Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #4 - Community


Community is a cult.

At least that is what my friend Rick O. says about those of us who are fans of the show.

We Community devotees speak in a kind of Greendale shorthand when they talk with each other, with the different references opening up a cornucopia of inside jokes.

It is strange that a show that started out in such a generic fashion should be so fanatically embraced.  But to anyone who watched the show through the first three seasons, we saw a metamorphosis that opened up the show into something never seen on television.

There are 3 reasons why Community is so high on this list, this low-rated, nearly dead show:

1.  Genre-breaking:  The show is a master's class in movie/tv genres.  In fact, in the film class that I teach I do not have time to show movies in all of the major genres.  Instead, I use episodes of Community because of the show's mastery of how to move the camera for a fantasy adventure or use the lighting in a zombie horror film.  And it isn't simply a matter of being showy.  Yes, it gets a bit meta.  But the use of the genre is a means to deliver the story.  Video games are used to explore familial tension, the Western is used to express betrayal, GI Joe is used to wrestle with fear of aging.  The genre-breaking is not an end in itself but serves a high story function.

2.  Deep Jokes:  By "deep" I don't mean profound, although it has its share of those ("I think not being racist is the new racism.")

By this I mean deep background jokes.  The most famous of which is the Beetlejuice joke which was 3 years in the making:

Inside jokes are always a trade off because they keep new viewers at a distance but it rewards those who watch regularly.  And Community builds its jokes deep across the series.  And the further in you go, the the more rewarding the jokes.  When you hear them you feels streets ahead.

3.  Thematic Richness:  The show is silly, there is no question about that.  But Dan Harmon, the creator, uses the wackiness to say something about life and friendship and love.  I especially love the arc of Jeff Winger (played by the mighty Joel McHale as an obvious nod to Bill Murray) in the first 3 seasons.  Particularly, it was amazing to watch Jeff start in the pilot with his defense of moral relativism and end up at a place at the end of season 3 bringing up that exact conversation and understanding how Greendale has taught him that there are real and good things in this world.

As a Catholic I recognize how much growing the characters still need to do.  But I love the fact that show starts by taking a character who believes that there is no such thing as truth to a place where he has been changed by the love of others (or his "Community" if you will).  And Shirley (Brown) is one of the best mainstream portrayal of a devout Christian I've seen in modern television.  She is not above mocking and she has her faults like all of us.  But the show actually uses her faith in a fairly respectful way.  I particularly love the storyline where she and her husband come to reconcile and discuss the nature of marriage.

And the work of the writers is fantastic, as well as the directing of the Russo Brothers (who eventually went on to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  And the cast was fantastic.  Besides McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, Donald Glover, Chevy Chase, Jim Rash, Ken Jeong, and Jonathan Banks create one of the funniest casts I've ever seen on television.

"Debate 109 (1x09)

This episode has a fantastic mix of all of the strangeness that is Community.  It focuses on Jeff and Annie (Brie) learning from each other on how to be better.  This is also the first episode that real sets those two characters apart to show their amazing chemistry.

It also has the horrible insanity of Abed (Pudi) predicting the future with his movies.  It is so outrageous and strange that you can't help but buy into it, especially when Shirley sees the scene where she gets attacked by a werewolf.

This is the episode where the show really begins to feel different than all of the other shows out there.  If you fall in love with this show at this point, you are in for life.

"Paranormal Parentage" (4x02)

Season 4 is often understood as the "lost" season of Community.  Creator and show runner Dan Harmon was famously fired from his won show after season 3.  As a result, the fourth season just feels… off.  To paraphrase what a good friend of mine said about the Steven Moffat-run Doctor Who, this season of Community feels less like Community and more like Community fan fiction.  It has all of the parts and all of the actors, but the spark is missing something.  This is strange especially since it was directed by Tristam Shapeero, who directed several previous episodes.

The first episode of the season was sub-par, but it had its moments.  But in this episode, everything felt a little cheaper, a little cheesier, and just a little faker.  I know that last one might sound strange considering how crazy earlier episodes were, but I felt like I was watching a low budget parody of Community.

Not all of the episodes in this season are terrible (I particularly love the puppet episode).  And Harmon did return for the 5th season, but the show still hasn't reach the greatness of the first 3 seasons.

Here's hoping for the 6th on Yahoo Screens.

"Remideal Chaos Theory" (3x03)

This is a marvel of writing, directing, and acting.  I am so in awe of the sophistication of the plot structure.

In this episode, Troy (Glover) and Abed are throwing a housewarming party at their apartment.  And then the buzzer rings and someone has to go get the pizza.  In order to decide Jeff rolls a die and says whosever number comes up has to get the pizza.  Abed says that Jeff is creating 6 different timelines.

What follows is sweet insanity.  We get different vignettes showing what would happen to the group if a different person got the pizza.  What is amazing about it is they show how the slightest change to the circumstances radically and logically alters the entire story.

It is brilliant and mind-blowing.  And it is also hysterical (especially the burning troll).


It is hard to describe Community to someone who has never really experienced it.  It is especially difficult to explain its brilliance to someone who only saw episodes in the 4th season.

But I have never seen a show like Community in all my years of TV watching.

And I don't think I ever will again.

Cool cool cool.


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