Saturday, November 19, 2011

Community Service

Community fans have been up in arms about NBC's recent decision to put the cult-inspiring sitcom on the shelf. The fear has come out in many forms (tweets, blog posts and soothing insider reports from New York magazine and others) that the show won't return, or will return in a truncated, rag-doll version of itself in the desolate summer months. The fear isn't totally unfounded, since Community pulls in fewer viewers each week than the almost universally reviled Whitney, but NBC has remained with underperforming shows in the past.

We all have our favourite under-the-radar choices. My boyfriend got me into Community, and he rolls his eyes every time I get overly excited about it, because, as he points out, he was into it first. I retort with Fever Ray. He comes back with E.T. (my childhood had some pretty serious pop-culture gaps in it), I point out the Crumpler bag he bought after I dragged him into their store, and then we just devolve into our reptile selves and slither around for a while, dragging our pop culture discoveries hideously behind us. We all do this. I crowed for months about King Of Kong, the amazing documentary about the world of arcade video record setting: "I showed you that!" I would cackle every thing it was mentioned. It's not pretty.

Mister Boyfriend was the one who first exposed me to Community, through their second-season zombie Halloween episode. I showed up half-way through and was completely flummoxed. Watching Community requires a basic understanding of who's who: the group dynamics aren't complicated, but you need to know that Jeff Winger is a bit of a juicebox, for instance, or that there's love quandrangle stuff between Britta, Annie, Jeff and Troy, and then the jokes will start flowing. Watching a few episodes of the first season is basically all anyone really needs to understand what's going on at Greendale, but it's not like Friends: viewers who benefit most from the sitcom's delights are the ones who pay attention and watch each episode multiple times. Casual viewers are likely not to enjoy it quite as much. For a drama like 24 or Lost, networks are comfortable allowing storylines to develop week-to-week and leave late-arriving viewers out of their loop, but sitcoms are expected to be accessible to even the most unaware viewer.

The show, in the last season, has started departing from its original premise of "mismatched friend group" and started looking more at the mechanics of storytelling. It started with the genre episodes, which collected cliches from action movies, zombie flicks and spaghetti westerns and spun them out into great, glorious 22-minute mindfucks that exist, somehow simultaneously, as spoof, homage, commentary and A+ example. Characters who were still wholly themselves found themselves transposed onto other types: sweet, high-strung Annie, for example, can exist as herself, but also become a leather-shorted paintball outlaw with a heart of gold in the western episode and, a few episodes later, be a cracked-out production assistant on a commercial shoot gone horribly wrong.

I want to talk for a second about the last episode NBC aired before yanking Community from its slot. Last week focused on Dean Pelton's attempt to update his college's recruitment commercial - what starts as a simple one-day shoot turns into Heart Of Darkness. Like, literally. Abed, who barely appears onscreen in this episode, films the school's descent into madness, which involves unzipped hoodies with no undershirt, a possum, a Chinese man wearing a blond wig under a baldcap, forced hugging, mo-cap suits, and Luis Guzman. The Dean's attempt to elevate a school he barely believes in to perfection drives him insane, and Abed's camera is there to capture it.

Last week's episode was one of the most interesting things I've ever seen on TV. The Dean's character, who is usually a punchline, was awarded a gravitas that didn't feel forced - he's a lunatic, sure, but usually he's a benignity. Give the man some power (something, interestingly, he doesn't get in his role of head of the school) and his drive to make the most of it creates some very weird moments. It was so over the top, but...thinking about the Dean over the last two's possible to see the seeds from which this madness would sprout. His perfect costumes? His excitable nature? His upbeat yet despairing attitude towards what his school can do for its students? Those are all there since day one. The Dean's craziness in this episode is what happens when you take the Dean to extremes. Not any other character. Annie's craziness looks different. So does Troy's. The writers are good to their characters, and the actors respond with performances that had me literally on the edge of my seat. I kept turning to Mister Boyfriend with my mouth agape, like, can you even believe they'd put this on TV?

I don't know what the future holds for Community. Part of me wants the show to end next season - four years of school, four years of amazing, game-changing show. Donald Glover's rap career will take off, Dan Harmon can move to Shocase to start producing whatever new craziness his brain is going to dream up, and the show can live forever on DVD. Part of me wants what Troy and Abed treat as a mantra for Cougartown - "six seasons and a movie!" Most of me just hopes that the show comes back from its hiatus refreshed and invigorated. Abed's cocked eyebrow closes the last episode; we'll be waiting, Abed, spreading the word, forcing our friends and families to watch this weird, wonderful gem. I won't even say, "I watched this first."

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