With it being on Netflix, I’ve been rewatching Community, a tv show I really love (and have been writing about on this blog for basically as long as it’s been a blog). Watching it again, for the first time since it aired, is a fun process. There’s a lot that I’ve forgotten, there’s a lot of jokes I missed, and I’m struck by how normal the show starts off. Seriously, its hook in the beginning is that its a sitcom that’s very aware of the tropes and pop-culture that’s influenced it and pays homage to them all, and then by season three it’s become an ode to storytelling in all its ways that plays fast and loose with the format. It’s wild just how much the show loves story, and how it finds a variety of ways to tell different sorts of stories (action, romance, mystery, fantasy, documentary) within its central conceit of taking place at a community college. Honestly, it’s brilliant.
It’s also a very mean show.
Okay, stay with me. Some sitcoms are mean, some are kind. The Office leans towards mean-ness, where a lot of the conflict is the cast being set against each other. Parks and Recreation is a super kind show, there’s little comedy/conflict that has characters antagonistic towards each other. How I Met Your Mother tends towards mean, The Good Place towards kind. There’s nothing inherently bad about one or the other, different sorts of comedy. Bob’s Burgers and Brooklyn 99 come down on different sides depending on the episode. And Community is a very mean show.
Characters are pitted against each other, though often not just for the sake of it but as an extrapolation of their flaws. Circumstances aren’t particularly easy for them either, and characters are often put in places that force them to make tough choices or confront harsh truths about themselves. It’s not gentle by any means, and often it seems like the world is out to get them.
Let’s look at the first episode of Season 5, “Repilot.” At the start, we’re reintroduced to Jeff Winger, a lawyer once more but transformed by Greendale Community College into trying to be a decent human being (and lawyer). Unfortunately, he sees his office being cleared out and himself out of a firm. A prospective case sends him back to his alma mater, where he finds his former study group in dire straits. After convincing them to sue the school, a come-to-Jesus moment has him change his mind. To save Greendale, he ends up taking a teaching position at the school where he was once ashamed to be a student.
This is not a good thing for Jeff. His goal throughout the show has been to get his degree and go back to being a lawyer. Greendale forced him to become a better person, one who won’t go back to his scummy, old firm. In a gentler world, he would be rewarded for this change; the story’s protagonist has come out through his ordeals a better person, should he not now be rewarded for his work?
Nah. That would be too easy. The circumstances of the show force him back to Greendale ready to sue the school, but incidents in the episode force him to reconsider his actions and realize he needs to save the school. It’s not what he wants, and his final decision to go through with the new course of action is a difficult one that he wishes he didn’t have to do.
In this way, it seems the universe of Community is out to get its characters; as if the world (and writers) is almost a malevolent force that pushes people into uncomfortable positions. And it’s funny, oh, it’s very funny to watch ’em squirm. But, notably, Community’s meanness isn’t just for the sake of the comedy. By forcing characters into tight spots, Community forces its characters to grow.
People don’t wanna change. It’s why one of the steps in Campbell’s Monomyth is the Refusal of The Call. It’s Luke Skywalker telling Obi-Wan he needs to stay for one more harvest, it’s Bilbo not wanting to join the party of dwarves. But force a character into a position where they have no choice but to change and change happens. Slowly, but it happens. Community excels at forcing its characters to change by forcing them into situations where their current status quo will no longer serve them.
Community is far, far meaner to its characters than a lot of shows I usually watch. But iron sharpens iron, and Community gets away with its meanness because that’s how the characters develop. There’s a real and genuine progression to characters and their relationships in the show, which is pretty remarkable for a sitcom that revels in postmodern narratives. Perhaps that’s part of why the fourth season fell flat; it lacked that bite.
Community is a fantastic show. Because it’s mean. With a purpose.