Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Introduction to finality

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Community

Yesterday, while I was out of the house, my wife asked our daughter: “Do you want your veggie snacks in a bowl?” My daughter, who is two years old, replied: “Sure!” I wasn’t there to see it, but when I got back, I was assured by all involved that it was hilarious. Then, this morning, in response to another question, my daughter said: “Sure!” Without thinking twice, I said: “That’s a good callback, honey. Is that your new catchphrase?” Which made me realize how often I talk about myself and those around me as if we were on a television show. We’ve always used terms from art and literature to describe the structure of our own lives: when we talk about “starting a new chapter” or “turning the page,” we’re implicitly comparing ourselves to the characters in novels. Even a phrase like “midlife crisis” is indebted, almost without knowing it, to the language of literary criticism. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that we’d also appropriate the grammar of television, which is the art form that has the most in common with the way our lives tend to unfold. When I moved to New York after college, I thought of myself as the star of a spinoff featuring a breakout character from the original series, a supporting player who ended up being my roommate. And a friend once told me that he felt that the show jumped the shark after I got a job in finance. (He wasn’t wrong.)

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Community has exercised such a hold over the imaginations of its viewers. For the past six years, it hasn’t always been the funniest sitcom around, or the most consistent, or even the most creative. But it’s the show that thought most urgently about the ways in which we use television to understand ourselves. For most of the show’s run, these themes centered on the character of Abed, but as last night’s season finale—which feels an awful lot like it ought to be the last episode of the entire series—clearly demonstrated, their real impact was on Jeff. Community could sometimes be understood as a dialogue between Abed and Jeff, with one insisting on seeing events in terms of narrative conventions while the other brought him down to earth, but in the end, Jeff comes to see these tropes as a way of making sense of his own feelings of loss. We’re aware, of course, that these people are characters on a television series, which is why Abed’s commentary on the action was often dismissed as a winking nod to the audience. But it wouldn’t be so powerful, so compelling, and ultimately so moving if we didn’t also sense that seeing ourselves through that lens, at least occasionally, is as sane a way as any of giving a shape to the shapelessness of our lives.

Danny Pudi on Community

Community may not endure as a lasting work of our culture—it’s more than enough that it was a great sitcom about half the time—but it’s part of a long tradition of stories that offer us metaphors drawn from their own artistic devices. Most beautifully, we have Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, which are framed as acts in a play. (Shakespeare returned to such images with a regularity that implies that he saw such comparisons as more than figures of speech: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage…” “These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all sprits and / Are melted into air, into thin air…”) Joyce used The Odyssey to provide a framework for his characters’ lives, as Proust did, more subtly, with The Thousand and One Nights. These are all strategies for structuring a literary work, but we wouldn’t respond to them so profoundly if they didn’t also reflect how we felt about ourselves. You could even say that fiction takes the form of a shapely sequence of causal events, at least in the western tradition, because we see our lives in much the same way. When you stand back, everyone’s life looks more or less the same, even as they differ in the details, and as we grow older, we see how much we’re only repeating patterns that others before us have laid down.

This might seem like a lot of pressure to place on a show that included a self-conscious fart joke—with repeated callbacks—in its final episode. But it’s the only way I can explain why Community ended up meaning more to me than any other sitcom since the golden age of The Simpsons. The latter show also ended up defining our lives as completely as any work of art can, mostly because its sheer density and longevity allowed it to provide a reference point to every conceivable situation. Community took a clever, almost Borgesian shortcut by explicitly making itself its own subject, and on some weird level, it benefited from the cast changes, creator firings, cancellations, and unexpected revivals that put its viewers through the wringer almost from the start. It was a show that was unable to take anything for granted, no more than any of us can, and even if it sometimes strained to keep itself going through its many incarnations, it felt like a message to those of us who struggle to impose a similar order on our own lives. Life, like a television show on the brink, has to deal with complications that weren’t part of the plan. If those ups and downs pushed Community into darker and stranger places, it’s a reminder that life gains much of its meaning, not from our conscious intentions, but as an emergent property of the compromises we’re forced to make. And like any television show, it’s defined largely by the fact that it ends.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2015 at 9:33 am

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