Writing about the NBC show Community, a sitcom set in a studiously unstudious community college, is difficult. The show is so self-referential that it has already discussed itself comprehensively. Recently in Slate, I referred in passing to an elaborate, mind-bending episode, "Paradigms of Human Memory."Community isn't a high-cost or highly rated show, and it couldn't have been easy for the producers to put together such a dense and multilayered 22 minutes. "Paradigms" is being rerun this week. In its honor, let's attempt to unpack what might be the most complex sitcom episode ever filmed.
One way for a series without a big budget to do a big-budget show is to save money (and time) by doing other shows in the season cheaply. This is known in the business as doing a "bottle episode" (like the famous Seinfeld one set in the lobby of a Chinese restaurant). If you can stick your cast in one room (the "bottle") on a contrived plot pretext, you can economize by doing a continuous shoot with no scene changes, extras, or guest stars. I know about bottle episodes only because Community did one earlier this season, in a show called "Cooperative Calligraphy." A cute young student named Annie loses one of her pens in the study room and demands its return. The show, in typical self-referential fashion, makes an issue out of whether everyone should stay in the room and thus make the episode a "bottle episode." (The lameness of the pretext was part of the joke.)
Now, as I said, the "Paradigms" episode of Community becomes spectacularly ornate. And the concept of the bottle episode resonates within it in two ways. For the first, "Paradigms" patterns itself carefully after that earlier episode. "Calligraphy" is mentioned immediately in "Paradigms," and it's referenced so many other ways that it's obvious the producers meant for the episodes to be parallel. Secondly, "Paradigms," it turns out, is a bottle episode itself, after a fashion. It also takes place in the study room with no outside characters. All the craziness (and all the expense) technically takes place in the characters' minds, as they discuss their memories of their time together. These memories, whether reliable or not, bury the potential bottle episode in a flood of expensive outside sets and ever-more-baroque set-ups. The relationship between the two episodes is just one little example of how wound up this show is. Community isn't just self-referential. Self-referentiality is its raison d'être.
If you haven't seen Community yet, here's the background: The setting is a study group at the blissfully mediocre Greendale Community College, a melting pot for just about everything—class, age, race—except an ability to function well in society, and perhaps intelligence. At Greendale, even the smart people are dumb enough to be going there. The show's creator, Dan Harmon, a smart guy who was the head writer on The Sarah Silverman Show, came up with the idea after taking a Spanish class at an L.A.-area community college.
Our protagonists number seven, with a deliberately clichéd diversity: a young black guy, Troy, who is pretty dense, and best—almost too best—friends with Abed. A slightly older black woman, Shirley, who is a guilt-tripping Christian, no-nonsense single mom. An older white guy, Pierce, played by Chevy Chase, moneyed but a dolt. A younger white guy, Jeff, the group's acknowledged leader, disgraced lawyer, full-time sophist, and pretty boy, played by Joel McHale. A Muslim guy, Abed, half-Palestinian, half-Polish—more on him in a bit. A comely young white woman, Britta, high-strung and stupidly P.C., and an even comelier young white woman, Annie, a former drug addict and the woman who lost her pen.
Outside of ongoing jokes about the school's academic haplessness, the show isn't about education, and I don't read it as a stand-in for America. Rather, the show is about itself in particular and TV in general, but again with a sort of blank aimlessness that often produces a vortex of jokes about some marginal bit of pop culture, like the rock group Barenaked Ladies, who are debated at length in the context of whether they are worthy of being debated about at all. Leaving aside a few fantasy-type sequences, the action of the show takes place in the study room and some classrooms or public facilities around the school, and the plots are generally intensely insular, to the point where at least one episode seems to have occurred largely in one character's head.
And that would be the head of our thematic host, the half-Palestinian guy, Abed, who has a marked case of Aspergers but boasts an encyclopedic set of pop-culture referentials, most of them of middling quality (he has a Batteries Not Included poster on his dorm wall), which he shares with the rest of his cast and us, the viewers, in order to chart the show's homages to TV shows and movies.
Since the demands of the American sitcom are that a group of friends encounter problems that test their relationships and get resolved 22 minutes later, this is what generally happens here, but with self-consciousness and, importantly, an accompanying sourness. McHale's character, particularly, is a moral black hole whose unattractiveness is only slightly relieved at the tidy wrap-ups that some episodes sport.
Here's a typical exchange:
Troy: "Jeff, what do you do when you and your best friend want to ask the same girl to the Valentine's Dance but neither of you have dibs because you both fell in love with her at first sight?"
Jeff: "Well, I don't believe in dibs, or love at first sight, or love, or best friends, or doing things. But it's good you brought this to me."
Since it's a sitcom about sitcoms, the romantic opportunities available are picked at like scabs. The series begins when Jeff tried to make moves on Britta by concocting a imaginary Spanish study group. Britta sees through the ruse easily, creating a distance between her and Jeff. Since the two are the most conventionally attractive, they are by TV standards destined to hook up, a prerogative the rest of the group grumpily acknowledges. This initial iciness delays the coupling, but Abed's pop-culture antennae measure the pair's varying distance precisely on an ongoing basis.
When it's revealed Jeff has kissed the very young Annie, it produces a remarkably feel-bad episode. Then there's a despised Spanish teacher named Chang, who after a fall from grace is now a student and a pathetic group hanger-on. His hook-up with Shirley, an emotionally and physically formidable mother of two, is treated by everyone concerned, with the exception of Chang himself, as an unappetizing liaison.