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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Greendale's The Way It Goes

*the sound of clock tower chimes plays on a cassette tape boombox*

It is time. Time to talk about Community, the little comedy that could.

So, what is Community even about, Girl?

Community is a show about a community college called Greendale that is ostensibly set in Colorado, but it definitely never snows there. Although Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is the Theoretical Main Character (TMC), it is absolutely an ensemble comedy, with each character (including Dean Pelton (Jim Rash), Senor Chang (Ken Jeong), and Professor Ian Duncan (John Oliver)) filling a key role. The main action centers around a study group that is so diverse it includes "one of every kind," as the diversity-obsessed Dean remarks upon entering. The show follows the study group (and the Dean and various Professors) as they pass time each semester, searching for the easy classes and struggling to maintain their personal identities as they all face various comedic crises. Sounds awesome, right? Before we go any further into the show as a whole, I want to delve into each individual character.


(Dean Pelton's voice blasts over the PA, announcing there will be continued announcements) "I like it. It makes every ten minutes feel like the beginning of the new scene of a TV show - of course the illusion only lasts until someone says something they'd only say on TV, like, how much their life is like TV. There - it's gone."

Just as Jeff is the Theoretical Main Character (TMC) of Community, I have friends who believe that Abed (played with comedic brilliance by Danny Pudi) is the Actual Main Character. I don't agree - to me, Community really is an ensemble piece - but I do believe that Abed is the heart and soul of the show. Although he's never reveals it explicitly, it is understood that Abed has Asperger's, and that before coming to Greendale he had immense trouble making personal connections and being understood, even by his own family. Dan Harmon, the show's creator, mentions in the commentaries that Abed has a large Asperger's fan base - people with the syndrome appreciate the positive representation that doesn't focus on the negatives but instead presents a complicated, brilliant, and well-rounded character who has "self-esteem coming out [his] butt". It doesn't hurt that he's hilarious. Within minutes of the pilot beginning, Jeff tells Abed, "I see your value now," and Abed replies, "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me." When, by the end of the episode, those lines are reversed, the viewer really sees Abed's true value - as a shaman who will give you soup, yes, but also as an unlikely mentor and guide for Jeff. Because he is an incredible observer, Abed is able to offer the best advice and insight on emotional and interpersonal issues that he may struggle with himself.

Which brings me to Abed as Pop Culture Guru. Because of his Asperger's (Troy: "Heh, Ass Burgers." Annie: "It's a really serious disorder, guys!" Pierce: "If it's so serious, why don't they call it Meningitis?"), Abed has an incredible memory for film and TV and most things pop culture. This works not only for his character development (for example, when he deals with his emotions about his parents by making a movie about it or turning into stop-motion animation) but also for Abed's way of talking about their life like it's a TV show. Of course, it IS a TV show, but for me, it doesn't take me out of it to hear that Abed is aware that they're doing a bottle episode when I can already tell they're doing a bottle episode (For those of you unaware of what a bottle episode is, you can read my post "Annie's Boobs Did It!"). Having Abed around allows Harmon and the other Community writers to use classic sitcom tropes like after-school special-style morality lessons, theme episodes, and will-they-won't-they romantic drama, and then immediately subvert those tropes by having Abed talk about the fact that that's exactly what they're doing. It's genius, but what's especially genius is that they've created a character who can say these things without a single note ringing false. There's a scene in the pilot where Abed, having nothing of his own to yell about as everyone else is arguing, breaks into Bender's speech from The Breakfast Club...but instead of reciting the whole speech, he quickly skips to the dramatic reveal of, "No, Dad, what about YOU?!" It breaks the tension in the room, and demonstrates the way that Abed is able to express himself through quotes, references, and general pop culture knowledge. Now we're going to move on, since that last sentence hit a little too close to home for me...


"If I wanted to learn something, I wouldn't have gone to community college."

Jeff Winger is a tricky character. He is not easily likable, and yet, somehow, he is. Part of the honest charm of Community is that the characters, while occasionally exaggerated or put into ridiculous situations, are quite real. The smug guy who thinks he can coast though life on his wits and good looks is totally out there, and odds are, you've met him and hated him already. Funny then how this show can work without taking away any of the obnoxiousness but by adding in small, manageable doses of redemption. I know a few people who have resisted Community because they don't like Joel McHale (something that astounds me, because The Soup is consistently laugh-out-loud funny) but I know they just don't understand the character he plays yet. You're not really supposed to like everything he does, because his bad and selfish decisions make his good decisions even better. Plus, come on, he is a beautiful man who is not afraid to strip down naked or contort his pretty face Forrest Whittaker-style. Hilarious, personable, and, yes, extremely flawed, Jeff brings some of the harshness of the real world into the Greendale bubble, and they need him. He's a good leader because he's become attached, but isnt too emotional to make the tough decisions...and he does make a great romantic lead.


"I dropped out of high school because for some reason I thought it would impress Radiohead."

Britta (Gillian Jacobs), as has been said before, is a buzzkill. She's too interested in looking cool while not appearing to care about being cool. The truth is that she's incredibly insecure and needs to be wanted to feel good about herself. She also brings everybody down with her depressing political talk and lack of any real sense of humor. But she is a key part of the group - everybody needs to stay grounded in reality sometimes, although it does mean that Britta often has trouble letting go and living a little fantasy every now and then ("BrittaBot, programmed badly, wires with fraying ends. Functioning mad and sadly, no faith in herself...or friends," Abed sings to her in Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas). Her relationship with Jeff is really interesting - will-they-won't-they doesn't really matter because even if they do manage to get something meaningful together, we know it's never really going to work out. That doesn't stop them from working together as a sort of mom-and-dad team when dealing with Troy or Abed. Much like with Jeff, everyone knows a girl like Britta, who went her own way and rebelled and did crazy things and is now trying to figure out what direction her life is heading. God, each of these characters is starting to sound like a piece of me and I'm wondering if that's part of why I love the show so much. Well, I guess I'll wait 'til I get to Shirley to make any grand statements like that.


"This nose smells like special drink."

I love Troy. I love Troy (played by the awesome badass Donald Glover) not only because of the absolutely amazing team he and Abed make (which warrants its own post, don't worry), but because of the brand of comedy he brings to the table. Innocence, joy, childlike wonder - he's got it down pat. But he's also sexy and charming and can bring the cool when he needs to. The relationship he has with Pierce is great, since they occasionally seem like the same clueless guy, 50 years apart. It's obvious that he looks up to Jeff, but the writers don't shy away from making Jeff a disappointment of a role model (see the recent Mixology Certification episode). Although some people may wonder why Troy, the popular and sometimes dumb football player, became besties with Abed, the film-obsessed weirdo, the answer is simple: Troy is also weird, and I'm sure he always has been. He just never before had a safe space to express that weirdness. You see him struggle with it on occasion, Epidemiology being a good example of that, but he always ends up on the side of weirdness and friendship. Although Troy is, at the beginning, incredibly self-centered and self-important, his relationship with Abed grounds him and makes him a much more likable and well-rounded character. Plus, Troy & Abed are, quite possibly, what take the show from great to awesome.



Although I don't have as much to say about the last three characters, that doesn't mean they're not important. Pierce (Chevy Chase! Seriously, I should not have to convince you to watch a show that Chevy Chase thinks is good enough for him to be in.) is the classic old guy in a young man's world. He is often offensive but, like having to tell my grandfather that he shouldn't call Asian people "Orientals", usually doesn't realize that he's offending anyone ("Sexually harassing? Why would I harass someone who turns me on?"). He puts on a brave face, but you can often see through the cracks and find a man who is, like Troy and Jeff and Britta, struggling to find a meaningful place in the world. Although he often affects detachment, there are a few moments that really reveal the ways in which Pierce struggles and is in turn supported by the study group. What everyone on Community really lacks is a strong family, and clearly they've found one in each other. It may sound cheesy, but intentional families can be just as meaningful and important as biological ones, and clearly for Pierce, who gives money to an ex-stepdaughter just so he can have someone there on Family Day, his Greendale family is a key part of his life, even if it's hard to him to express his feelings. And although change has been slow, Pierce is gradually beginning to alter some of his offensive ways.


"My brownie isn't working." - Jeff

I don't have a quote from Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown). That's not because she never says anything funny, it's just that I don't really like Shirley all that much. It's interesting, because Dan Harmon says that Shirley is perhaps his favorite character and I don't deny that she has her moments. I just don't like when Shirley gets all serious and whatnot. I certainly don't like when she gets all high and mighty and Jesus-y, but thankfully the writers do a great job of bringing her down from "high up on her throne" without being offensive. I think the humor in Shirley is finding where exactly she fits in the group, since she's not that much older than Britta but her lifestyle as a mother is so different. Giving her a romantic-ish storyline in season two has already proven awesome, and I hope it's going to get even more so in the second half. Making Shirley into less of the disapproving mother-figure and into more of just another flawed person trying to make it in a flawed world is definitely the right way to go.

Oh, alright. Since I can't put into words what I call The Shirley Nipple Finger Wink (if only I could make gifs!), this will have to suffice:

"I stir pots - I'm a pot stirrer." Yvette's delivery makes me laugh every time.


"Who are Sam and Diane?"

Oh, Annie (Allison Brie). There's a whole set of people out there who make tribute videos of Jeff and Annie together - I assume that those are the same people who made thousands (no, literally thousands) of Josh & Donna West Wing videos, where still photos or 5-second clips are strung together over the sappiest music possible. I'm a fan of Jeff and Annie, but I particularly like the pace that their romance has taken, which, again, is relatively realistic compared to most sitcoms, and don't feel the need to turn their every interaction into an indicator of what's to come. Annie is your classic overachiever, forced to go to community college after a problematic Adderall addiction in high school. She is smart and focused, but lacks people skills. Annie seems stuck between playing the little girl to get what she wants and trying to act more grown-up so that people will take her seriously. She holds people to a high moral standard which, like with Britta and Shirley, can get a little obnoxiously preachy at times - thankfully the rest of the group is there to call her on her bullshit. Because Annie and Troy are so young, their characters seem to have the most potential for change and development, and I'm sure that we'll be seeing some major upheaval in the rest of this season. Who knows what might have happened over winter break...after all, Christmas is the season for "saying 'I love you'"! Anyway, like the rest of them Annie is an integral cog in the strange Community wheel, and the dynamic would be completely different without her.

To Sum Up:

Look I know there's so much more to talk about - I haven't even touched on Senor Chang and his weird relationship to the group (and the world in general).

I'll be doing another smaller post on him and the more incidental Community characters - Dean Pelton, Starburns, Professor Duncan, Vaughn, etc - in the future, but to finish I'd like to talk a little about theme episodes. Most people who have heard of Community know about last season's episode Modern Warfare. This transformed the Greendale campus into a paintball game/action movie, and caught the attention of critics and viewers alike. Community is able to do these grandiose episodes (like Contemporary American Poultry or Epidemiology or Conspiracy Theories) that are borderline unrealistic because the characters are so consistent that they keep the show grounded in reality. Not only that, but the genres or phenomena that they pay tribute to are parodied so thoroughly and with such obvious appreciation for the original concept that there's nothing for a fan to complain about. Watching the commentary for Modern Warfare, I learned that Dan Harmon's favorite movie is Die Hard. "So THAT'S why I love this show so much," I mused. Community can do action and big, overblown whatever, but the things that really matter are the comedy and the humanity, just like in Die Hard. The show can give homage to all the movies and television that came before and inspire us now, while still creating something that is fresh and smart and inescapably captivating.

So BOOYAH! Community is awesome, end of story. But not the end of my posting about it, because rest assured, I've got more to say.

"I hope this doesn't awaken something in me..."

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