This Week on Dear Television:
By Evan Kindley
February 7, 2014
WHY HAVE THERE BEEN so few academic sitcoms? Proceeding completely unscientifically (I'm not even using Google!), I count quite a few about high schools (Welcome Back, Kotter; Head of the Class; Saved by the Bell; Suburgatory; Glee), but college is a much, much rarer setting: the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World and Judd Apatow's short-lived Undeclared are the only two that spring immediately to mind. I can think of a number of explanations for this lack. One obvious structural problem is that college (traditionally) only lasts four years, and sitcoms (traditionally) hope to go on much longer than that: six seasons at least, eight or nine if you're going for lasting cultural impact. Another is that Americans tend to be uncomfortable with representations of intellectuals, and even if you focus on the students rather than the faculty (as both Different World and Undeclared did) you're inevitably going to have a few eggheads in the mix. Most depictions of intellectuals in American pop culture are either negative or broadly satirical, and the cardinal rule of sitcoms is that the characters, however flawed, must be liked.
Dan Harmon's Community — and it's a real pleasure to give Harmon back the possessive after last season's semi-disastrous “gas leak year” — is the grand exception to this anti-academic TV rule. Not only is the show set at a fictional Colorado community college called Greendale, each episode is titled after a different course offering (e.g. “Home Economics,” “Aerodynamics of Gender,” “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts”). And though Community, too, centers on students rather than teachers, a surprising amount of the action from week to week is driven by disciplinary requirements and administrative imperatives. (The show was inspired by Harmon's taking courses at an actual community college, after being fired as the head writer of The Sarah Silverman Program; the snarky, aloof, borderline sociopathic ex-lawyer Jeff Winger is his apparent stand-in.) I wouldn't call Community ”intellectual,” exactly — Greendale is perpetually presented as a subpar institution, none of the professors really care about their jobs, and the students (with the exception of Annie) seem to be mostly coasting — but it does have a sort of easy comfort with the life of the mind that's refreshing for an American sitcom.
It's also one of the most writerly shows on TV. On Twitter, Michael Barthel recently stood up for The Simpsons “because no other show on TV pays such close attention to its sentences,” but I think Community certainly gives The Old Yellow Lady a run for her money. (A couple of random samples from this season so far: “Do you get kickbacks from Big Buzzkill?”; “My self-published novels aren't going to publish themselves.”) The degree to which Community is voice-driven — rather than star-driven or premise-driven, as so many other sitcoms are — was made painfully apparent in 2012, when Harmon was sacked by NBC for feuding with Chevy Chase and being chronically behind schedule. Rather than canceling the show outright, though, the network made the surprising move of ordering another half-season under the supervision of David Guarascio and Moses Port — which, despite some high moments, felt like a procession of 14 reasonably competent Community spec scripts.
When it was announced that Harmon would return, I expected endless meta-jokes about his time in the wilderness and smug/triumphal jabs at the mediocrity of Season 4. (Harmon infamously compared watching the fourth season to “flipping through Instagrams and watching your girlfriend just blow a million [other guys]” and “being held down and watching your family get raped on a beach.” Make no mistake: Dan Harmon is a piece of work.) But I've actually been pleasantly surprised by how subtly and tactfully the transition has been accomplished. Granted, the Season 5 premiere was called “Repilot,” and there was that well-placed gas leak joke, implying that all of last season was some kind of collective chemical-induced hallucination. But for the most part Harmon has just picked up where he left off, getting on with the business of making relatively autonomous, elegantly crafted, unselfconsciously self-conscious Community episodes.
If you've read this far, you probably already know this, but Community is both one of the wildest non-animated shows on television — it gets more absurd and surreal than even 30 Rock did — and also one that is almost obsessively insistent on its basic limitations. At times Community feels almost Oulipian, in its dual determination to innovate and to stick to the rules: it's like a workplace sitcom as imagined by Georges Perec. No matter how weird things get, the show has a home base and a comfort zone (the study room, which is always shot from the same angles and camera set-ups), and it's reliably grounded in the personal dynamics between the seven (now five) major characters. Every actor in the core ensemble cast is a pleasure to watch, and I applaud the way the show has never let its fascinating marginal figures — Leonard, Magnitude, Garrett Lambert, Starburns — become too fully developed, or steal too much of the limelight from the principals.
As many others have noted, the primary engine of Community's weekly weirdness is parody: the show is addicted to stand-alone episodes in which some particular genre (mafia movies, Claymation TV specials, or, most recently, post-apocalyptic sci-fi) is lovingly pastiched on a network sitcom budget. Parody helps Harmon and co. get around the structural problem all sitcoms face: how to wring new situations out of a set scenario with a limited number of plausible outcomes. “Cooperative Calligraphy,” the second season’s bravura ”bottle episode” (which, as Todd VanDerWerff points out at the AV Club, this season's almost equally great “Cooperative Polygraphy” explicitly homages/parodies), called attention to this by highlighting the constraints that production budgets impose on writers, forcing them to focus on the core characters at the expense of spectacle and gimmickry. (“I hate bottle episodes. They're wall-to-wall facial expression and emotional nuance,” the stoic, arguably-Asperger-spectrum'd Abed complains. “I might as well sit in the corner with a bucket on my head.”) That Community does bottle episodes as brilliantly as it does genre extravaganzas is what has secured it a place in the hearts of its fans, as well as (maybe) a place in TV history.
How is Season 5 stacking up against the show’s illustrious past? Lili feels that it’s off to a sluggish start: “the characters don't feel tack-sharp anymore,” she wrote, and went on to compare them to bad clones (a much apter description of Season 4, I'd argue). I will agree that Community is not currently at the top of its game, but it would be pretty amazing if Harmon was able to hit the ground running after such a strange hiatus. But out of the six episodes that have aired so far, at least three (“Introduction to Teaching,” with its incredible Nic Cage subplot, “Cooperative Polygraphy,” and the Troy Barnes send-off “Geothermal Escapism”) seem as good to me as all but the best of Seasons 1-3. What she sees as weariness looks like mastery to me. But I guess there’s always a fine line between those two.
More to the point, Lili also discerns a “whiff of mortality” — literally so, now that they've killed off poor old Pierce — and notes perceptively that “[t]he reference to the ninth season of Scrubs is an admission that things have gone on a touch too long.” She's definitely got a point: the end of Season 4 found a semi-plausible solution to the problem of how to keep the gang at Greendale after they all technically ought to have graduated, but Community is not a show that is designed to run forever. (Few sitcoms are; that's what we have soap operas for.) I strongly suspect Harmon knows this, and has plans to wrap up the show in style; the fan-campaign hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie may have been prophetic. But even if Community v. 3.0 does run itself into the ground, I'm looking forward to watching it happen. It would be the inevitable decline of the best sitcom on television.
Cool, cool, cool,
 This is as good a place as any to point out that Community makes reliably great comedic use of dramatic character actors like Michael K. Williams, Walton Goggins, and Jonathan Banks in supporting roles.
'The Game Has To Stop'
By Lili Loofbourow
February 6, 2014
EVAN’S WRITING ABOUT this week’s episode on Friday, so I’m covering what Community’s been up to so far in its fifth season.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever driven with mild astigmatism, but I find there’s often a moment when, while looking for a particular street, you think you can almost make the upcoming street sign match what you expect the shape of the letters to look like. That’s how I feel about the return of Dan Harmon. The fifth season meets my hazy expectations for what Community should look like, but the characters don’t feel tack-sharp anymore. “Repilot” makes this point explicit when Jeff goes around the table showing how everyone has become a cartoon, and it was only driven home to me by “Analysis of Cork-Based Networking,” which worked hard — maybe too hard — to revitalize Annie’s character as the go-getter she was before the “gas leak year.” Annie was once the show’s moral center, but that hard U-turn back to what she used to be really proves how diffuse she’s become. She’s too successfully occupying the parodies — too intense and serious in “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics,” too vengeful and bouncy in “Geothermal Escapism.” If Abed was “fake dead,” she seems “fake alive.”
Instead of clarity, we get doppelgangers and replicas. There’s a blurriness to our Community peeps this season, and I keep getting tangled in the show’s own metaphors when I try to talk about it. Take the polygraph test. In principle, at least, the concept doubles down on Abed’s principle that actors must be either Good or Bad. The polygraph test contends that people’s responses can be grouped into two categories: either they lie or they tell the truth. In theory, you find out which by first getting a baseline. Trouble is, polygraphy is an inexact science at best, and the show knows that (Jeff says, “I never lied to you. I showed you the right truth”). It won’t give us a firm baseline. “Repilot” pretends to but doesn’t — it’s explicitly a false return to the stable ground of the pilot. Even “Cooperative Polygraphy,” which takes pains to establish where everyone stands with respect to the others, is a fakeout: the epiphanies instantly collapse, and the only truth we come away with is that these characters like each other and make a damn good bottle episode. Neither Jeff nor Abed are grounding the group anymore; everyone is floating. Chang’s mobile ankle monitoring system is an amazing metaphor for the show’s rootless phase. Jeff looks tired. Abed looks older. Sometimes astigmatism is forgiving; you don’t want to look too hard because if you do, you’ll see that the games are wearing thin.
The great thing about Community is that although it may not always pull it off, it knows what it’s trying to do. That’s why I really appreciate the use of pretend cloning technology to help Abed and Troy say goodbye; cardboard-box cloning is a well-chosen metaphor for what’s happening to these people as they re-enroll in Greendale. The new season, like Abed’s “resurrection,” is an imperfect clone marred by Britta’s sloppy technique. Dan Harmon is back, but the show has had some modifications to its DNA, some mutations from gas leak year. “Cooperative Polygraphy” is a bizarro-version of “Cooperative Calligraphy.” “Repilot” is a desperately sad clone of the pilot. Buzz — as Duncan points out — is a very bad clone of Pierce (again, a sadder one). Abed is a terrible clone of Nicholas Cage. Fat Dog is a bad clone of Bear Down. There have already been three different versions of “the” study room table. Repetition is everywhere, but everything we thought was definitive — Starburns’s death, say — isn’t. The inconclusive ending to “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” parodies David Fincher, sure, but in leaving the main question procedurals ask — whodunit? — unanswered, it also drives home the show’s current mood, which seems to involve gesturing at dichotomies and then rejecting them, or sacrificing the pleasure of a fictional resolution to a more frightening and open-ended ambiguity. (Or — to borrow from Jeff Winger’s single moment of real teaching so far — to step out of the circle the prosecutor has drawn around the “truth.”) The show is inching further and further out of its own frame.
Todd VanDerWerff has always said that Community does loneliness well, and he’s right. But the bouquet of Harmon’s vintage has changed: there’s a whiff of mortality this time round. The reference to the ninth season of Scrubs is an admission that things have gone on a touch too long. “The game has to stop,” Troy says to Abed. We can’t all keep pretending the ground is lava forever.
One of the pleasures of Greendale is Harmon’s deep control of its conceits; they’re always smart and deliberate. The group rebuilds the table using plans for a birdhouse. (Of course it does.) They get an F. It’s a pretty lovely microcosm of the larger structure. Community’s parodies voluntarily fail all the time, both because they comment on themselves and because they’ll always choose a messy open format over well-constructed walls, the table around which people gather over the confining birdhouse. The community college set is ostentatiously fake, but the kind of fake that seems miraculously porous. Anyone can go in or out. People live in the walls, in the stables. It’s an improv stage, a shared hallucination even when the floor isn’t lava. “What makes you think people can just come in here and look at records?” the records lady says to Jeff in “Repilot.” Well, we might reply, "Everything!"
But the wacky open ends are eroding. Pierce isn’t allowed on campus (though his clone-hologram and “essence” lava lamp are). The Dean isn’t allowed into the teacher’s lounge. “Analysis of Cork-Based Networks” is about finding red tape in the universe where — just a few days earlier — you threw a dance and set a bunch of furniture on fire. Jeff discovers there are limits to the behaviors teachers can engage in. There are limitations on clone-Community, and people are hitting them. It hasn’t gone anywhere yet, but I hope it does. It’s interesting, and it’s a big, big deal that Abed let go.
You may notice side effects, like a compulsion to come back,