The Smartest Show on TV Tackles Corporate Personhood

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 30 2012 1:10 PM

Community Confronts Corporate Personhood

Dean Pelton
A still of Jim Rash on Community

Photo byTyler Golden– ©NBCUniversal, Inc.

Two weeks ago, Community returned, with an unexpected boost in its ratings. The first comeback episode was sorta wan, but the next, the one last week, was Community at its best—a sophisticated look at celebrityhood and media, dysfunctionality and ego.

What were we going to get this week? Well, last night, Dan Harmon, the show's creator, delivered a narrative whip crack of an episode, 22 minutes tracking three full-bodied arcs, each of them complex, pointed, and challenging. It wasn't one of those crazy "Paradigms" or "Chaos Theory" episodes; but it might have been the loamiest, deepest, hardest, "regular" episode of the show yet.

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Few get out alive. We see the show's central friendship fray, torn by its own internal inequality and the malevolent manipulations of a Machiavellian madman. We see the show's longest-running vortex of sexual tension imploded by a pungent admixture of gender stereotyping, male ego, and little-girl passive-aggression. And, in the main storyline, the show delivers a very serious analysis of life in a post-"Citizens United" world, where corporations are people and people are corporations, a dehumanized Orwellian construct so bleak that our Britta, not inexperienced in the realm of meaningless sex, finds out just how meaningless it can be.

But first, the big news: Product placement has come to Community, and it hits with the force of a one-ton box of pre-measured 1.6 ounce servings of stringy roast beef. Everything under it just goes splat.

For NBC’s Thursday night lineup, once home to Must See TV from Cheers to Seinfeld, the change has been especially dramatic. How dramatic? NBC and Harmon jumped for joy when, upon its return, Community’s ratings soared. What that big ratings boost meant was that about a fifth of the number of viewers Seinfeld used to get every week had watched the episode.

These shows just can’t make the big bucks they used to. The people who create them, faced with the choice of being on the air or not being on the air, generally opt for the former, which is why hipster icons like Tina Fey, Conan O’Brien, and Stephen Colbert spend a lot of time behind the scenes trying to figure out ways to shill for Taco Bell and Verizon without it looking too much like shilling. Their bet is that they can stick the products in their shows but do it in a knowing enough way that it doesn’t look too bad.

Unsurprisingly, Harmon takes that approach to the limit. He seems to have convinced Subway, the sandwich chain, to pay for a sitcom episode about corporate influence and societal dehumanization.

Here’s the story: There’s a new Subway outlet in the Greendale cafeteria, a “state of the art sandwichery in our cafetorium,” as Dean Pelton puts it.

We also meet a student who becomes a living embodiment of corporate personhood; he goes by the name of Subway. This utterly bruising construct is done soberly and with much intricate detail. The new student explains it thusly: “Using a groundbreaking but surprisingly legal process known as corporo-humanization, real people such as myself are now allowed to represent the collective humanity of business owners…. I’m here to hang out, take weird classes, and party as hearty as my morality clause allows.”

You’ll remember that it was originally Shirley’s idea to put a sandwich shop—her sandwich shop—in the cafeteria. That storyline plays out as Pierce joins up with Shirley—her angelic goodness becoming increasingly debauched—to get some dirt on the Subway guy to drive the ugly franchise out of Greendale. Their plan is for Britta (“a progressive woman of a certain liberated looseness,” as Shirley puts it, or “a weapon designed for sex” in Pierce’s words) to obtain the dirt, by any means necessary.

Britta, who articulates her anti-corporate stance with equal parts volume and reductiveness, recoils at the thought of playing hide-the-preservatives-laden-salami with Incorporated Man. When she meets him, she doesn’t hold back: “You’re a human puppet with Big Sandwich’s hand up your ass,” she says. Then she discovers that he shares her love of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and that his dream is to run a shelter for handicapped animals, including deaf hamsters. Orwell, it turns out, has a tumescent passage or two for those who know where to look, and a smitten Britta opts to try the footlong. Subway seems like a nice enough guy, but of course so was Winston Smith.

Last week saw a serious rift in the relationship between Abed and his BFF Troy, an intellectually challenged but fundamentally goodhearted clown. (In the show’s bravura “Chaos Theory” episode, you’ll remember, it is Troy’s absence that creates the most horrific timeline.) Last week’s show ended with Abed, uncharacteristically, going off to play without Troy, and then conversing, disturbingly, with his evil twin.

Tonight they are torn asunder by the manipulations of Vice Dean Laybourne, chief of the school’s air-conditioning-repair school. Laybourne, played with a mottled Rip Torn-ian menace by John Goodman, runs an autonomous campus that functions as a sort of alternate universe to Greendale proper. (There are times when Community takes on a nearly Giles Goat-Boy degree of density, with that academic novel’s religioso patternings replaced with self-referential pop-cultural ones.) Laybourne is a stand-in for the implacable forces of the universe, and speaks only truths. The ones he tells Troy are irrefutable. The world, Harmon knows, is cruel. There are smart people and dumb ones. Troy will always be a sidekick, partly because his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing calcified his brain early, but also because he didn’t have that much going on up there in the first place. Laybourne gets under Troy’s skin by playing on this fact of life.

The vice dean gets under Abed’s skin as well, courting his messianic streak and artistic ego. The resulting clash is embodied by Abed’s pillow fort and Troy’s blanket fort, which are not, it turns out, compatible. They stand for art vs. technique, God vs. man, the mysteries of the human mind vs. the secrets of the boner joke. The cataclysmic faceoff, done with cinematic brio, ends on a sour, unresolved note.

And that’s not even getting into the sexual subtext at work here. Blankets… pillows …. You wanna say, “Hey, you two—get a room!” But, of course, they already have one.

The real sexual tension is between louche Jeff and innocent Annie. Our final narrative strand sees Jeff, his ego still presumably humbled after the Hulk-like raging detailed in last week’s episode, bruised further when he discovers a mysterious someone at the school doesn’t like him. Community’s characters have been shifting a little this season, none more than Jeff. Jeff doesn’t actually care what people think of him! This time out he does, though, for reasons that aren’t explained. It’s all a feint, anyway: The storyline is really about Annie’s sexual obsession. She has an idea why the mystery girl is mad at Jeff: “Maybe the two of you made out, and then you forgot about her!” she tells him.

Lots of other great touches tonight:

There’s something blithe, almost magic realist, about how Greendale students suddenly have lockers. Their presence has the effect of further infantilizing Annie’s obsession with Jeff, and helps her retain her mien of innocence.

Jim Rash as Dean Pelton, a sexual caldron in an imp’s body, is making his small moments on the show count. Last week his seizure in front of Jeff stole the show. This week he suggests to Troy that he submit his blanket fort to the Guinness Book of World Records, adding carelessly, “I was just Googling record lengths of stuff.”

Nothing demonstrated the ludicrousness of the product placement as much as one of the show’s actual ads. It was a Prius spot, built around not a celebrity endorsement nor an old pop song but … the Game of Life. The old board game! We’ve reached the point where products are endorsing other products.

Finally, the very odd mind of Dan Harmon remains a wonder. In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he gave this account of the show’s increased ratings:

You never know, it’s like a social disease. You know that the person you’re talking to isn’t going to change the ratings but you don’t know if they [go and] say to three people at a party, “I started watching this Community thing,” so your job is just to pass the infection on.

Community: the cold sore on the corporate lip of NBC.

Further reading: A close analysis of the two previous episodes of Community, “Contemporary Impressionists” and “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts”; a list of the top 10 Community episodes; and an in-depth look at the show’s greatest concoction, “Paradigms of Human Memory.” Or catch up on all of Slate’s Community coverage.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon. Read him at hitsville.net and follow him on Twitter @hitsville.

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