Community Continues to Gnaw at the Shared Premise of All Sitcoms

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 11 2011 1:11 PM

Community Continues to Gnaw at the Shared Premise of All Sitcoms

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Danny Pudi and Donald Glover on last night's Community.

Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Community went off campus last night and stayed there, with an elegant cameo of an episode that took four storylines and then drew them together in dizzying fashion before splitting them back out again. The moral? You can’t go home again. Also, Dean Pelton donned his gay apparel and finally had his way with Jeff. We were also exposed to a panorama of Asian culture, from the ancient art of shadow puppetry to, um, karaoke.

Community gnaws on the very premise of friendship—which is to say on the underlying premise of situation comedy. The show is built around seven disparate folks, wounded or damaged to a person, who have formed an unlikely community while attending a barely sentient community college. They are, self-consciously, friends, as they have to be in a show so self-conscious about being a TV show about a group of friends. But the show undercuts its premise in nearly every episode. Given that people can be so irritating, thoughtless and impossible, each of us inhabiting our own little narcissistic worlds, how can relationships even be possible? Jeff lies as often as he breathes, and, most of the time, doesn’t seem to like anyone. Britta’s a humorless harpy. Annie is a pouty, wound-up child, Shirley’s a one-note Christian, Pierce a buffoon.

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Sure, the friendship between Troy and Abed works, but only because their unusual mental powers (Abed’s superior, Troy’s inferior) somehow fit together to create a protected world around them.

The question tonight is whether innocent Annie, despite Britta’s grim past roommate experiences, can move in with Troy and Abed. She’s been living in a hovel above a sex shop. Her neighbors are colorful, like the homeless guy who pees on Britta’s car while she was parking. His name is Spaghetti, and it’s only now, it seems, that Annie figures out why he got that name.

Britta tries to warn her you can’t live with friends, a statement that would of course undermine a large percentage of TV programming over the last thirty years. Shirley, while less experienced, has her own concerns about the arrangement: “I’ve seen enough episodes of Friends to know that cohabitation leads to sex, drugs, and something Parade magazine calls ‘Schwimmer-fatigue.’”

The group duly assembles at Annie’s place to help her move—all except Jeff, who pretends to be sick and instead goes out to buy clothes and flirt with women. But the predatory, scheming Jeff is embarrassingly out-predatored by, of all people, the college’s dean, a homosexual imp whose fantasies about Jeff are barely contained in his small body. He busts Jeff at a chi-chi men’s clothing store and blackmails him into spending the afternoon with him, after which the two have about as much fun as you can have at a mall on a Saturday afternoon.

Defiantly atheist Britta and assertively religious Shirley, hauling a load of Annie’s belongings, bicker about religion—until Britta picks up a smelly, guitar-carrying hitchhiker, who turns out to think he’s Jesus and displays enough other irritating personal characteristics to break the patience of Christians and secular humanists alike.

As for Pierce—the older guy played by Chevy Chasehe’s left behind to wreak havoc on Annie’s empty apartment. Almost no other characters appear—save for a flirtatious woman in the clothing store, and that hitchhiker—giving the episode an oddly insular feel, despite the all-off-campus settings. (We never actually see Jeff and the Dean out at the mall.) Indeed, while this is by definition not a “bottle episode”—that is to say, a money-saving episode that uses a pretext of some sort to keep the characters in one room—the cheap-looking sets give it the feel of one. (Of course, Community is canny enough to have made the sets deliberately cheap-looking.)

Anyway, as Annie, Troy and Abed feel their way into their new relationship, Annie belatedly realizes she’s moved into an “asylum for half-witted children.” The dean bends Jeff to his will, and Shirley and Britta bicker. Meanwhile, Pierce gets paint all over everything and has his mind warped by the fumes.

Community’s creator, Dan Harmon, brings it all together with one of those moments we watch Community for: A striking musical montage that includes the dean and Jeff karaoke-ing the Seal song “Kiss from a Rose” against tacky images projected on a green screen; a Roy Orbison-toupéed Pierce playing a piano with a couple of Hawaiian backup singers (in his mind, at least); Britta and Shirley’s hitchhiker playing a guitar and singing a song called “Jesus Loves Marijuana”; and, most spectacularly, a blanket-fort, shadow-puppet play put on by Troy and Abed to soothe the nerves of a worried Annie.

The show has pulled off something like this before: In the second episode of the first season Jeff and Pierce do a Spanish-class presentation Magnolia-style over Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up,” to the confusion and revulsion of the class. More elaborately, there’s the one where Troy and Abed sing a song to a rat they are trying to catch (“Somewhere Out There,” of course, from An American Tail), while Shirley, with help from Pierce, finds the key to her public-speaking class, and Señor Chang dances a passionate Irish love-jig with his estranged wife.

The shadow play is a similarly virtuoso Community conception. The play tells the story of Annie’s rescue from her neighborhood, with “Troy the Woodsman” playing the hero and Abed in the role of an “emotionally unavailable unicorn.” It’s unexpectedly touching—as is, for that matter, Jeff and Dean Pelton’s karaoke duet, which Jeff finds out wasn’t so bad after all. (Of course Pelton immediately destroys any inroads he might have made to Jeff’s heart.)

The ending of the play may be a foreshadowing of a Community plot development to come. Troy’s character’s name in the play—“The Woodsman”—is a double (if not single) entendre, and when Abed, as the unicorn, rises into the sky at the play’s end, the Troy and Annie characters kiss. Annie had a cruelly unrequited crush on Troy during the first season (the pair, remember, went to high school together); at the end of last season, however, during the paintball episode, Abed and Annie shared a hot kiss (though Abed, it’s worth noting, was in a Han Solo mindset at the time).*

There are many small touches in this episode to enjoy. At the mall, the Dean ends up dressing exactly like Jeff. The puppet show has a sponsor: “Brought to you by that girl-yogurt Jamie Lee Curtis uses to poop.”

We also learn explicitly that Troy and Abed share a bedroom. Speaking of which, Harmon took some heat from some small number of viewers for alleged gay stereotyping on last week’s show, “Advanced Gay.” He discusses the issue with no little aplomb here. I disagree with the complainers, but defer to Harmon, who also says, “If you weren’t offended, don’t bother being offended by the people being offended.”

A review of last week’s Community episode is here. My piece on the show’s most elaborate concoction, “Paradigms of Human Memory,” is here.

* This post originally misspelled Han Solo's first name.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon. More at www.hitsville.org.