If you haven’t seen Community yet, you’re missing out on something special. Despite a disappointing decline in quality in Season 4 after Dan Harmon’s exit, the show’s first three seasons were a gem of character development and comedy writing the kind of which rarely makes its way to the small screen. Since its premier in 2009, Community has been stretching the limits of what network TV comedies can do. Here’s three reasons Community is the best comedy on network TV.
Community is a well-made show:
Normally this fact alone wouldn’t warrant mentioning, especially since we are in a golden age of television where shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men are produced with big budgets and exceptional technical quality. Well made TV isn’t abnormal now. However, Community belongs in the realm of TV comedies not TV dramas. Comedy series have had an ugly history on the small screen, technically speaking. From multi-camera setups to the abominable laugh track, comedies often fall prey to the television industry’s desire for cheap quantity over an investment in quality. You can’t really blame them. It works. Why pay more when people will watch it anyway? Look at how many people watch The Big Bang Theory, a show written and produced entirely by robots.
Community is quite a different comedy series than what many of us have grown accustomed to. It’s made with all the time and effort that it seems like people have only recently realized even sitcoms deserve. Let’s take set design for example. You ever notice how all sitcoms revolve around one specific place: an office, a bar, a hospital, an apartment? It’s a lot cheaper to have one set that never changes. While Community is still confined to the Greendale Campus, the places that single location becomes provides the show with unending variety. Whether it’s a war-torn paintball battlefield, a claymation Christmas wonderland, or an 8 bit digital manifestation of an old racist’s last will and testament, Greendale is never really just Greendale. There is a willingness to invest in imagination here that’s not present on many of the sets of today’s comedies. But more on imagination later.
Community is a philosophical statement about morality masquerading as a sitcom:
Community tackles a very specific philosophical question: If morality is subjective, what’s the point of caring about other people, especially damaged and imperfect people? This isn’t a new question, but it’s one that often gets answered with sterile canned statements usually regarding the advantages of cooperation within communities or something or other about brain chemistry and behavioral science.
The problem is that the question being asked is, at heart, an emotional question, and emotional questions should never have sterile answers. It’s a question that really belongs in the realm of art rather than the realm of logic. Instead of saying, “You should care about people because of reason A and B,” Dan Harmon creates seven lonely, self-absorbed, psychologically flawed characters, puts them in a group with each other, and lets you watch as they grow from broken strangers to a family that supports and relies on each other despite difficulties and clashes. The name Community is not just a reference to the setting of the show but also to the theme of the show, and it’s a theme that’s handled with an adept and sensitive hand. It tackles the issues of loneliness, ugliness, and self-loathing with a light heart but also a sincere belief in the power of human connection and the power of helping others.
Community is a show where imagination is more important reality.
The two pillars of Community’s humor are pop culture references and meta-humor. Abed believes the study group is in a television show and references it constantly. This breaks the fourth wall for the audience but also, curiously enough, places every other character on the show far behind it. They aren’t aware they are figments of imagination, but Abed is. Additionally Abed is constantly reenacting movies and scenes from pop culture, often dragging the study group into his imaginary narratives as well.
Here you have a fictional character in a TV show who believes he’s a fictional character in a TV show and pretends to be other fictional characters from other TV shows and movies. Abed speculates that there may be other timelines, timelines we as an audience are allowed to peer into in the brilliant “Chaos Theory” episode to the point where those timelines might as well exist thus indicating that the “real” Abed might not be the “real” Abed at all but one version of many. And why not? He’s a fictional character, after all. He doesn’t really exist. Or does he?
What happens to a fictional character when the story ends? Do they just go away when no one is writing about them anymore? Or do they live on in people’s imagination? That’s where they existed in the first place after all. How many people know who Hamlet is without ever having read the play? How many people know what the phrase “Ross and Rachel” implies without ever having seen a full episode of Friends? It’s one of the greatest joys for a writer to create a fully developed character, but those characters are, in a way, beyond the writer’s control and are free to live on and develop within the public mind.
What does this say about our own sense of reality? Maybe not much. Maybe a lot. But the fact that Community is dealing with these kind questions in a half-hour, network sitcom is astoundingly awesome and ballsy, and it’s even more impressive because it does it while making you laugh.
Community is a TV show for TV people. It’s completely fascinated by its own medium, and it’s not afraid of exploring every inch of it. Compared to other network sitcoms currently on TV, Community’s streets ahead, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re streets behind.