At the start of the pandemic, when everyone was bored at home, I took an extremely comprehensive online personality quiz designed to determine your similarity to over 1,600 fictional characters from television, literature and the cinema. My closest counterpart, with a 96% match, was Jeff Winger, the charismatic lead character played by Joel McHale on the cult NBC sitcom “Community.”
The question of whether someone should aspiring to be like Jeff – a conceited, silver-tongued lawyer forced to put him in a slum at a third-rate community college after his law degree turns out to be a fake – is business for me and my therapist . But I can’t say I was surprised by the comparison. I watched “Community” more than other series, by a factor of about a hundred.
I watched its first five seasons when they originally aired on NBC, between 2009 and 2014, and watched its sixth and final season the following year on the short-lived streaming service Yahoo! Filter. I still watch it all the time, in bed on my iPad, on long flights, on the couch during meals. I watch it when I’m anxious or stressed or need something to cheer up. I watch it when I don’t see what else to watch. I went through it all from start to finish at the start of the pandemic, and started all over again recently.
So of course, a bit of Jeff’s mark Winger charm bled. Given all this exposure, some osmosis was inevitable.
“Community” is the ultimate postmodern sitcom. The premise is deceptively ordinary: Jeff, enamored of his classmate Britta (Gillian Jacobs), hastily assembles a motley study group of outcasts in their Spanish class, then convinces her to sit down. law degree – the school’s drunken psychology professor Duncan (John Oliver) owes him a favor – but when Duncan refuses to cooperate, Jeff realizes that he will actually need the help of the group. ‘study. The team bond and flourish, with Jeff as the de facto leader, and as the series progresses we follow their journey from classmates to friends.
It’s the elevator pitch. The elevator pitch is the wrong direction.
Dan Harmon, the creator, used “Community” to deconstruct the mainstream sitcom. Looking at the series now, a decade after its debut, it’s no surprise that NBC has had creative conflicts with Harmon and his writing team. (Harmon was fired by the network after the third season, then brought back for the fifth after the fourth faced heavy criticism.)
“Community” is so dark, difficult, and at times idiosyncratic that it doesn’t just seem unconventional – it seems actively hostile to casual audiences, with ratings to match. But those who liked the spectacle tended to do so with passion; fans have been relentlessly defending “Community” as NBC threatened (repeatedly) to cancel it.
In retrospect, it seems like a miracle that “Community” aired. There was nothing else on TV like its mixture of heart and idiosyncratic cultural literacy. And although the show ended years ago, it continues to shape pop culture. Regular series directors Anthony and Joe Russo brought the same playful spirit to the blockbusters they went on to oversee, including several “Avengers” films. Several of the stars also went on to successful careers, most notably Alison Brie, Donald Glover and Ken Jeong. And Harmon finally has a hit: the animated sci-fi comedy “Rick and Morty,” which he created with Justin Roiland for Adult Swim, is now in its fifth season and is widely loved.
Time has justified Harmon’s tenacity in realizing his creative vision, whatever the cost to alienate stunned viewers. The proof is to what extent the “Community” remains inexhaustible to review. Here are three reasons why his greatness has endured.
Not parodies: “I prefer the term ‘tribute'”, as movie buff Abed (Danny Pudi) puts it to Jeff at the end of an episode inspired by the chatty, urban 1981 drama “My Dinner with Andre”. One of the show’s more daring vanities was its tendency to stage entire episodes as exercises in a particular style or genre. Sometimes those fashions were broad and recognizable, like in the Season 2 finale, which was based on a paintball fight and shot like one of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. More often than not – as in the case of the “My Dinner With Andre” parody – the series riffed on something more obscure, especially by network television standards.
Season 3’s Documentary Filmmaking: Redux, in which Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) attempts to direct a commercial for Greendale College and is driven madly in pursuit of perfection, is based on “Hearts of Darkness”, the -documentary scenes on Francis Ford Coppola’s difficulties in making “Apocalypse Now”. It makes you wonder: how many people saw “Hearts of Darkness” and how many of them would have watched an NBC sitcom on a Thursday night? But you have to admire the bit engagement.
The inner banter quality of this esoteric humor, including the arcane tributes, works in large part thanks to the dedication of the actors, who are deeply into Harmon’s quirky comedy brand. The core study group has spectacular chemistry and courageously handles every odd twist, thanks to a cast that also includes Brie as a bookworm and Annie, a reformed pillager; Glover as the sportsman with the heart of a nerd, Troy; Yvette Nicole Brown as a devout single mother, Shirley; and Chevy Chase as pungent geezer, Pierce. Harmon has often written them in unexpected combinations and pairings, and one of the pleasures of the show is watching them function as a nested comedy unit.
Supporting actors were just as likely to steal a scene. Jeong was so good that less-than-skilled Spanish teacher Ben Chang in the first season that his role expanded considerably as the series progressed. Rash, likewise, has gone from a recurring role to a series regular and, in many ways, feels at the heart of the series.
And like “The Simpsons,” “Community” has a knack for introducing wacky characters like punchlines to flesh them out later: Dino Stamatopoulos, one of the show’s producers, has become a fan favorite as a Star. Burns (so named for his star- shaped favorites). And one of the most memorable characters is Luke Youngblood’s Magnitude, a “one-man party”, as it is presented, whose dialogue is limited to the exclamation “pop pop!”
Throughout its six seasons, “Community” achieved things that most shows would never have dreamed of attempting. (It is even more impressive that they pulled them off in front of skeptical NBC executives.) This is a network sitcom whose second season clip is made up of entirely original material – a parody of ‘a format generally used to save time and money. which ended up being even more elaborate and time consuming to complete than a regular episode. Harmon said in the DVD commentary for the episode that he even spent $ 30,000 of his own money to secure the rights to Sara Bareilles’ “Gravity” because he really wanted to use it.
Harmon and his collaborators never called him on “Community”. There is a Christmas special inspired by “Rudolph the red nosed reindeer” made in stop-motion animation. There is an episode in an 8 bit video game and another animated to look like the old “GI Joe”. Even the show’s obvious one “bottle episode” – another generally budget-friendly format, in which minimal action takes place entirely in one location – is a complex meta-story that deals explicitly with bottle episodes (“Calligraphy cooperative ”, one of the best episodes of the series).
My favorite, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” has the same incident happening simultaneously in seven different alternate universes. What other show could have done that? What other show would have tried?