Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Grand Unified Theory of Community

Well, since I have been putting this off since early May and it is inarguably back-to-school time now, I might as well weigh in on the last season finale of my favorite tv show, Community. Which amazingly enough was not the series finale! In fact, not only was Community improbably renewed for a fifth season after its fourth (a very middling half-order of 13 episodes as a mid-season replacement) but original showrunner Dan Harmon was brought back as well, and I am deep enough in the weeds of behind-the-scenes trade articles to know that that is something which basically never happens. Harmon coming back is (probably) a good thing for the show, just as Chevy Chase leaving is also (almost certainly) for the best, but then over the summer news broke that Donald Glover would only be appearing in five episodes of the upcoming season in order to focus on other aspects of his career, and that's a drag. Plus, once more, the debut date of Community S5 remains TBD, again most likely a mid-season replacement unless some other new show explodes horrifically on the launchpad or something. Only time will tell how much more, if any, actual Community we get.

But, again, a lot of that was unknown back in the spring when I watched the S4 finale, in which the interim (as it turned out) showrunners attempted to put something of a button not just on their extension of the storylines and their development of the characters, but on the series as a whole, just in case. And honestly, at the time I thought they made some risky choices that paid off admirably well. I've had all summer to meditate on it, and I'm finding that my initial reaction still holds.

Just to refresh everyone's memories (or, you know, clue you in if you are kind enough to be reading this post despite not being a follower of Community yourself) the season finale was about Jeff's graduation (in theory he was graduating a semester earlier than everyone else, which would have been timely if the show had premiered in September and the thirteenth episode had been a mid-season cliffhanger of sorts, but of course it ended up airing confusingly in May look just don't get me started) but it complicated that particular plot milestone by combining two of the most beloved recurring motifs in the series: paintball and the darkest timeline. Evil versions of the main characters crossed over from their alternate Earth to Greendale and used dimension-warping paintball pellets to forcibly banish their counterparts and take over their lives to cause mayhem, until Abed completed a round-trip to the darkest timeline and back, supplied his friends with their own dimension-guns, and via climactic shootout the good guys sent all the bad guys back where they belong.

Except it was all a dream! Of course it was, because mirror universes and timeline-teleporting paintball guns are the stuff of pure geek fantasy.

At its best and its worst moments, Community has firmly planted itself in trope territories which skew towards the geeky. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Video Games. Cheesy sci-fi movies and even cheesier long-running British sci-fi serials. Horror flicks. The list goes on. And yet, by and large the show has always been grounded as well, choosing to focus on the ways in which we geeks in the real world appreciate and relate to these escapist genres. The study group sat around the table and played D&D, as opposed to getting sucked into a fantasy world via mystical portal hidden in a carnival ride. They went to an Inspector Spacetime convention, rather than being abducted as temporary companions to an immortal adventurer. Sure there was the occasional surreal blurring of the lines between reality and unreality (a zombie-themed episode that may have hinged on secret military experiments here, a more-advanced-than-anything-in-our-world prototype VR interface for Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne there), but by and large Community avoided crossing the line into outright make-believe. And that has always been the right call.

But as the end of season 4 was approaching, I experienced no small amount of trepidation that the boundaries would finally and irrevocably be erased. The darkest timeline resurgent! Dean Spreck unrolling schematics for some kind of giant spider weapon! The latter element went nowhere as it turned out (for now, though for all we know City College will once again become the Big Bad in season 5) and the former turned out to be entirely in Jeff's head. Reaction to the season 4 finale has been polarized, and plenty of people hated that it boiled down to an extended reverie that meant nothing, but I had no problem with that. Partly that was because, although I love pure science-fiction (especially dealing with alternate realities!), as I mentioned above I don't think Community would be well-served by switching genres and would actually be an unmoored mess if it wholeheartedly embraced sci-fi. But I also felt that the imaginary aspect of the season finale provided a lot more than pure fan service.

Because here's what I think Community is really about: inner lives versus outer. When we first met the study group all the way back in the pilot, they all had something in common beyond the fact that they were enrolled at Greendale and taking Intro to Spanish. They were all grappling with the fact that their interior mental states did not line up or mesh well with the exterior faces they presented to the world. Everybody goes through this, usually in late adolescence and/or early young adulthood. That goes some way to explain why Troy and Annie are the two most likable members of the study group, because their struggle to reconcile inner and outer personae is normal and age-appropriate. It's increasingly more pathetic for Britta, Jeff, Shirley and Pierce; the older each of those characters is, the more they really should have figured all of this stuff out already. (And then arguably the most heroic character on the show is Dean Pelton, in his own way, because he wears his internal life on the outside, literally. He is committed to the bit. If he feels on the inside like a housewife from a 1950's sitcom, then nothing is going to stop him from dressing up as Dean-na Reed.)

Abed is the wildcard (or as Britta's psychological scantron forms revealed, the only sane one), because he has very little if any inner-v-outer conflict of his own. He's not at community college because he screwed up his path to a real university with drugs (Annie) or a sports injury (Troy), he's not a drifter looking for direction (Britta) or a middle-aged housewife looking for reinvention (Shirley) or a disgraced lawyer looking for redemption (Jeff). He just wants to pursue a career as a filmmaker and Greendale is a perfectly logical place for him to do so. And the running joke with Abed is that he has no filters, and what's going on inside his head at any given moment is very likely exactly what's coming out of his mouth. Sometimes that takes the form of innocently inappropriate remarks, and sometimes it takes the form of hyper-specific pop culture references, but he never agonizes over how he's being perceived or what other people think of him, or even if other people understand what he's saying. He thinks, he speaks, he acts, he moves on unaffected.

Jeff is kind of a wildcard, too, in that he spends a lot of time, especially early in the series, not so much grappling with the inner-v-outer conflict as reinforcing his own denial about it. Jeff doesn't think he needs to change as a person, he only grudgingly admits that he needs to change his academic credentials to be technically compliant with the rules of practicing law. Jeff is the polar opposite of Abed, because he cares very much what other people think of him (and in the most cliche of ways, wanting everyone to think of him as "cool") and because he never reveals what he thinks. Maybe not even to himself! Jeff doesn't just deny his true self expression, he more or less denies that his true self exists. So Jeff and Abed are like two sides of a coin: with Abed, what you see is all there is, and with Jeff, he is very invested in convincing the world that what you see is all there is.

The show in the pilot was geared to be about Jeff, and his evolution as a human being, and Abed was really the first member of the eventual study group Jeff befriended, so you could argue that the show was about whether or not Jeff could learn to be more like Abed: accepting of himself and others with minimal judgment, and basically at peace. I think that went from being the main thread to being one among many in the overall tapestry of the show, but they returned to it at the end of season four, and they answered the question in the affirmative. The important thing about the Darkest Timeline Paintball Battle is not whether it really happened or was all a dream, it's that it was a very Abed kind of dream, but Jeff was having it.

I know this is one of my pet themes that I hammer on constantly, and maybe I'm projecting a wee bit, but for a long long time it was profoundly uncool to be deeply into any kind of genre that had fantastical elements. Super hero comics and science fiction movies and fantasy novels and so on, those were for kids, or they were stupid, or both. They have nothing to do with the real world, they can't help you get a job or get a girl, ergo they are pointless and only losers who will never be financially or romantically successful spend time on them. That attitude sometimes extended as far as being dismissive of any kind of fiction at all, even those rooted in realism, because they have no measurable impact on life. Cool kids follow sports teams, not made-up stories. The occasional exception might be made for a blockbuster movie with plenty of explosions and hot chicks (yes I'm coming at this from my male POV, sorry) but by and large, imagination is for suckers.

The downside of being so focused on the here and now is that it leads to being superficial and emotionally unengaged. Whereas the downside to being too focused on flights of fancy is, oddly enough, also being unengaged with your fellow human beings because you live inside your own head. Still, if Community comes down on one side or the other, it's that it is better to be a dreamer who needs the occasional reality check than to be immune to wonder because you're cold and dead inside. Having an active imagination and enjoying fictional stories, including those which could never really happen, indicates at the very least an awareness of the separation between our interior lives and the outside world, which for as hard as we might try to bridge it is really a necessary gap. Abed could stand to be more like Jeff, and Jeff could stand to be more like Abed, but it's preferable to err on the side of Abed.

Which is exactly what Jeff does in the Darkest Timeline Paintball Battle finale. He admits that he has doubts and fears, that he's not as cocky and carefree as the image he projects, which is important for his evolution as a character in the most general sense, sure. But he works his way through that self-admission via an extended sci-fi reverie which is inspired by various things Abed has riffed on over the years (and in which Abed is the more active protagonist!), and so the means are actually more important than the ends, more relevant to the specific philosophy of the show, and that's pretty cool. It's far from a perfect episode of television, or even a top-five episode of the entire series, but as concluding statements go it's not bad at all.

And as it turns out, it's not the last we'll hear from Community for all time, which I am unmitigatedly happy about. It will be interesting to see where the show goes from here, if it gets even weirder without Jeff constantly muttering "this is weird" under his breath. Until October 19th, then, whenever that may be!

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