As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Community is being taken off NBC’s schedule indefinitely as of January. So I’ve decided to use this week’s episode to talk about why this series, as beloved by the Internet as it ignored by Nieslen families, deserves to stay on TV.
Community creator Dan Harmon tweeted that this week’s episode,”Documentary Filmmaking: Redux,” is the show’s “least accessible, least marketable episode in its alienating history!” And he really wasn’t joking. This episode wasn’t made for people who want to space out on the couch all evening until they fall asleep during Jay Leno’s monologue. It requires—and rewards—attention, the kind of show that luckily exists during an era of DVRs and Hulu so we can savor every funny aside and in-joke.
I say this as a person who once made a habit of avoiding Community, waiting until 8:30 to tune into NBC’s comedy lineup. A show set at a community college sounded dull and silly me, I didn’t care to know much else about it. Only when I read about the paintball episode did I decide to check it out, and was bowled over by its audacious creativity. After just one episode, and I was all in for Greendale.
Community has had a couple of other episodes that could have attracted more viewers—the Halloween zombie and the two-part paintball episodes immediately spring to mind. But most of the time, Community is too insular to bring in the viewer channel surfing during a Big Bang Theory commercial break.
This week’s show, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” was definitely a return to last year’s insular format. This time, Abed is documenting the Dean’s attempt to film a commercial for Greendale Community College. Abed correctly foresees that the Dean will have a nervous breakdown during the shoot, and wants to create a behind-the-scenes doc, a Hearts of Darkness to the Dean’s Apocalypse Now. (Now that’s the kind of pop culture reference that gets you 20 million viewers.)
If this was a first-time viewer’s introduction to the show, its likely they were weirded out. The episode was by turns chaotic, hilarious, random, and by episode’s end, pretty moving. Abed’s decision not to just be a fly on the wall (because some flies are too awesome for walls) and help the Dean by creating a commerical out of the Dean’s original footage was a nice moment for his character. Longtime viewers would appreciate that Abed, the eternal observer who values objectivity in storytelling, would sacrifice his documentary for the sake of others, while new viewers were probably confused why the Dean rubbed the ashes of his college degree all over his face.
This is never going to be a series that will top the Nielsens, and the writers, understanding this, have molded the show to delight its small but fiercely loyal fanbase. But is this a bad thing? If you take away financial considerations (which of course weigh heavily on determining Community’s fate), television needs shows that takes wild swings and confounds expectations alongside the comfort food that traditional sitcoms offer. This longtime Full House viewer and Friends fan eventually found her way to Arrested Development, a series that changed my idea of what television could offer, and the kind of programs I wanted to watch. And maybe I would have been perfectly happy for the rest of my couch-potato life never knowing the Bluth family. But at least I had the option to discover them, and I had that same opportunity a few years later with the Greendale gang. Who knows? Last night, maybe a few more people were won over too.
To take Community off the air is another step towards the homogenization of network television. Even though the series will never earn huge ratings, draw in major advertisers, or win a lot of awards, a show like this should always exist on TV, for the people who want to take a chance and try something new, something different, and dare I make this pun, something out of the box.
- This episode was quite the showcase for Jim Rash, who became a regular this season. He basically carried the episode, which was pretty cool considering his character is usually used to deploy one-liners and wear wacky costumes. For the first time, the Dean became a real person, and his realization about his relationship to Greendale was quite affecting.
- I really hope this episode isn’t the last time we see Joel McHale’s Dean impression, which was spot-on and incredibly funny.
- All of Abed’s descriptive tags for the characters in the doc were great, but Britta’s was the best: “Anarchic Cat Lady.” Later in the episode, she used her position as “licensed psychology major” to break Annie out of her Stockholm Syndrome.
- Shirley had a small but funny moment when she balked at the Dean giving her a direction to act “sassy.” Can we get more of this Shirley rather than “pious Shirley,” please?
- The outdated Greendale video was like Saved By the Bell mashed up with NBC’s “The More You Know” campaign. Props to Abed for keeping the thumbs up from the original ad in the new one, featuring his best buddy Troy of course.
- I like how the writers are taking their time building up the Troy/Britta relationship. The best part of their subplot was how hugging became a traumatic experience for them from doing multiple takes for the Dean’s video. (Who can blame them when at one point they were pulled together by ropes?) It was nice to see that they found their way back to each other for another hug by episode’s end. How long before Abed spills this to the rest of the gang?
- Once again, Pierce is sidelined in a subplot away from the other characters, and in fact is barely featured at all. If the show comes back for a fourth season, I’m wondering if Chevy Chase will come back with it.