Tue. February 12
An Irreverant Sitcom with a Traditional Take: NBC’s Community
With the season four premiere last Thursday, cult-favorite NBC sitcom Community is back. This is a welcome return since Harmon and his lovable band of misfits offer a refreshing critique of contemporary society.
The gang—Jeff Winger the ex-lawyer, Annie Edison the reformed Adderall addict, Britta Perry the world-traveling do-gooder, Shirley Bennett the black, extremely Christian divorcée, Pierce Hawthorne the retiree who wants something to do, Troy Barnes the jock in search of an education, and Abed Nadir the autistic pop culture guru—all find themselves in Spanish class at Greendale, a community college led by Dean Pelton.
The community college setting tees up the show’s critique of academia nicely. Abed took a course taught by a professor who has devoted his life to studying the ‘80s sitcom Who’s the Boss? (a dig at the hyper-specialized trivialities that pass for serious college classes today). By the end of the episode, Abed proved the professor’s thesis wrong in a single class period.
The Dean is another cue that Community isn’t standard Hollywood fare. He is the perfect caricature of everything that’s wrong with higher education. When Greendale needed a mascot, he and Pierce constructed the “Human Being,” an amalgamation of every race and ethnicity in the world (which led Jeff to observe that “not being racist is the new racism”). With a nod to the annual culture wars at Christmastime, the Dean dressed up as “Non-Denominational Mr. Winter,” crying “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Happy!” Community even poked fun at NBC’s self-righteous “Earth Week” by having the Dean issue a proclamation (using 5,000 paper fliers) declaring Greendale to be “Envirodale”—and then printing 5,000 more fliers when he realized that the name Greendale was already “Green.”
Britta, too, is a caricature of another creature frequently found on campus: the faux-crusader who believes she’s better than everyone else because she “cares.” With a friend locked away in a Syrian prison, she instigated her own series of protests to run afoul of campus security to show that she was doing something. In typical feminist fashion, she also dismissed Valentine’s Day as ritualizing “a connection between affection and candy so girls can learn the ropes of prostitution.”
Shirley’s character in particular separates Community from the rest of Hollywood. She’s a Christian, but she isn’t the constant butt of jokes. Community explores her faith in great depth. We learn about her past drunken orgies, but also see her forgive her ex-husband Andre who deserted her, even going so far as to give him her car. The show lightly mocks how judgmental she can be, but she’s not the shallow, one-dimensional Christian we so often see in sitcoms (like Marcia Langman from Parks & Recreation).
None of this contradicts the idea that Community merely reflects what The A.V. Club critic Todd VanDerWerff describes as Harmon’s belief that “that people are genuinely better off doing what makes them happy”; i.e., Harmon and Community are libertarian, blasé about decisions people make so long as they’re happy.
The way the show addresses sex and marriage, however, calls that into question. During one episode, for example, Dean Pelton decides to hold an STD Fair. In reward for her help, Annie will give the condom demonstration at the fair’s close. One problem: she’s never seen that part of the male anatomy. Shirley and Britta decide to help Annie better prepare for her role by breaking into the room where the demonstration dummy is stored only to be foiled by campus security. The three women are brought in for questioning by the Dean and the school psychologist. In typical sex-ed fashion, the school psychologist asks them to say “penis” in unison. Everyone says the word except Annie, prompting the psychologist to hone in on why she wouldn’t. Annie steals the scene by replying, “I don’t want to express myself, I like being repressed. I am totally comfortable being uncomfortable with my sexuality, and maybe, just maybe, if everyone were a little more like me, we wouldn’t have to have a STD fair!”
Marriage is another topic that Community treats in a very un-libertarian fashion. During the wedding rehearsal for Shirley’s re-marriage to Andre, Jeff—the “cool” guy who’s still dealing with his parents’ divorce years ago—drunkenly declares that marriage is a sham. Meanwhile, Britta (the feminist) has been re-thinking her opposition to marriage all day and stands up to prove Jeff is wrong by marrying him at that very moment. Their “vows” happen to be the litany of every caricature and half-truth about marriage (e.g., Britta: “I promise to put your dreams before mine”). Shirley and Andre’s ensuing conversation with Jeff and Britta ultimately refute those “vows”: marriage is difficult and shouldn’t be entered into lightly, but it’s important and worthwhile.
Community rises above the crowd by satirizing the excesses of liberalism and forcing its audience to consider a more traditional view of society.
Anthony Dent works for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and is a graduate of the University of North Carolina. Follow him at twitter.com/AEDent.