There is skill to it. More importantly, it has to be joyful, effortless, fun. TV defeats its own purpose when it’s pushing an agenda, or trying to defeat other TV or being proud or ashamed of itself for existing. It’s TV; it’s comfort. It’s a friend you’ve known so well, and for so long you just let it be with you, and it needs to be okay for it to have a bad day or phone in a day, and it needs to be okay for it to get on a boat with LeVar Burton and never come back. Because eventually, it all will.
The brainchild of Dan Harmon, who cut his teeth writing for and creating a variety of comedy shows and the animated comedy horror film Monster House, Community is a TV show for people who love TV, just like its creator, and the show’s obsessive film student character Abed. Lighter and less deliberately bitter than his subsequent hit Rick and Morty, Community nonetheless shares the same pattern of TV and film references, cliches and tropes, and a sly meta-awareness of its own existence and of you the viewer.
Ostensibly the story of a misfit study group who have ended up in Greendale community college, the genius of Community lies in its innovation and its refusal to dumb down its numerous references, meta-critiques of other shows and TV tropes. This is a TV show for people who know TV.
The Season 2 episode “Paradigms of Human Memory” perhaps encapsulates how far it was willing to go thematically in poking fun at other shows, television cliches, and at its own technique of meta-references. Kicking off with the group building a diorama for Anthropology of themselves building their previous diorama (itself an obvious gleeful poke at the shows inherent meta-awareness) they begin to share memories of things that have occurred that term, and where your average sitcom would descend into a tired clip show episode of the best bits of the previous seasons, Community shares with us a succession of the group’s memories from the term, that are not actual clips but new scenes, and often more bizarre than the situations displayed in actual episodes. This ends with Jeff making one of his customary speeches that usually unite everyone and bring the story to close (itself a classic TV trope previously also mocked by South Park) but it is made up of a montage of other speeches Jeff has given (that we haven’t seen). In between all this, there are references to Glee, Inception, TV show cancellations, fan videos and a whole host of others.
“Paradigms” is the everything and the kitchen sink of Community episodes, but there any number of others equally great, like when the group takes control of the cafeteria’s coveted chicken finger production in an homage to Goodfellas, and the regular school-wide paintball fight episodes, which are done in the style of one or more film genres. “Paradigms” was also the origin of the “six seasons and a movie” trope that took on a life of its own as the show struggled to avoid cancellation multiple times—and used as a rallying cry for fans—and somehow as Community made it to six seasons it’s meta-references became reality. We’re still waiting for that movie.
It is the mixture of genuine sitcom warmth with extreme cleverness, playing with genres and trusting the viewer to keep up with the obscure references that are flung off which makes Community something special, worthy of rewatching, and a real comfort-watch delight. It’s available on Hulu in the US and Channel 4 in the UK.
Fire can’t go through doors, stupid. It’s not a ghost.
– Ben Chang