Perhaps Donald Glover was overstating things a bit when he suggested that "people have stopped laughing, bees have stopped making honey, [and] no one has died in forty-eight hours." But since NBC made the incredibly ill-advised decision to place Dan Harmon's Community on hiatus (whatever that means) Thursdays have certainly gotten a little lonelier. I miss the characters despite the fact that we've never met, despite the fact that they don't even exist, despite the nontrivial degree to which each is unlikeable. I suppose Community's lead Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) said it best in the show's pilot. "I can pick up a pencil, tell you its name is Steve, and go like this," he alleges, snapping the pencil in half, "and part of you dies just a little bit on the inside. Because people can connect with anything... People can find the good in just about anything but themselves."
Community is the story of seven strangers, forced to interact within the confines of the bleak and depressing Greendale Community College, who haplessly wander into a study group in the first episode of the series. These familiar seven face conflict and crises that threaten to tear them apart. Like any sitcom, the show doesn't strive to take its characters on a journey from A to B. On the contrary, the fact that nothing tangible ever changes is central to its appeal. Rather than emphasizing personal growth, it works to solidify the existing relationship between its characters. The loveable misfits ended their 59th episode the same way they ended the pilot: together, staring hopefully into an uncertain future.
Community enhances these dynamics by acknowledging them openly. In a twist on the classic trope of situating the audience through expositions to an ignorant outsider or inquisitive child, this show positions us through the character of Abed (Danny Pudi). A bright-eyed pop culture fanatic with a heart of gold, Abed is the ultimate viewer, the kind a writer dreams of, someone who always "gets it." "This is starting to feel like a bottle episode," Abed will declare to his dismissive castmates who, sure enough, spend the next twenty minutes trapped in the library. "You realize that you are now creating six different timelines," he warns an eye-rolling lead Jeff, before the episode reenacts the same scenario seven times, once with each character missing. (This celebrated episode most explicitly highlights what each individual lends to the group dynamic, with surprising results.) "I think I understand now," Abed begins thoughtfully, before articulating the moral of a bizarre and imaginative stop-motion animated tale. By acknowledging the absurdity of the form, the show gives itself the right to flout any pretense of realism. The results are brilliant and often deeply moving.
My introduction to Community was late and undramatic. I caught "Critical Film Studies" (Season 2, Episode 19) on Hulu and was instantly hooked. In the episode, Jeff has planned a Pulp Fiction- themed birthday party for friend Abed. Abed, meanwhile, has other plans, and informs Jeff that he has renounced pop culture for good, and will no longer be using it as his way of relating to the world. "I'm not leaving here until you've given me my first real conversation," he demands. Jeff, still trying to salvage his surprise, insists that there is no such thing as honesty, even with one's self. "Nine out of ten lies," he maintains, "occur six inches away from the bathroom mirror."
But he's a little too convincing. Ordinarily snarky and guarded, Jeff pours his heart out, only to realize that Abed has been acting out an homage to the movie My Dinner with Andre all the while. The entire evening, in Abed's mind, was simply a reference to a film in which two men converse about theatre and life. Initially furious, Jeff is calmed when Abed explains that he'd put the dinner together to prove that his company could be enjoyable. "Everyone else is growing and changing all the time and that's not really my jam," Abed says. "I don't need you to grow or change," Jeff replies, "And take it from someone who just had a meaningless one, sometimes emotional breakthroughs are overrated." It's true. Like Abed's dinner, Community is an homage to the sitcom. Which means that, while its characters come to revelations all the time, they cannot act on them without permanently disrupting the equilibrium. It's the one way the form is achingly realistic: the whole is often much less than the sum of its parts. And the truth is that people don't change nearly as much or as often as our perceptions of them do.
In one such revelation, Chevy Chase's Pierce, a general misanthrope and holder of outdated prejudices, is forced to confront his homophobia. The episode, by Harmon's own admission, contained only two gay characters with lines. "The rest," he wrote, "were 'background' at a big, gay party, jumping around in gay outfits having a great time being super, duper gay." For this rare misstep, notoriously protective Harmon publicly repented, writing,"Community is a passionately humanitarian show. Its only religious and political point of view is that all people are good people, and while we often play the roles of villains and stereotypes to each other, it is always an illusion, shattered quickly by the briefest moment of honest connection."
These connections are not formed, as Jeff suggests in the first episode, because we have trouble seeing our best selves unless it's through someone else's eyes. We forgive our own faults daily. Nine out of ten lies occur in front of the bathroom mirror. More often than not, empathy has nothing to do with seeing our best qualities in others. Instead, it results from the gradual, humbling process of seeing their worst in ourselves. If the notion sounds unpleasant, that's because it is. Acquaintances, after all, are far easier than friends. You can laugh at a cheap joke at an acquaintance's expense. Acquaintances can't ask for favors.
This explains why we don't go searching for deep and meaningful relationships when we consume culture. When we're drawn to entertainment by particularly insidious pulls, we'll partake in the ultimate ritual of self-affirmation. We'll plop down for an evening of reality television, a medium that exists almost entirely to let us feel superior. On more self-righteous occasions, we'll throw everything bad at someone who is everything good and then applaud our own humanity when we're moved. We needn't kid ourselves and imagine Precious to be less indulgent than The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills. Pity and schadenfreude are equally dispassionate.
Who would have thought that acknowledging the presence of the screen would be enough to shatter this emotional distance it affords us? That a show that gestured at its own background, a plastic environment that's free to shift its shape to reveal how the people who inhabit it interact, was least likely to let them fade into it? That this show could demand, not only of its characters, but also of its viewers, a real and honest connection?
And as Harmon said of lead character Jeff, "once you've made the decision to love your wife, you're almost making the decision to love women a little more. You have to respect them more. You can't just say, 'Well, my wife is the best person ever, and everyone else is a piece of shit.'" It's one thing to experience a bond by briefly suspending our disbelief and immersing ourselves in a different world. (What kind of sick bastard hasn't openly wept during a makeshift puppet show about the valiant death of an emotionally unavailable horse robot?) But it's quite another to find ourselves truly invested in a sitcom that constantly reminds us it is only a sitcom, that we watch while operating in the same cynical, jaded, scoffing consciousness in which we lead our daily lives. Because once we feel for some, we're more inclined to feel for others. And we're less inclined to let anyone fade into our backgrounds.
Of course, it's not quite that easy. The relationships with the characters in our lives are far more complicated and demanding, far less stable and certain. There are a million and one things that can shift their balance. That can throw them off their equilibrium. Forever. We can't take our loved ones for granted and simply trust that they'll be there waiting for us, week after week, precisely as we last left them.