Advanced Creative Storytelling and the Art of Metanarrative:

Community’s Journey to #sixseasonsandamovie

As the spring television season began its descent into summer, Community fans shared a collective thought:  this truly is the darkest timeline.  For five seasons, the battlecry of #sixseasonsandamovie had proven to work as Community was renewed from a lackluster fourth season (as the characters refer to it, “the year of the gas leak”) to a reboot fifth season (where the characters resumed earlier roles and behaviors that made the show work in its first and second seasons).  Unfortunately, the reboot struggled to rebuild the Community brand and the season of “Save Greendale” served as a self-fulfilled prophecy as the show entered the ratings chopping block and, this time, lost its head.  NBC, playing the role of bad-guys Ben Chang, City College, and Greendale administration combined, did not, in fact, save Greendale in May.

To add insult to injury, NBC relished in its role as the stereotypical “bad guy” as it blamed fans for creating an unattainable goal of #sixseasonsandamovie.  An Entertainment Weekly article, “NBC explains why it canceled ‘Community,’” quotes NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt as stating, “That sixth season thing was created by them [the fandom] – I’m surprised they didn’t say ‘10 seasons and a movie.’”  This is the gap between the show, its fandom, and the executive powers that be. Every Community fan knows the expression “six seasons and a movie” started as a joke within the Community universe that gained traction outside the Community universe in order to become Community mythos, sharing a destiny as important as Fat Neil’s Dungeons & Dragons character, Duquesne.  And so, NBC pulled the plug on the sitcom about a community college that had been baked into a metanarrative of geekdom, friendship, and perverse logic, and left Community fans as confused and scared as Dean Pelton, dressed as a Payday bar, finding himself screaming gangsta rap into a microphone.  “I don’t know what that was!” the Dean sobs as he runs from the room, struggling to find his footing within the life-sized peanuts sewn into his costume.  Community fans could relate.

Like Greendale Community College, the show itself has been teetering on the edge of winning and losing the game of Life.  Any school, or show, that attempts to make classes like “Ladders” or “Can I Fry This?” a cultural norm is bound to be met with resistance from more traditional, socially-approved “cool kids.”  It also does not help Community’s mission that the creator and stars of the show have been met with controversy:  creator Dan Harmon’s infamous argument with Chevy Chase (who played Pierce Hawthorne, the racist, older Caucasian Baby Boomer), Dan Harmon’s infamous hiatus from his prized show, only to have a more infamous return the next season, and cast members leaving and returning as they focused on their own projects.  The most heartbreaking exit for both fans and Abed Nadir was Donald Glover’s Troy Barnes, alongside Levar Burton, waving goodbye from the deceased Pierce’s boat, ready to sail into the unknown; perhaps another metanarrative regarding Glover’s music side project-turned-major career?  In last March’s Wired, Joel Warner refers to Community as a “brilliant but troubled sitcom” and referenced a creator (Harmon) who happens to be “brilliant but troubled” as well.  Warner’s article continues to highlight Harmon’s behavior as he shed tears during his podcast Harmontown over his fallen show before transitioning into madcap, screwball antics that would make any Greendale Human Being proud.  The article closes with Harmon reassuring a cheering fanbase that “This show never ends!”  Warner ends his piece wondering which “show” Harmon is referring to, but Community fans know this question is moot:   struggling to maintain a footing in the numbers game while celebrating each character’s weirdness and still falling short of its 100-episode mark (by three episodes) is so completely Greendale that this experience could be viewed as just another part of Community’s (and Harmon’s) great metanarrative experiment.

It is Greendale’s cheerful outlook of one day becoming better that fuels the Community narrative.  The fans see these failings as a down-to-earth, honest look at the characters.  They aren’t the cool crowd, or even the normals; they are the losers of Greendale and the ones who can’t make it alongside their peers no matter how hard they try.  In this world, Abed will never figure out the world outside of popular culture references. Britta will never be able to be the psychiatrist she so desperately thinks she can be. Shirley will never be able to launch her sandwich shop. Annie will never be able to live down her mental breakdown and is doomed to micro-manage nonexistent crises at a mediocre school. Lastly, Jeff will never restore his glory as a high-powered lawyer but instead stay the big fish in a very little, and probably polluted, pond.  With the culture providing daily illustrations that good guys finish last, Community is refreshing in its portrayal of characters who continue to fight the good fight, long after the mainstream culture stops noticing.

On Greendale Community College’s “official” website, the college promises students the “Six Degrees of Preparation:”  “PHYSICAL, MENTAL, PUBLIC, SWIMMING, BRAIN, and COMPUTER.”    The “About” page continues with “Did we mention that actor Luis Guzman was once a student here?” (This has been Greendale’s major selling point for years).  Finally, the page ends with Greendale’s mission statement:  “Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and the beauty of Greendale is that you won’t be confronted with either.”  The school’s  application process is very clear:  The desire to attend equals automatic acceptance, which pales in comparison to what is thrown at the public everyday:  wonderkids,  prodigies, reality stars claiming to be true celebrities, beauty, class, and high social status. Where does the celebration of failure and mediocrity fit into this culture of perfection?   While the Community narrative embodies the American can-do spirit, it can be uncomfortable watching the other side of the can-do spirit, that is the what-do-we-do now? spirit that comes with constant failure and disappointment.  At Greendale, low expectations are beautiful and mediocrity deserves to be celebrated.

This sitcom concept is nothing new.  Seinfeld made it popular and Friends made it friendlier, but Community illustrates this concept without beautiful apartments, lucrative but off-screen careers, and the cookie-cutter beautiful people who are alike in both personality and appearance.  Community is the rejection of this perfect ensemble sitcom – they are the ensemble that struggles with belonging, with paying bills, with trying to find a place in the “winning” culture.  In order to cope, Community does what we all do:  turns to television tropes and worship of fictional characters.  In Seasons 1’s “Investigative Journalism,” Abed explains to Jeff that in order to become a respected leader like Hawkeye, one must take on the difficult decisions that happen offscreen.  These moments are what develops the Community metanarrative. In our postmodern world of “what if” and “what now?” the show offers an explanation using the medium viewers feel most comfortable in:  the magic of television.  Similar to its fans, Greendale sees the grand narrative as failing and so must rewrite this mistrust into a series of episodic hijinks.  In doing so, Greendale becomes a safe haven not only for its students but also the viewer.  As long as television continues to give us the answers and we continue to interpret its message, we take a positive step in rewriting our current post 9/11 chaos.  For those who do not subscribe to the grand, universal narrative of being the best all the time, Greendale offers different varieties of localized narratives.  As with every great postmodern masterpiece, this choose-your-own-narrative (are you more of a Magnitude?  Perhaps you aspire to a friendship like Troy and Abed in the Morning?  Do you sympathize with Chang?) harkens back to Greendale’s promise:  until you wish to be confronted with your shortcomings, you have the option of staying safe in mediocrity.  Viewers find their solace in a television show about a college called Greendale and a college called Greendale finds its solace in the great space known as television canon – call it an example of an interactive picture-in-picture.

What Community does well is it brings back the yesteryear of TV where audience members were a part of the story and the jokes were not a test to their intelligence (just look at the slew of shows no longer with us where characterization and plot left viewers wanting), but an invitation to look further into the show’s mythos.  While most jokes are delivered in the standard sitcom format of characters, dialogue, and storylines, other jokes are more nuanced – inviting the viewer to look into the background or to notice what other shows would have deemed irrelevant storytelling. This concept is nothing new:  The Simpsons and South Park have been winking at us for decades.  But it is the story within a story within a television show that gives Community its charm and taking a page from its Newhart-Groening-Parker/Stone ancestors  Community provides a class in millennial television, an assignment of close-reading and symbol searching.  In the episode “Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts,” Abed helps to deliver a baby in the background of the episode, which brings back a couple from Season 1 who used Greendale’s bad condoms (in this episode, the Dean’s voice is on the loudspeaker begging students “Attention Greendale students:  DON’T use the condoms!”).    Meanwhile, the song “Daybreak” plays the part of recurring character.  Even characters continue to test the audience’s comprehension skills:  in one episode, Officer Cackowski says to Annie, “Say, you look familiar.  Did I ever pretend to shoot a guy in front of you to teach you about gun safety?” Lastly, the most basic of all sitcom tropes, the clip show, is misused in “Paradigms of Human Memory,” when the Study Group recalls moments that never happened in previous episodes.  The self-awareness from the course-related episode titles to the parody of the show’s own narrative and characters has become yet another Greendale class – only this time the audience gets to attend.  The show depends on the audience to keep the mythos alive – that alone places it within the ranks of our most beloved TV shows:  the unspoken cues from Seinfeld, the small-town life of The Simpsons’ Springfield, and the moral questions raised by war in M*A*S*H.  To write the show off as a failing comedy is doing a disservice to the current celebration of a “Golden Age” of television.

News of the show’s cancellation picked up speed as various media outlets from Entertainment Weekly to the Huffington Post speculated on the show’s future.  Would Netflix pick up the show and save it a la Arrested Development?  (The answer is no).  The speculation and theories were eerily chilling, as they mirrored the show’s most current season arc with the Study Group coming back to Greendale and trying to save the school from being shut down permanently.  The season/now series finale introduced the idea that the Study Group did such a good job restoring Greendale to its former “glory” – in this case, the early seasons of the show – that now the school was in danger of being shut down.  The show that slipped through the cracks was now on NBC’s radar and it had to pay the price for mediocre ratings.  This time around, the social media hashtag did not do the trick.

Playing the part of television saviors, Yahoo and Sony Pictures Television have announced 13 new episodes via an online platform for this coming fall.  Unlike Netflix, this new medium for the show will not require binge-watching, but the traditional TV viewing experience.  The idea sounds so crazy that only Greendale is capable of pulling it off.  If Greendale survived numerous paintball games gone awry, a few riots, and the Ass-Crack Bandit, this may be the next step in ensuring the ultimate fan-based goal of the elusive sixth season.  Either way, Abed would be proud.  At San Diego Comic Con, the Community panel met on July 24th to discuss the highly-anticipated, and highly-prophesied, sixth season.  The fans were supportive and the panel members (Dan Harmon, executive producer Chris McKenna, Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Jim Rash, and Dino Stamatopoulos) were hopeful and ready to leave the show’s current predicament, brought to them by NBC and the darkest timeline.  One of the new major changes is the show’s setting in Colorado (before, Greendale had been set as the Every College, USA) due to Yahoo’s legal need for specific setting for character and copyright.  While this may seem small, and Dan Harmon promised to stay true to the characters and the show, this change is an example of the new world, and trend, that Community is embarking upon; the show already changed the format of sitcom, could it change the medium as well?  Can Abed still break down the fourth wall of television if television is no longer in the equation?  The SDCC panel interview promised the “simplicity” of Season 1, which would result in yet another reboot season since Season 5 focused on Saving Greendale and Season 6 will be a whole new Greendale, complete with a definitive location.  While Season 5 does bring back the innovative characterization and narrative that made Community a beloved cult classic, and as fans look toward this new season in a positive light, Community holds the responsibility of continuing the TV lessons that Abed has already laid out for us.

Despite this golden age of the little screen (with Netflix series Orange is the New Black and House of Cards sweeping this year’s Emmy nominations), many television shows do not make it past their first season, and even if they do, are still at risk of facing a shortened season.  There have been many other little shows that could that faced the same fate (Pushing Daisies is still listed on many pop culture lists as one of the shows that ended too soon), so why care about a little show that wasn’t going to reach any great heights of Emmy nominations, or wasn’t going to stay on the air for 8+ years (to stay true to Greendale, the show’s goal of #sixseasonsandamovie are modest expectations)?  Why care about the Greendale community and their attempt at success that only leads to more failures?  Could we argue that five seasons is just as good as #sixseasonsandamovie?  Can the show find solace in the fact it tried as Ben Chang laughs maniacally in the background?  Can we let the City College of the World win once again?

If you think Community is just a show, then you don’t know Greendale.

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Samantha Atzeni is a writer of all sorts and an absent-minded professor. She received her B.A. in Professional Writing / Journalism from The College of New Jersey and then received her M.A. in English at The College of New Jersey. To complete the journey, she is a professor at TCNJ where she teaches superheroes, comics, postmodernism and post 9/11 theory. When she isn't attached to her computer, she is reading furiously. You can follow her current reads at

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