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), a single mother whose husband ran off with a stripper, leaving her to raise her two boys alone; Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), a Baby Boomer and heir to a moist towelette fortune, but can’t run the company due to his inept life skills; Annie Edison (Alison Brie), a former overachiever-turned-drug addict-turned-overachiever; Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), a high school star athlete who is suffering from an injury that took away his football scholarship; the “hot blonde” Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), a vegan, opinionated activist/stoner who is more stoner than activist; and Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), the socially awkward, often categorized as someone on the Aspergers spectrum, who needs to communicate through pop culture references and superhero stories. Like Jeff, they were promised a mainstream American Dream and were left out. Jeff’s selfish behavior backfires when he discovers that these misfits trust him and view him as their suave, worldly leader. The pilot ends with Jeff connecting with the Study Group and agreeing to stay a member of the group. However, it doesn’t end with Jeff finding redemption (that is believed to come later in the series). The episode ends with a dedication to John Hughes to wrap up the many “Breakfast Club” references made throughout the pilot. The first lesson for “Community” audiences is clear: understand the pop culture references and thereby understand the meaning of the show. In this case, “The Breakfast Club” references serve as subtext for the Study Group origin story: members from different backstories, or real world cliques, help each other break out of the stereotypes already set by the larger world outside of Greendale. The show’s narrative will be simple: stereotypes will be presented each week in a standard sitcom format and it is the audience’s job to look beyond it.
What follows for the next four seasons, and into the recent fifth, is a breakdown of Jeff’s ego. The group wears Jeff down until all that is left is an exposed nerve of nerd. Jeff and the audience enter a geek learning curve: the posh, obnoxious lawyer gets swept into the absurd-realism that is Greendale. Like Jeff, the audience is thrust into a world where the rules, behaviors, and social norms do not mirror those we see outside in the “real world” of sitcoms. Paintball matches, biology assignments, and Dungeons and Dragons are literally life and death situations. We, as an audience, may have favorite characters, but Jeff’s journey is ours. Jeff and the audience leave the Ordinary World of “cool” culture and join forces with allies that may not have been our friends in real life. To return with the Elixir is more than the Greendale degree – to return is to understand what it means to be part of a subculture.
While Jeff may be the leader of the Study Group, Abed serves as the Greek Chorus for the players at Greendale. His love for filmmaking and popular culture references, coupled with his desire to make connections with others has given Abed control over the show’s reality. Abed determines the rules to “Community’s” geek mythos. This power makes the rest of the characters struggle to place Abed into a category – which is the problem that mainstream viewers find with “Community.” The show is often criticized for its metanarrative, which is interpreted as not playing by official “mainstream rules.” Where are the loveable characters? Where is the nonsense stream of consciousness that makes Seth MacFarlane’s work so popular? How can audiences connect to the show if their tour guide is a young man who cannot separate his television obsessions with sitcom realism?
These questions are not suitable for a standard 22 minute comedic episode and the characters are quick to point this out. In “Paradigms of Human Memory” (season two), the purpose of the episode is to parody the standard clip shows used when a sitcom hopes to entice new viewers. The only issue with this “clip show” is the scenes shown in the episode never happened. “Community” manages to create new memories and poses them as memories that happened offstage. Shirley jokes in the episode that clip shows are a form of “bottle episodes” in which the characters stay in one room and do nothing but talk to each other (this is another show reference made just for fans: the Study Group had already completed a bottle episode that season in episode 8, “Cooperative Calligraphy,” when Annie’s favorite pen goes missing). “Paradigms of Human Memory” is the true test for a geek fanbase – it provides a scavenger hunt for viewers who are already familiar with the show’s nuances to search for stereotypical sitcom fare. The joke is to see which character handles which trope. If the viewer passes this test, then true fandom can be bestowed. However, as the case with all hero narratives, this test comes with price. Abed makes this fatal mistake when he begins creating flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. He is going too far and the show is at stake of losing its appeal to a very specific niche. Luckily, our hero from the outside, Jeff, brings Abed back to reality: “Abed! Stop being meta! Why do you always have to take whatever happens to us and shove it up its own ass?!” (“Paradigms of Human Memory”). Jeff is the voice of reason for the viewers. It will venture into its own subculture, but in its essence, it is a sitcom on a mainstream network. The show is aware of what it can get away with, as a result, knows when to pull itself back into approachable realism.
Although the characters are confused by Abed, they tend to be overprotective of him. Abed’s earnest look at a world that refuses to be understood (the Dean insists on wearing ridiculous outfits to make announcements and most professors are underqualified and prone to vendettas against students) allows the absurdity of Dan Harmon’s work to stick. Abed is our logos and pathos to the show. His struggle to belong is similar to the show’s struggle to stand out among reality tv and formulaic sitcoms. Luckily, he has found this connection with Troy. Abed allows Troy to tap into his inner weirdo; the two form a fast, bromance that borders on sincere, infantile, and a bit creepy. In the end credits to “Introduction to Statistics,” Troy and Abed have a heart-to-heart using their best Batman voices:
Troy: That’s one of my biggest fears.
Abed: What is?
Troy: If I ever, like, woke up as a donut…
Abed: You would eat yourself?
Troy: I wouldn’t even question it.
Abed: Mmm. That’d be tasty.
Troy: It’s cool to know other people think about this stuff, too (“Introduction to Statistics”).
It is clear that Abed doesn’t judge Troy, or anyone. Abed doesn’t take his own world too seriously because he knows that no one else will. With Troy, the two can share their utmost fears – even if the mainstream finds it silly. The scene does have a point: would your self-preservation get in the way of self-deliciousness? Which would YOU choose? Whatever the answer, you are in a place of acceptance.
Troy may accept Abed for who he is, but the rest of the Study Group is concerned for his well being. Britta, who insists on saving the world no matter how much of a mess she makes, tries to fill in as Abed’s maternal force. In “Physical Education,” the study group attempts to create a different version of Abed. True to form, Abed pulls his new personality from a variety of TV characters, including Don Draper and Jeff. Britta hopes that Abed’s new personality will make Jenny, a fellow coed, like Abed for who he is (as long as it is the “he” the Study Group creates). Abed heads out to seduce Jenny and ends up tangling with her boyfriend, who is also played by Danny Pudi but made up to look like a “white Abed.” Just like that, Abed’s attempt to be normal gets upstaged by a bizarro version of himself. This moment sums up the show quite well: even when “Community” attempts to join traditional sitcom ranks, its comic book geekery shows itself and the entire enterprise is lost. “Community” could pretend to be like every other show on the sitcom line-up (quirky characters, silly plotlines that ultimately lead into something tangible like a romance, and a real message at the end of each episode), but like Abed, it must stay true to itself.
Abed: The truth is lots of girls like me because, let’s face it, I’m pretty adorable, and, uh, my aloofness unconsciously reminds them of their fathers, so… I’m more used to them approaching me.
Britta: So we didn’t damage your self-esteem or anything?
Abed: Britta, I’ve got self-esteem falling out of my butt. That’s why I was willing to change for you guys. When you really know who you are and what you like about yourself, changing for other people isn’t such a big deal.
Once again, our Greek Chorus/metanarrator has made a point: “Community” doesn’t have to set out to make an impact with its audience; it just does. The show is aware of what it is – the underdog, the geek nirvana, the one joke that most people don’t understand – so trying to embark on a traditional sitcom path won’t harm the overall narrative. Instead it shows its viewers that it CAN change; it just doesn’t see a point to.
Unfortunately, the group’s compassion only focuses within their own ranks. Many citizens of Greendale fall victim to the Study Group’s selfishness. The first real casualty is Buddy, played by Jack Black, who makes the mistake of asking to join the Study Group in season one’s “Investigative Journalism.” It is at this point in the show’s narrative that the Study Group needs to assess what they truly are to each other: a Study Group (a family, a counter-culture, a support system) or a study group? At the beginning of the episode it is a new semester and the group, especially Jeff, makes a promise to take on new challenges. They get their challenge with Buddy, who serves as the outside culture trying to make its way in. Buddy attempts to be meta, just like the Study Group by suggesting they bring back “you go girl,” but in a way “where we’re kind of winking at it?” (“Investigative Journalism”). This suggestion is an obvious trope of lampshade hanging, in which the audience has to decide if it wants to let in mainstream logic (obviously the critics) influence the Greendale reality. As a mirror to the audience’s supposed reaction, the group is put off by Buddy’s friendliness and Jeff even goes so far as to refer to him as a “non-grouper.” The clique mentality gets so bad it breaks Buddy’s cheerful disposition and leads him to call Jeff a “ uptight puppet-master.” Jeff drags Buddy out of the room, crying, kicking, screaming and pantless (“Investigative Journalism”). Jeff is disappointed that he couldn’t change his “character” in this new semester, but it is Abed who comforts him:
Jeff: Who are you kidding, Abed? I just dragged a screaming, crying man out of a library with his pants down. No. Martinis are for Hawkeyes. I’m the same uptight jerk I was last semester.
Abed: Jeff, what’s your favorite episode of M*A*S*H?
Jeff: The one with, uh… the army.
Abed: That’s what I thought. If you’d ever actually seen the show, you’d know that Hawkeye didn’t just bed nurses and drink martinis. He also had blood sprayed on his face and barked orders when the choppers came in. If he didn’t, people died. He was a leader, Jeff. That’s your job (“Investigative Journalism”).
Abed’s TV logic is a salve to those who may want “Community” to change but don’t see what goes on within the episode’s subtext. Like “M*A*S*H,” Abed is trying to explain that true TV shows are aware of the realism that exists outside their episodes. But, in order to capture the essence of true comedy, it times its moments with realism very carefully. The subtext is there with Buddy – he is the real world trying to break the meta-mold within “Community” until the Study Group took a vote: they prefer the original storyline. However, to close the sitcom structure, Buddy does have a happy ending: he joins a different study group led by a cameo from Owen Wilson. The star power of this cameo isn’t lost on the audience – the Study Group isn’t “cool” enough to keep someone like Buddy. They only have each other.
The darkest moments for the Study Group usually focus on outside influences. Todd is another unfortunate soul who makes the mistake of breaking into the Study Group when he is assigned as Pierce’s biology partner in season 3’s “Competitive Ecology.” In a selfish attempt to avoid working with Todd himself, Jeff asks Abed to organize a system for finding lab partners. This system ranks the members from most popular to least popular. Obviously, this causes an absurd, dramatic situation of Greendale proportions, which the audience has expected. The only person surprised by this is Todd who watches in horror as minutes turn into hours as they stay up all night arguing over lab partners. Todd finally suffers a breakdown when he turns to yell at the group: “Your love is weird. And toxic!” (“Competitive Ecology”). Once again, Todd is the character vehicle used by outside forces: the Study Group’s friendships are toxic and strange, but to be a part of this universe is to understand the beauty behind the strange. Todd can’t understand this and therefore becomes an enemy to the Study Group.
While Buddy and Todd are brief threats to the Study Group’s reality, Spanish professor “Senor Ben Chang (the fan-made “The Tale of Chang” is on YouTube). has the role of supervillain in the show’s epic narrative. Chang has the most unstable trajectory of any “Community” character: he begins as their spanish professor (making him responsible for the Study Group’s formation), loses his status when it is discovered that – like Jeff – he is underqualified for his job, and becomes a student and makes a play for a spot in the study group. Like the others, Chang is rejected and resorts to living in the school’s vents, where he loses his mind. Dean Pelton takes pity on him and makes him “security guard detective” at Greendale. In this new role, Chang almost burns down the cafeteria, forms a group of child mercenaries named the “Changlorious Bastards,” replaces Dean with a “doppledeaner” (a Moby lookalike) and takes over the school where he hopes to blow it up in a firework-rigged keytar solo at his “sweet sixteen” birthday party. In season four, Chang loses his memory and reappears as “Kevin.” Once again, the Study Group exposes Chang’s evil plan and forces him to admit he is lying. This exhaustive storyline helps identify the situational comedy that defines “Community:” the antagonist is an exaggerated conflict and therefore not a true threat. Chang is Lex Luthor and the Joker; in the real world, he would have been removed after season one. In the Community world, he is kept around for continuity purposes and comic relief. The audience knows this and accepts it as another reference within the show’s geek structure. Like the Joker, Chang can never be defeated. Like Luthor, Chang knows how to outwit the heroes. Chang never alters the true mission of “Community;” he just provides distractions to the plot.
Whether they are part of mainstream or geek culture, the viewers see the cliques that form within any subculture. You can be a part of us, but you must go through the initiation process. Learn the passcodes, get the references, and understand the environmental context – and wait until we approach you. Most of Greendale views the Study Group as elitist and many students keep their distance from the group. However, in season two’s “Advanced Dungeon and Dragons” the Study Group attempts to stop Fat Neil from committing suicide by inviting him to play Dungeons and Dragons. For obvious reasons, the group’s most insensitive, gender-biased/ racist member, Pierce, is kept from the game. Pierce shows up anyway and assumes the role of villain, where he “steals” Neil’s sword. The episode takes place within the study room, but, with Abed as the dungeon master, the audience is taken on a journey through the RPG. This episode showcases the height of “Community’s” storytelling abilities; RPGs still carry the stigma of complete nerd behavior, but “Community” breaks down these barriers. With the Study Group representing every American demographic, the episode proves that RPGs are accessible. Neil may be the longest player in the game and Abed’s status is illustrated through Dungeon Master, but the rest of the characters learn that being themselves and having a passion for the game are the key ingredients to a successful RPG session. Naturally, the game gets out of hand with Pierce casting a spell on Neil that makes his character as fat as “Fat Neil.” While the rest of the group is frozen due to another spell, Jeff confesses that he is responsible for the name “Fat Neil,” which is why he is so desperate to save him. Surprisingly, the real hero of this episode is Pierce whose villainous, obnoxious personality makes for a great RPG and inspires Neil to live. The moral of the story is a web of subtext: on the first level, the episode cautions its audience that not everything is what it seems. The rest of the levels focus on the support group among geek culture. Once again, the geek stereotype is someone like Fat Neil: overweight, depressed and alone. Neil finds peace in an imaginary game, which the study group hopes will save his life. Pierce is our mainstream realism; the geek community may support Neil, but to the rest of the world, Neil is a fat nerd. There is no protection outside the study group’s RPG. However, in true good vs. evil form, the evil Pierce is defeated – not with force, but with compassion. With each member intoning “I feel sorry for Pierce” during one of their turns, they are able to defeat the evil. Neil is the only one who understands that Pierce is the world he has to face everyday – the Study Group is make-believe and he cannot hide in the study room forever unlike our protagonists.
Despite its best intentions, the real world comes to Greendale with Harmon replaced by a more traditional showrunner. Season four is a tangle of subplots, including the “Darkest Timeline” and breakdown of the Study Group’s relationships. They’ve always been a volatile group, but this season threatened extinction. Confused fans tried to piece these episodes into the show’s continuity. It wouldn’t work – characters were changing storylines (Britta and Troy began dating and Chang became Kevin), Jeff’s storyline with his deadbeat father began to take center stage, and the “Darkest Timeline” threatened to replace our original study group when Evil Abed crossed over into the “Prime Timeline.” As Evil Britta exclaims in season three, “Exactly! Life got dark!” (“Remedial Chaos Theory”). At the time, the “Darkest Timeline” was controlled within season three, but began to take precedence in season four. Willa Paskin’s article “Dan Harmon is Still Pretty Torn Up About Everything” also opens with Abed’s “The Cape” reference. The article addresses what really went wrong with Harmon’s creation: “Outside of the bubble of community college the characters faced very depressing realities: crappy jobs, loneliness, and in the case of Chevy Chase’s Pierce Hawthorne, death…None of them have been able to survive outside of Greendale, largely because Greendale did not provide them with the tools to survive” (Paskin). Paskin begs “Community” to “get on with being a sitcom,” but she neglects to understand the awkward road to redemption. Most comic arcs in the 90’s suffered from over ambitious storytelling – they move away from the original canon and forget the nuances that make the characters real to the audience. Paskin is correct – Greendale did not prepare the Study Group or its audience for the real world’s post 9/11 struggles with fear, chaos, and paranoia. The American public has already seen its Darkest Timeline; now it needs its unlikely heroes to offer a level of escapism through offbeat storytelling. The dangers need to be kept within the walls of Greendale. The stakes can still be fear of the unknown, chaos, paranoia, and death, but it needs to be disguised using Greendale logic: zombies, paintball, TV parodies, and an intense pillow/blanket war.
Season five brings the Study Group back together (minus Chevy Chase, who left the show after his disagreement with Harmon) and opens the first episode, “Repilot,” with an Abed-directed commercial of Jeff posing as a superhero for his good-guy law firm. This is a side effect of Greendale and the enterprise fails. Jeff heads back to Greendale to take on an instructor’s job and reassembles the unfulfilled study group – the circular narrative has been completed. They returned to the Ordinary World with the Greendale Elixir and failed. There is no completion to the hero’s narrative; they must stay at Greendale for the sake of the show’s continuity. To make good on its mistake, “Community” has pulled an old comic book trick: the retcon. The stakes are a bit different, but the behaviors and characters remain the same. The Prime Timeline has been restored in the form of the “Save Greendale Committee” made up of the Study Group. The meta is sneaking in – Greendale needs to be saved and Harmon is asking the characters, and the audience, to pitch in. “Community” looks to their Greek Chorus to put in the charge: “We can repilot. This will be could be like Scrubs, season 9, A revamp. A do-over” (“Repilot”). Abed then continues to reference Zach Braff leaving the show early – a nod to Donald Glover’s departure in a few episodes. He also warns everyone that repilots can be “intense,” a word of caution from the show’s creator. From now on, season four is referenced as “the gas-leak year” (“Repilot”). Once again, the audience is back in on the joke.
The positive outlook is only within the show; many critics still refuse to see a future for “Community.” In “NBC’s ‘Community’ survives to fight another day,” Neal Justin points out that interest has piqued due to controversy between Harmon and Chase, but “the survival of ‘Community’ might seem inexplicable, considering its low ratings – even in its best season, it ranked only 97th among prime-time shows. But it kept getting a reprieve because the struggling network didn’t have anything else to put in its place” (Justin). “Community” continues to be an acquired taste and it hopes fan fervor will continue to save the show. The culture has seen many revived shows through Kickstarter, new networks, and major online fan campaigns, so the next season and a movie does not seem too far-fetched. In fact, there’s a bit of Greendale logic to it.
What makes “Community” a target for the haters and hipster warriors? The show refuses to acknowledge its place on any kind of spectrum. It refuses to take itself seriously, and when it does, it does so with a form of uncomfortable realism as though it is trying clothes that refuse to fit. Like many sitcoms, it has gone through its struggles of casting, changes in creative, and lack of interest from the network. However, like the students of Greendale, “Community” refuses to bow out, even when the situation looks grim. The characters continue to plug away at their respective realities and hope for the best. Their backstories indicate they have been knocked down, ridiculed, and left to disappear. Let’s face it – these characters only belong at Greendale. Their journeys are the hero’s journeys no one wants to tell – the third string of protagonists who are waiting for their big moments. Little do they know, they won’t ever get that moment because they come from Greendale. Our world is filled with the “next big thing,” wunderkinds, child stars and reality tv contestants trying to prove to us that they are the “best” (even the TBS reality competition, “King of the Nerds” pushes for geek supremacy). In a world that has become too fast, too smart, too big, the Study Group are the heroes who save the world and sink back into the shadows. They won’t get their big budget movies or legions of fans like Superman or Batman. Nevertheless, we depend on these heroes to remind us to laugh and to try together. Is mediocrity the new medicine to living? Should we all strive for #sixseasonsandamovie?