FilmSlashTV: ‘Community’ college for sitcoms

Feb. 10, 2011 | 0 Comments

—Courtesy NBC

It took a while to get sucked into into its peculiar rhythms, but “Community” has become my don’t-miss sitcom on Thursdaay nights. And that’s kind of weird, because “Community” is pretty much an anti-sitcom.

The word comes from the contraction of “situation comedy,” a television format that relies on stock characters doing the same thing over and over, pretty much the same way, from the pilot episode to the day it’s yanked off the air. No one grows. No one learns. There is no arc to the story, no accretion of characterization. There is just “situation” applied to rote characters, time and again. It’s a circular treadmill that never ends until it runs out of steam or blows up.

A sitcom succeeds mostly on the likeability and relatability of the primary characters, as well as jokes that are not only funny, they bolster the predetermined niche of the primary characters. These are people you invite into your home every week, and you want to know what you’re getting. No surprises. It’s the same reason people eat at fast-food joints, no matter where they are: the non-expectation is comforting, in a way. Television requires your brain go into sleep mode. Good night, I’m tuning out by tuning in.

Sometimes this sitcommy absolute refusal to evolve becomes the joke itself — that’s pretty much what “Seinfeld” was all about — but usually it backfires when a sitcom overstays its welcome. Right, “Friends”? And “My Name Is Earl” lost its mojo right about the time Earl stopped learning about karma and started repetitive white-trash joke-slinging.

You’ve seen one episode of any sitcom, and chances are, any other episode will take you on the same circular trip. Nothing wrong with that. It makes sitcoms McShows, easy profit centers for mega-corporations, and if we weren’t buying it, the corporations wouldn’t be making it.

“Community,” however, has broken out of the loop. It’s deliberate on the part of the sitcom’s creator, Dan Harmon, a believer in Joseph Campbell’s theories about mythology and storytelling. The situation is this — a lawyer loses his license and goes back to school, a community college, and becomes part of a study group with other students. They see each other occasionally in class and off-campus, but the primary get-togethers are in the library study room. Anyone who has ever attended community college will recognize the milieu — kids just out of high school with barely formed personalities, older students and senior citizens hitting the books to better themselves, wanting to change, all in an arena of governmental chaos. That no one, including the bureaucrats and instructors, are exactly top-of-the-line in their professions is part of the joke, and makes it all rather ruefully democratic.

But it wouldn’t be a sitcom without indelible characters. The eight primary members are:

  • Jeff Winger, the disbarred lawyer, snarky, superior, charismatic and the “leader” of the group, a position he blithely assumes as his due, although lately he’s come to realize that the leadership position was conferred upon him because the others would rather be followers. He is becoming more tolerant of their shortcomings.
  • Britta Perry, a knockout blonde with anger and hostility issues, is nonetheless the member with a rigid moral code and a blunt manner of calling out BS when she sees it. In retrospect, she and Jeff often act like the reasonable parents of the often-childish group. It was probably inevitable that they’d sleep together, but unlike other sitcoms, in which that would be an amusing problem, the group cheers her on.
  • Abed Nadir, a young fellow who see the world through the lens of popular culture, to the point where his reactions to things seem measured and alien. He filters everything — you can almost hear the wheels spin in his head — as he figures out relationships and subsequent actions, almost to the point where he seems psychic. Are these people living in a sitcom, or are they people who assume the rules of a sitcom universe are reality?
  • Shirley Bennett is an affable, smiling middle-aged black woman who’s also a devout Christian. She can’t help proselytizing those around her, which annoys them, but she’s also good-hearted and always has delightfully juicy gossip. She also has a drinking problem and can fly into rages, both of which also delight her study group.
  • Annie Edison is an impossibly cheerful young lady, not only the baby of the group, but certainly the most studious. She’s one of those high-school overachievers who believe a smile can solve anything, but she’s in community college because of prescription narcotics addiction and she’s been cut off by her parents.
  • Troy Barnes is the jock of the group, a former prom king with a fixation on interpretive dance, whick likely explains why he plays football for fun instead of scholarships. He’s either an innocent or dim-witted, and probably both, although, like many savants, he has mad skills at unusual pastimes.
  • Pierce Hawthorne is a rich old guy — a “moist towelette tycoon” — who enrolled in community college after the serial failure of a dozen marriages. Although he’s twice as old as the others, and substantially richer, his social skills are lacking. If the jokes he tells on the show don’t seem funny, that’s deliberate.
  • And then there’s “Senor” Chang, a noxious Spanish instructor who senses that the cliquish study group forms the gravitational center of all that’s cool on campus. Desperate to become a member, they finally let him.

Yes, they let him in, rather than milk it as a running joke for show after show. That, in a nutshell, is why “Community” is so special, and also so hard to accept. It plays with our preconceptions of how sitcoms are supposed to be structured, and that’s because television has trained us, like dog whistles. Each show has a theme and an actual plot, sometimes a rather bizarre one, but they feel like part of a continuity, instead of beads on a necklace.

Rather than return to sitcom’s comfy womb every week and refuse to grow, the characters of “Community” are capable of almost anything. They might even graduate.

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