TV: Tell, Show, Laugh

Last night Community ended its second and not final season, where it became a breakout show in terms of fandom: the ratings weren’t there, but it became probably the most passionately-loved series on regular broadcast TV, as well as gaining more fans within the industry.

I have had my problems with the show this season, but before I say anything about that I want to talk a little bit about what the show has done right – because I think when a show touches this much of a nerve, it must be doing something very right. (This applies to seemingly lowbrow shows as well as cult favourites, of course.) I think Community, a famously post-modern show, is to TV what post-modern art has been in a lot of areas: a chance to reconcile the pleasures of the old with those of the new.

Much of today’s audience, and certainly the people who both write and watch Community, were raised in a TV-saturated environment; they know all its traditional tricks, and can go on the internet and learn even more about them through TVTropes.org and other resources. Television has been de-mystified, because thanks to interviews with producers and Twitter accounts and DVD commentaries and all the rest, we on the outside know more than we ever did about how these things are put together. That made us cynical, and a lot of televised entertainment for the last 10 years has been sort of in revolt against the old clichés. The most popular shows still tend to be the ones that use these clichés straightforwardly (American Idol) or tweak them just a little bit before using them more or less straight after all (NCIS). But the writers and viewers who want something more, or something different, are often looking to subvert them. In TV comedy, the gold standard for that approach is Arrested Development, a show that was the anti-sitcom for 19 minutes followed by 30 seconds of obligatory heartfelt emotion.

But, like modern music or modern art, modern – maybe even modernist – TV can be wearying; viewers raised on TV sitcoms long for their simple pleasures just as concert-goers long for a good tune. A lot of post-modern music is about bringing back the stuff that modernism rejected (tunes, tonal harmony) but doing so in a way that adds a layer of ironic commentary, so we know we’re not just listening to a pastiche, that it’s not kitsch.

Community is doing sort of the same thing. As everyone agrees, it’s a deconstruction of sitcom tropes. Most ensemble sitcoms show us a group of people who are different, who don’t exactly like each other all that much, but have to band together because they’re the only ones they can depend on. The traditional sitcoms, like Big Bang Theory, treat this as a given: we don’t need to ask why these people hang out together, they do it because that’s the show and because we can extrapolate from our real-life experiences of hanging out with people without quite understanding why.

Community does not treat any of this as a given. It tells us that these people don’t really belong together in any clear sense. It analyzes the fact that the main group is a little closed group that excludes outsiders, and is willing to show us how they must look to peripheral characters. The season finale ended with a character leaving and everyone expecting him to come back, only to have that cliche subverted. Other shows have used that exact ending, including the subversion of our expectations, but Community highlights the fact that it is something we expect and plays up how confusing it is when the expected does not happen. As I said in an earlier post, the writers of Community appear to anticipate fan objections or points of contention, and respond to them. They also will not let sitcom clichés go without trying to make sense of them or say something new about them.

But it’s still using them. It’s not using them as straight as the traditional shows, or even 30 Rock, which will wink at us about its use of old plots and then play them straight. Community is ambitiously trying to have its cake and eat it: it knows all the tricks and tries to make them work, while at the same time giving us an “out” if we don’t want to just accept the corny old joke setups and story ideas. It wants to be a regular sitcom and an anti-sitcom at the same time. The fake clip show is typical: other shows, again, have done fake clip shows, but South Park‘s was just a full-on parody of clip shows and That 70s Show‘s was just straightforwardly a traditional clip show that happened to have all-new clips. Community‘s was trying to deconstruct that type of episode while also reconstructing some of the pleasure it gives.

The show’s approach reminds me, believe it or not, of something Conrad L. Osborne wrote about Stravinsky’s neoclassical The Rake’s Progress, a strange mishmash of old styles both played straight and sent up at the same time. See if this doesn’t apply to Community a bit:

The source of our ambivalence in feeling… lies in the fact that while the characters are placed in the perspective of fable, and the form is carefully calculated to keep our minds working, [the hero] emerges as a person, too. And while all the [old] hocus-pocus is being pointed at and even ribbed, it is working the old tricks on us; it uses the old forms for their own sakes, as well as for purposes of framing. This leaves us at something of a loss. Should we laugh or cry? Snicker or cheer? Remain detached, or give in?

It is not exactly a problem of categorization… It is a problem of response, of deciding which layer of meaning [we] choose to heed.

I think this blurring of the lines between traditional and non-traditional – between, on the one hand, comedies that are definitely not sitcoms, like Louie and Party Down, and traditional stuff on the other hand – is something no show has done as elaborately as Community, and I suspect that’s part of what has made it break out so much this season: it hits the perfect sweet spot between the idea that these tropes are old hat (including the Western parody episode which, in fact, included old hats) and the idea that they can still work. It’s the show for the viewer who wants the pleasure of the old without feeling old-fashioned. The generic catchphrase guy (“Pop Pop!”) is an example of this. Is he a sendup of stupid characters who do nothing but spout dumb catchphrases and are inexplicably beloved by the whole cast? Or is he an actual catchphrase-spouting character with a catchphrase that has caught on with fans? He’s both.

Now, I have my problems with this, as I have said. I think the difference may be partly philosophical: I don’t think the traditional sitcom form is old hat and given a choice I’d rather see it played straight or tweaked. More importantly, I just find that an astonishing amount of the show is given over to analysis – it almost reverses the “show, don’t tell rule” by telling us about the group dynamics more than it shows them. Even in a really good episode like “Mixology Certification” (the bar episode) a very nice ending is slightly spoiled by having Jeff state bluntly what had already been clearly conveyed in the preceding scene.On-the-nose speeches are a major part of the show as it’s developed. Sometimes I think it doesn’t fully trust us; it’s as if a Chuck Lorre show didn’t trust us to get the point and constantly stopped to inform us that all the characters are screwed up because they have mommy issues.

It reminds me a bit of Sports Night, a show I never liked in part because it seemed to think its inherent greatness allowed it to get away with depressingly on-the-nose writing that a more “lowbrow” show would have dismissed as hacky or heavy-handed – and ultimately Sports Night was nowhere near as well-written as the lowbrow sitcoms it was rebelling against. I like Community much better than Sports Night, but there are connections. Weak writing is weak writing no matter where or why it happens, and a painfully on-the-nose speech is just as painful on a professedly ambitious show as an unambitious one.

Because so much of the show is telling us about inter-character dynamics that don’t exactly happen, it’s quite difficult to imagine some of these characters having an actual conversation; sure enough, the show is conscious of that and devoted an episode to how Abed can’t have a real conversation with anybody. As I’ve said, virtually any criticism you can make is addressed in the show. But my reaction this season has been more to note what I find impressive than to laugh, and while it’s mostly my problem and not the show’s, I have to think there are others who find it more clever than effective. Osborne again:

We have to accept this bothersome blur of feeling. Probably it is intended. What is not intended (I am fairly certain) is the sense we have of being manipulated, of being trifled with, of both admiring and resenting the extraordinary cleverness of it all. We know, of course, that all [works] are consciously constructed to elicit some hoped-for reaction, but when the formalistic bones show so clearly, we become aware of the tampering, and resist it.

I don’t know what the show’s Emmy chances will be after this season; as I mentioned in an earlier post, its reputation among individual showrunners in the industry has skyrocketed, but there’s no clear indication that its reputation in the industry as a whole has gone up. (But in a world where Nurse Jackie gets nominations for Best Comedy, don’t put too much stock in what the “industry as a whole” thinks.) The other question is what its future is on NBC, and I would guess that holding it until mid-season might help it – it certainly helped Parks & Recreation, which would never have managed another season if it had come back in September 2010.

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