Lessons from Great TV #10: Community
Does television have a future? Fifteen years ago, it often felt as if we were all watching the same shows, or at least all talking about them: Seinfeld and The Simpsons provide a shared vocabulary of references that serve as an instant cultural shorthand for viewers of the right age, to the point where if I say “Will you please stop saying ‘gummi’ so much?” and someone doesn’t get the reference, I feel an immediate disconnect. And it’s unclear if we’ll ever see that kind of cultural landscape again. Sitcoms like Community or Parks and Recreation have their own devoted followings, and the return of Mad Men or Breaking Bad may feel like a big deal to the media elite, but as far as ratings are concerned, we’re talking about an infinitesimal slice of the viewing public. As David Foster Wallace pointed out, we tend to be more alike in our stupid, vulgar interests than in the ways we’re refined and tasteful, which means that television will probably always remain a place where a handful of good shows struggle to stay afloat in an ocean of dreck. Yet with the decline of the major networks and the balkanization of fandoms online, television’s fragmentation has only increased in recent years, to the point where the audience for good shows will only grow smaller, or at least more specialized. And the firing of Dan Harmon from Community makes it easy to wonder if there will still be a place for the kinds of idiosyncratic creative voices that have always pushed the boundaries of the medium.
Yet when I look at a Community episode like “Remedial Chaos Theory,” I can’t help but feel that television’s future is bright, at least for those willing to seek out exceptional storytelling wherever it might be found. The great strength of Community in the Harmon years has always been its way of honoring its sitcom past while looking forward to the next stage, and this glorious episode, which you can watch here, embodies most of the lessons I’ve talked about so far. With its intricate structure—a series of six different timelines at the same party, created by a roll of a die—it makes writing for television look like the greatest game in the world. It does wonderful things with constraints: seven characters, a single location, and a limited number of narrative pieces. It gradually introduces a complicated premise so that the audience is never lost, even as we jump from one timeline to another, and it does a wonderful job of using self-contained gags to convey information that will pay off in surprising ways. Many of the jokes arise from unexpected combinations of characters, and the episode both deconstructs the show and honors the conventions that it has established so far. It beautifully accelerates and decelerates the narrative, with quiet character moments standing in contrast to a shooting, a fire, and an evil Norwegian Troll. And the post-credit sequence plays both as a twisted series finale and a love letter to evil doppelgängers, complete with sinister goatees. When I watch Community, which I only discovered this year, I’m reminded that there doesn’t need to be a lot of great television: there just needs to be enough. And I expect that there always will be.