Oh: hey there culturally cognizant young men and women! You know how Arrested Development was like, so hilarious and layered and ahead of its time and too intelligent for all that America out there (you know, with the farms and aw-shucks-arrogance)? What’s that? Ha ha, yes, the chicken dance was funny. Man, if only you hadn’t been so young at the time! You and your friends all totally would have tuned in and saved it otherwise, right? Except no, fuck you: you’re not watching Community.
Stick with me: I know that on a surface level (and even a few levels below it) the two shows are nothing alike. That happens a lot with comparisons involving Community – for all of its nods to convention it is a breathtakingly unique show – and most times, admittedly, it’s not going to measure up. It’s not as smart as 30 Rock, as likable as Parks and Recreation or as honest as Louie. It’s not as funny as any of the aforementioned and nowhere near as funny as Arrested Development was, which is arguably, you know, what a comedy should concern itself with being first and foremost. Except no, fuck you: making you laugh is like, fourth on Community’s to do list.
Let’s talk a little bit about ambition. In art, specifically. Do you like art that knows its wheelhouse, art that understands its limits and thrives within them? Or do you like art that wants to do things no one has done before, art that is going to blunder out into the abyss and sometimes misstep and sometimes transcend and all the while bear witness unto itself, lay itself bare in all its self-aggrandizing, self-doubting essence (two things all pioneers necessarily must be), look you in the eyes and tell you it has no idea what it’s doing but maybe you want to watch? It’s okay if you prefer the first kind, really! Plenty of great things have come of it! Except no, fuck you: Community is the best show on television, and it wouldn’t be if it had any idea of what its limits were.
There was a time not too long ago when writing like this about a twenty-two minute comedy that airs Thursdays on NBC at 8 PM would elicit nothing but laughs: maybe that’s still the case. It is television, after all. And more than that, it’s network television, where ingenuity is supposed to go to die. This is a landscape in which new shows have become parodies of themselves so gradually no one noticed: dramas about beautiful ladycops who just can’t forget and doctors who talk to the dead, comedies that two-dimensionalize women, recycle jokes and all-in-all make one long for 1970’s levels of racial tolerance. And of course, there really isn’t anything else these shows can do: the people want what they want, and it is network television’s job to cater to the lowest common denominator (the only reason NBC continues to air a show as weird as Community is because the network has literally zero viable replacement candidates). The two most popular programs in the country for quite some time have been Two and a Half Men and NCIS, people: networks don’t give a shit if the body in front of the TV is asleep or dead or in actuality not a person at all but a kitten, just as long as they’ve got a Nielsen box. Cable and premium cable channels like AMC and HBO are by and large why and where the recent and waning ‘golden age’ of television (Breaking Bad! Mad Men! The Sopranos! The Wire!) took place: networks are for the masses, and anything reliant on mass appeal for survival almost always must either learn to pander or die. Except no, fuck you: Community is on a network and it hasn’t yet done either.
Sure, Community has talked about pandering. It has deconstructed the idea, discussed its pros and cons on air, but it’s never fully gone for it. It’s too proud. Since everything that happens on Community functions on at least two levels, it is this very dilemma that has been the central theme of the three episodes since its return from a network-imposed winter hiatus. The question I am currently watching Community to answer is whether it would rather cease to exist than compromise what it wants to be, and I hope – I know, actually – that the answer is (a qualified) yes. Rarely has a network television show in its third season been so ruthlessly committed to being itself in the face of considerable evidence that almost no one likes it for what it is, so willing to disappear up its own asshole and been so flat-out good in the process. Except no, fuck you: Arrested Development was exactly like that and it got cancelled.
The only difference between the two shows is when they came along. Arrested Development was a show drunk on its own mythology: it wanted to handsomely reward viewers who paid attention because in 2003, the idea of expecting anyone to pay attention while a network comedy told a long, single story was new and bold. Community is television’s next evolutionary step into a medium to be taken seriously: it assumes that level of attention from viewers and then, like any piece of art self-assured enough to do so, begins tackling more serious fare. And make no mistake: Community is committed to exploring some honest-to-goodness ontological shit. It wants to know how groups of people survive together, need one another in order to grow, impede one another’s progress. It wants to know about the nature of reality: art, friendship, censorship, manhood, fear and pop culture. So what if it doesn’t know the answers, or if sometimes its answers are stupid or hurried? It’s still a miracle it exists at all. It’s still the only show that is bothering to ask. It’s still a program that made a clip show episode in which all of the clips were original content. The show still cares about its characters and character dynamics. It’s still, seemingly every month or two, creating the most spontaneous, audacious comedy ever aired on mainstream TV. It can still, when it’s tired, does “traditional sitcom things” very well. And yes, it will get around to making you laugh.
In summation: please watch Community, and then do all the things our generation does to let other people know about it. If you don’t, six or seven years from now a hip, whip-smart young man or woman like yourself will be watching old episodes on whatever eventually supplants Netflix, lamenting the show’s early death. “Why were 2012 hip, whip-smart young men and women so blind?” they will ask themselves. “Why did they not watch this show, full of life, struggle and invention?” “Why did they turn on another twenty-two minutes of television in which they knew what was coming, which never challenged them or truly loved them or told them to go fuck themselves?” “Maybe President Santorum can do something about this,” they will mutter to themselves, reaching for the kettle corn.