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.