Community: Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts (And a Few Other Choice Thoughts on Community)

Gather round all ye children, and hear my tale- a tale of a sweet wondrous show called Community.

Community’s been gone a long while now, and in that Greendale-less couple of months, its fans have gathered and multiplied and eagerly awaited the second coming of television’s most ambitious comedy. And every Community lover across the nation (and across the world, really) sat with bated breath in front of the TV last Thursday night.

Well, every Community lover… except for one.

Before I go any further, allow me to share with you my own personal history with Community.

I’ve been with this show from the very start. I loved it. Treasured it. It’s hard to describe this with actual words and not just grunts and emphatic hand gestures towards a TV screen displaying an actual episode of Community, but I’ll try my best (and if it helps, just imagine me grunting and hand-gesturing anyway). What I loved about Community was that I could watch and just feel the joy and the talent radiating off of each episode, in the writing, in the charisma of each and every actor, in every single step it took. Come Thursday night, you could have shown me something with twenty-two minutes of Troy-and-Abed antics and zero plot whatsoever, and I would have been glued to my damn seat. It was perfection.

But this all changed one fateful day on March 17, 2011. There I sat, watching “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy.” That’s the one where Britta dates Troy and Abed’s Eastern European friend and it turns out he’s a sociopathic killer- just in case the title alone doesn’t jog your memory. And when it ended, I was still sitting there. Frozen. Upset. Stupefied. I didn’t understand what had happened.

The episode was… wrong. The characters didn’t act like themselves, didn’t act like real people- it was like the writers had only seen a couple episodes and just guessed at who these characters are and what they’re like and constructed this plastic-y off-brand version of the Greendale I knew and loved. Everything felt cheap, and easy. The hating on Britta wasn’t funny or natural like it used to be, but felt like that ugly, unnecessary hate for Meg you get on Family Guy. It felt very broad and very forced. It wasn’t funny. There was no attempt to relate to any kind of human emotion.

But it was one episode. And after two seasons of pure, unadulterated joy, I could live with a single swing-and-a-miss.

Which makes what I have to say next so difficult. Because I know Community has such a tight fanbase. I was one of you. I know. And I’m terrified this’ll sound like some crazed, jilted fan taking a desperate swing at the show, but ultimately it just has to come out.

Season three is awful. Unbearable. The whole season’s one big carbon copy of “Custody Law,” full of cheap, easy jokes and character choices I’ll never understand in several lifetimes. I remember when Troy was a football star struggling to cope with the nerdish nature hidden within his soul and Abed used his encyclopedic knowledge of film and television as a way to filter out everything in life he wasn’t equipped to handle. Now they’ve become cartoons, existing solely so that the writers can play with goofy, unrealistic developments like a “dreamatorium,” or a spoof of Dr. Who that’s been given an enormous amount of air time despite being about as creative, parody-wise, as the “Mapple Mypod.”

Take a look at “Epidemiology” last season. Troy faces rejection at the hands of a couple of babes. He lashes out at Abed and tries to distance himself from the group. It’s only when he embraces his role as a dork (and his own love of dork-dom) that he can rise to the occasion and save his friends.

Now compare this to what Troy and Abed go through in “Urban Matrimony.” First, Shirley makes a comment about how Troy and Abed should behave “normally” at her rehearsal dinner. So, naturally, Troy and Abed purge themselves of any and all weirdness in their dreamatorium and become two infallibly bland, suit-wearing schmoes. Then Troy sees a monkey in an air vent and realizes that he and Abed are better off being their true selves.

I’m not saying that Community should rid itself of imagination and fantasy and creativity. That would be terrible. But it becomes harder and harder to care about these characters when they’ve become so drastically unlike real human beings (even in an episode like “Urban Matrimony,” which is one of the tamer Community outings- no extended parodies, animation, claymation, or parallel realities).

I’ll give you one more example- Christmas episodes. Back in season one, we were treated to Shirley’s first Christmas without her family, and how she transformed into an overbearing, overly Christian mother who forces her own views on everyone before coming to terms with her new life and her new friends and kicking a little ass. Then, in season two, Abed spends his first Christmas without his mother and suffers a mental breakdown, and it’s up to the rest of the study group to pull Abed from the brink of frozen annihilation. It’s more or less the same story each time (character spends his/her first Christmas alone, allows normal character traits to become exaggerated and unbearable, realizes that the study group is a new and improved surrogate family, is all better), but it’s a satisfying story that lends itself to Christmastime, with friendship and family overcoming winter loneliness.

Cue “Regional Holiday Music.” Abed doesn’t want to spend the holidays alone, and before we can develop that past one or two lines the episode jumps right into a Glee-as-horror-movie parody where the whole group becomes Glee-zombies. Abed discovers the head of the Glee club is a murdering psychopath and is freed from Glee’s spell, but because this wouldn’t work with the rest of the group for… some reason, Abed devises a plan where only Britta’s horribleness at every single thing she does can save them. The end.

And before you know it, the laziness in the writing and the character development soon starts to affect the jokes. I’ll admit that I laughed harder at “Urban Matrimony” than I have with Community in a long while- “Troy and Abed being normal,” the Jim Belushi crack, and plenty of other lines actually planted a grin on my grumpy old face. But look at this Youtube clip…

And tell me where the jokes are. Tell me where the points are in that video where you audibly laughed out loud or at least smiled to yourself and said “Ha ha ha! Oh, Community.”

Now try the same thing again with this clip.

The first season of Community had a rocky first few episodes, and a lot of the characters were overly simple archetypes, but it also had a real, palpable sense of passion. It had that lighting-in-bottle, “holy crap we actually have a TV show, let’s do the best we possible can with it no matter what” feeling I still get watching episodes of Arrested Development or classic Simpsons.

In that first season clip I can count about ten or eleven separate great gags that can still make me laugh (even after watching it approximately eighteen kajillion times). Let’s round down and say ten gags. In less than two minutes of TV.

It’s like that old saying goes- “art through adversity.” I’ll take the Community that was fighting to find a heart and a voice over the victory lap that is Season Three any day of the week.

And I could go on to every other new episode and spend an unhealthy amount of my life dissecting what amounts to, really, a TV show, but for my own sake I’ll end this now. I doubt I’ve convinced many (or any) die-hard Community fans to re-evaluate the show. And that’s ok. We all have what we like and what we don’t like and it’s very hard to change that. But if there’s anyone out there. Anyone like me. Anyone who sees the light while all others stay shrouded in darkness. Let this be a beacon, so that you may never be alone the next time someone tells you how much they loved “Remedial Chaos Theory” or “Geography of Global Conflict.”

May you never be alone again.

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17 responses to “Community: Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts (And a Few Other Choice Thoughts on Community)

  1. Ah! What a refreshing review in an avalanche of Community Fandom!

    I have to say I agree with you completely. It took me awhile to get into the first season of community but once the characters suck you in it’s hard not to get hooked. However I can’t say I was surprised the show went on hiatus when it did, the episodes near the end had really started to downhill and while there were a few gems it just didn’t seem quite so fantastic. This newest episode really has me rethinking whether or not community should stay on my must watch list.

    While I enjoyed seeing all these old friends come back after break about ten minutes in I just felt cheated. It felt like I was watching an SNL skit more than community. They’ve gone way overboard with Troy and Abed, from charming to unbelievable. And I’ll be honest, Britta has always annoyed me, but this episode pushed her and Jeff a little too close to the edge too… All in all I’m just disappointed.

    • I wasn’t the hugest Britta fan at the beginning of the series- she seemed too much like your generic activist/politically correct-type. Then, as Dan Harmon and everyone else realized that fans a lot of fans felt similarly and the other characters started to react to Britta like the fans did, she rose steadily as one of my favorite characters.

      And then things just went way too far and now she’s a caricature without a lick of intelligence who says and does things that no normal human would ever do.

      Makes me sad.

  2. To me, Community is about how Abed sees the world. He isn’t interested in character development as much as fantasy/fiction in all its forms. I love the direction the show has taken since last year. It has grown more weird and unrealistic, and to its credit. I love Season 3. Remedial Chaos Theory especially…TV at its best am I wrong? Am I wrong?

  3. I am so sick of this, “[the characters] didn’t act like real people” criticism. I’m reasonably certain it just means “the characters don’t act like I would act.” Real people behave in ways that run a spectrum from Mother Theresa to Charles Manson. Anything you see on TV is something someone, somewhere has actually done. It’s idiotic, illogical, and just shows that so many people when formulating their criticism don’t really think their statements through, instead rely upon half-heard talking points.

    Actually there are problems throughout this piece that show a lack thoughtfulness. Let’s take a look at your criticism of Regional Holiday Music. “Cue ‘Regional Holiday Music.’ Abed doesn’t want to spend the holidays alone, and before we can develop that past one or two lines the episode jumps right into a Glee-as-horror-movie parody where the whole group becomes Glee-zombies. Abed discovers the head of the Glee club is a murdering psychopath and is freed from Glee’s spell, but because this wouldn’t work with the rest of the group for… some reason, Abed devises a plan where only Britta’s horribleness at every single thing she does can save them. The end.” This is… shoddy, shoddy stuff. It almost makes me wonder if you actually saw the episode in question, or even paid attention to it. Abed didn’t want to spend Christmas alone… and so he went looking for something to get everyone involved in, as they didn’t want to watch TV with him like last year. He runs into Mr. Rad and gets his fellow study groupers to join him in a big Christmas pageant. That’s them, hanging out and having fun around Christmas exactly like he wanted. Then he learns that this wasn’t supposed to be a one time celebration, and so has Britta “ruin” (obviously only Mr. Rad thought she ruined it) the pageant. To Abed, the Glee club wasn’t about singing or regionals, but rather about doing something fun with his friends and when he realized it really was about singing and regionals he put a stop to it. Then everyone realizes that maybe they should spend Christmas together doing something, and they watch a little TV together. It’s actually almost the exact same story as “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” except with a Christmas pageant replacing group therapy.

    You seem to consistently miss what is actually going on in season three. Such as your analysis of Troy and Abed across the first half of episodes in season three. Almost every single episode is building a deconstruction of Troy and Abed’s relationship and showing that it desperately needs to evolve and change and the relationship as it is, is preventing them from emotional growth. This was set up when they moved in together (remember the finale of season one how Abed said they shouldn’t live together). Then outright stated in “Competitive Ecology.” Then the unhealthy nature of their relationship was thematized in “Horror Fiction.” Then the fundamental problems of their relationship were on full display in “Studies in Modern Movement.” “Urban Matrimony” was just another example of showing their extreme codependance and the problematic nature of it. Troy and Abed are obviously headed for some sort of emotional breaking point. Much like Pierce’s plotline that everyone complained about throughout season two (which turned out to be one of the most perfect character archs ever put on TV), it is something that has been building all season long in the background.

    Sorry, but this criticism is shoddy and lacks thoughtfulness about the series. It relies upon meaningless talking points and half-formed, ill expressed ideas.

    • Hmmm.

      Well, first of all- “Anything you see on TV is something someone, somewhere has actually done.” That’s not really a sound argument against what I’m trying to say. One of the main reasons I’ve grown disillusioned with Community is because I feel like it values wackiness over real human development at this point. Having characters being indoctrinated into a Glee club like a communicable disease, finding your true self when a monkey crawls out of an air vent after you spent hours in a dreamatorium, having someone launch into a Batman induced hysteria, cowl and all, because his Dark Knight DVD disappeared, and so on, and so forth… these things most definitely don’t happen in real life.

      Yes, the basic character developments and interactions are still based in reality, but that’s true of nearly every television program in existence. My issue here is that things just go so far over the top in Community that it becomes increasingly difficult to relate with these characters on a human scale. It has nothing to do with the characters not acting how I would act. I love Breaking Bad. I love The Shield. That doesn’t mean I’m a violent, power-crazed sociopath.

      A good character isn’t someone who acts like I would- it’s someone I can empathize with. As a person, I’m much closer to Troy or Abed then I am to Walter White, but Walter’s a more compelling character because I can relate to the love of his family and the temptations of power and wealth, even though the actions he commits are unspeakably awful. I can’t relate to a character who changes personalities whenever the writers deem it necessary for a different situation- at the same time, Abed’s so childlike as to assume a Batman persona and stalk his landlord when he thinks his DVD’s been stolen, but he can also magically transform himself into a perfect, socially exceptional suit-wearing adult just by spending a few hours in the dreamatorium. Those aren’t realistic actions.

      As to the Christmas episodes, they do have a similar foundation, but to see the massive gap in relatability, you just have to look at the climaxes- in Season Two, the study group sings a cheery song to break Abed out of his frozen state, with everyone setting his/her personal difficulties aside for the good of a friend. The togetherness here feels earned, and in rallying around Abed the study group grows closer as a family. In Season Three, Mr. Rad admits that he murdered the entire Glee Club, the study group snaps out of their Glee-related spell, and “everyone realizes that maybe they should spend Christmas together doing something, and they watch a little TV together.” It’s a similar ending, but it feels like it’s been added on more out of necessity for a heartfelt ending, rather than a genuine continuation of what happened in the story.

      One quick final point (sorry about the long reply)- in what way is Pierce’s story in Season Two one of the most perfect character arcs on TV? Yeah, he develops well as a villain, and his decision to leave the group in the Season Two finale was an unexpected surprise, but he’s written right back into the group in the next episode, and it’s like that whole storyline never happened.

      • Hi! Just to preface I’ve never seen Community though I know it has a loyal fan base. In spite of that I can see both sides of this discussion.

        That said just because the character arc has logic to it within the plot doesn’t mean that emotionally it is hitting the right notes. Unfortunately about season 3 is when writers loose their steam because sometime before that is all that they had pre-thought out. When season 3 hits they are writing on half-baked ideas and you can see the result. This isn’t the case with each and every show just a tendency as their just isn’t enough time no matter how much passion you have for a project.

        It just might be time…

        Cheers on a great post (to have inspired such passion!)

      • I agree that it things tend to be different with almost every show- take shows like The Office (the US one) or Weeds, both of which started to lose steam around season four, or The Simpsons, which took a few years to get going and hit its stride in the fourth season.

        Thanks for the comment!

  4. How was Pierces plot-line anything but a thud? When it landed, I remember being just stunned at how bad it was. Season 3 has been a turkey for all the above reasons, but it began in the tail-end of season 2. Too much fan-service. Troy and Abed are just a one-note joke now, Annie is barely in the show, and the others are a watered down version of their former selves.

    The show had strong numbers this week. This came down to an amazing coincidence. Lack of TBBT meant people who had begged their friends to give it a shot actually would. Then they throw out this obtuse, passable at best episode, to scare everyone back to TBBT. Which, honestly, has been the better show by far this season.

    Excellent article

  5. I’m one of those die-hard Community fans, and though Season 3 is a little rockier than Season 2, I’m still enjoying it quite well.

    Regardless, I felt kind of disappointed with the most recent episode. I was kind of expecting something like “Modern Warfare”. The episode was still okay though.

    • I’m glad you can still enjoy the show!

      And what did you think of last years paintball episodes?

      I think I prefer “Modern Warfare,” but “A Fistful of Paintballs” was still a hell of a lot of fun.

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