It was always too good to last.
One day, someone will write a book of the behind-the-scenes goings on of this show, and it will just be 500 pages of this gif:
By absolutely any measure used to judge this sort of thing, Community should not have lasted anywhere near as long as it did. From its creator whose genius was matched only by what could kindly be called his volatility, to its bargain bin ratings, to the way it took weirdness to a place that seemed to actively resist having people watching it, this show should not have worked. It should have spiraled into the same creative incoherence Glee became, and yet, for some reason that probably involves Dan Harmon and supernatural blackmail, it did work, and for a lot longer than shows that manage to keep track of who they’re firing and why.
But if we’re being honest (and I know how difficult that is where this show is involved), Community circa 2014 was much closer to the end of its run than to its beginning, and it’s best that it went out on what could reasonably be considered a high. Five seasons is a natural life cycle for a show, and even if this one didn’t really get to go through that process due to various behind-the-scenes fuckeries – the point is, 97 episodes is a respectable run for any show, and especially one for which there was always that uncertainty about what you’d see when you turned on the television Thursday at 8 (would it be Community? Jay Leno? a cat riding a unicycle which, to be fair, probably would have gotten better ratings?).
Still, that cancellation did come a bit out of nowhere (as much as a cancellation for a show which was always on the brink of cancellation could come out of nowhere), and while there is certainly a generous helping of schadenfreude to watching NBC circle around the drain of their own ineptitude, it’s still depressing to lose what I’m sure was a fair amount of excellence still left in a potential season 6 and subsequent movie. So instead of worrying about the absence of Community come fall, let’s look back, episode by episode, through one of the great creative achievements of the last five years.
Jeff: I discovered at a very early age that if I talk long enough, I can make anything right or wrong. So either I’m God, or truth is relative. In either case, booyah.
Duncan: Interesting, it’s just that the average person has a harder time saying “booyah” to MORAL RELATIVISM.
Pilots are hard, and comedy pilots are hardest of all. You want to establish your characters and your setting and your premise and maybe if you have a little extra time give some idea of what plots we should be expecting or how the characters might grow, and you also – and this is key – also want to be funny. Be really, really funny, or most of the people who watch sitcoms won’t see any point in your show at all. So a pilot is necessarily graded on a curve, because it has a really hard job. In fact, you could argue that the pilot is the worst place to start watching a show, because, while there might be episodes that are less enjoyable, you’ll rarely find one that’s more uncertain. I can count the number of comedy pilots I really liked without having to qualify that enjoyment on one hand, and most of those rhyme with “Schmangers With Schmandy.”
Now, all that being said, this is a really good pilot. It’s funny, it’s snappy, and that football field conversation between Jeff and Duncan is still one of my favorite things the show has ever done (although I will say that later episodes would have had more confidence to let the unlikeliness of the star players pass without commentary). It does a decent job hitting on something around which to center each member of its pretty substantial ensemble (though Annie was, as always, shortchanged, and the fact that that’s a theme will be something we can discuss at more length with later episodes), and the Dean’s incompetence does give the slightest suggestion toward the walking code orange he would eventually become.
However, one of the more striking things about this pilot relative to what would come later is how much less zany it is. Now, obviously, that’s to be expected in a sitcom pilot – indeed, one of the most common complaints about older sitcoms is how much they’ve flanderized their characters. But grounded really, really doesn’t work for this show, and I’d say that’s probably the most glaring weakness of this episode. These characters are quirky at best, and quirky at Greendale is kind of boring. (hell, they needed to make their boring characters quirky in later episodes just to keep them in the same universe, looking at you TODD.)
Basically, this means that I want to talk about Britta. The biggest lesson of Pilot!Britta is in how much she needed to be de-MPDG’ed in order to become a good character. Now, I think that confident, seductive Britta is incredibly dull in the worst ways of the kind of strong female character a man would write for his male lead to fall for, but I do understand how making her so incompetent in later episodes could also be problematic. The thing is though, I don’t think this is a dichotomy, because we’ve seen Pilot!Britta in later episodes; namely, whenever she was meeting anyone new. The wonderful complexity of the character is that she is a weird, passionate person who can tamp that down when she doesn’t want to turn someone new off. And yes, that layered characterization is a retcon born of Gillian Jacob’s comedic acting, but there’s absolutely a continuity to it. Britta continues to attempt to mother Abed and make grand psychological proclamations; it’s just that, once we get to know her better, we see these for how ridiculous they really are.
Abed, too, is a character who changed drastically from the pilot, though in his case I think you could definitely attribute that more to development than than to figuring out the point of the character and the talents of the actor. “I see your value now” is one of the most memorable lines of the episode, but there’s a wonderful moment right before Abed responds “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me!” that really shows where the character is at this point in his life. You can see, in that moment, him processing the comment, analysing various potential responses, and probably working out his exact inflection before even opening his mouth. Jeff later teases Abed about how he’s a computer, but in this episode, he actually is. This is an Abed who has probably never had friends, who really has learned everything he knows about people from television shows, who has to consciously work out every social interaction before having it, and one of the great rewards of the series is in seeing him warm up and open up.
But if Abed is a character who has, to this point, learned everything he knows about people from television shows, then Community is a show which has learned everything it knows about being a television show from television. That is to say, Community is forever in dialogue with its own form. Troy, Pierce, and Shirley start out as stereotypes because of course they do, that’s how television shows work, and the shots of these characters under the Dean’s description of their types might as well be the show jumping up and down and pointing. Jeff tells the cafeteria worker “I was raised on TV,” and while later episodes would get a little more creative about how pop culture influenced their characters’ lives, the fact is that this is a show which knows and cares that it is a cultural text.
So, the biggest question you always have to ask with Community is whether or not that means something. In other words, does it do anything interesting with that awareness, or does it just spend all of its time up its own ass? I don’t think you can answer that question from the pilot, and that’s definitely something I’ll be keeping in mind as I go through the rest of the series. But as for whether or not this show has a point – well, that I think you can figure out just from the Jeff Winger speech at the end.
Because as much as this show is called “Community,” it is always, fundamentally, about the randomness of friendship. These people didn’t choose each other, they have nothing in common, and come to love one another based on the flimsiest of class registration coincidences. So, yes, it’s a Winger speech that brings them together, but it’s also a Winger speech that tore them apart, and the fact that they are so suspect to the whims of a guy who – at this point in the show at least – is probably a sociopath proves that what they have is more just convenience of place over real, meaningful bonds. Because that’s what college is – hell, that’s probably what a television show is, and this show is obsessed with whether relationships based on something meaningless could ever be meaningful.
Dan Harmon and Community never lose track of this fundamental arbitrariness, and that question – why are these people friends with each other, and is that reason, or just the fact itself of their friendship, enough to sustain it? – is something the show always returned to. If Community is about anything at all, it’s about the way that community asserts itself even when it has no reason to. This episode may show them coming together by accident, but Community will continue to explore whether there’s something to this Island of Misfit Toys.
– I didn’t really get the chance to talk about the Dean too much here, but that “I didn’t mean to snap” is basically the perfect encapsulation of his character (he really just cares so much about other people!), and even if he gained some bizarre proclivities, he basically came out of the gate fully formed.
– Man, I forgot how delightfully awful Pierce could be.
– Duncan: I’m a professor! You can’t talk to me that way!
Jeff: A six year old girl could talk to you that way!
Duncan: Yes, because that would be adorable.
Jeff: No, because you’re a five year old girl, and there’s a pecking order!
– So. Jeff’s pants. Let’s all collectively forget that ever happened.
– I’m going to try to get these up every other day, but I can’t make any promises. I’d also like to try to get in some of the mini-sodes, and there may be entire posts dedicated to the gag reels, because come on.