The MTVPs Part I: The Greendale Human Beings
Game of Thrones is an objectively spectacular television show that I love. It’s a universally adored show and it accomplished the seemingly impossible task of making a hard-fantasy driven show (where there are over 50 important named characters) the only scripted “must watch live” television really left on the air. I love that television show.
Breaking Bad previously held “appointment television” crown until it wrapped up it’s run in 2013. The Walter White-Heisenberg duality spawned a million think pieces about ‘evil’ and even more jokes about universal health care. I loved that television show.
Parks and Rec was a comedy show that took the American version of The Office’s template for “goofy mockumentary hijinx with heart” and refined it with better characters and even more human optimism than it’s predecessor. It’s a show that demonstrates that showed you don’t have to push against network television’s rules for procedural comedy to make a great program. I love that television show.
Jessica Jones is an underrated show whose plot and villain channeled the horror of rape and violation. Jessica’s strength (figurative and literal) to power through and save other victims in the face of public disbelief is a devastatingly on-the-nose parallel to sad realities. The superhero stuff is really just the vehicle. I love that television show.
Arrested Development is a cynical joke masterpiece whose crime was existing on network television during the Bush administration. An achievement in callbacks, easter eggs, and self-reference, Arrested Development is probably, pound for pound, simply the funniest television show ever made. I love that television show.
The O.C. was a class-conscientious, lovingly-made anomaly that masqueraded as a soap-opera while quietly being very funny and full of heart. Its effects would ripple out into the future and spawn hundreds of other shows. I loved that television show.
I loved Battlestar Galactica.
I love Archer.
I loved Dexter.
I love Check It Out! (with Dr. Steve Brule)
I love Louie.
I loved The Wire, (in spite of David Simon kind of being a pretentious asshole).
I love Review.
I love The Simpsons.
I loved a season True Detective.
I loved How I Met Your Mother.
I love Portlandia
I love Better Call Saul
I loved Don’t Trust the B — In Apartment 23.
I love Nathan for You.
There’s a lot of other television shows that I love and loved. You get the point.
Television has always been a bastion of American culture, and in recent years, it’s made some serious strides toward catching movies as the dominant entertainment medium. Netflix, HBO, and FX offer a more hands-off place for storytellers to incubate their creations, and that attitude has spawned many of the best programs over the past decade. Their routine dominance critically continues to erode at the edges of the major networks’ hold on the market, and, while CBS’s endless stable of cop shows will never really go away, there’s no doubt that NBC’s decisions to play it safe have hurt The Peacock in the long run.
A more important effect of this exodus is that there are more players in the game. AMC hangs in with their billion Walking Dead properties and Preacher. Comedy Central has their own chapters in cult brilliance with shows like Broad City, Review, Nathan For You and Inside Amy Schumer. USA (bizarrely) has Mr. Robot as their critical darling to pair with their endless (well-made, but kinda boring) procedurals about white people with a special talent. What this means is television is more specialized and there’s more of it for people to watch.
We live in the golden age of television, when a show being ‘fine’ probably isn’t good enough to be worth your time anymore.
I love all those shows I listed above, but where they may have been my ‘favorites’ in a world where TV isn’t as diversified as is now, I’d trade anyone of them without blinking for new episodes about an alcoholic mad-scientist and his masturbating grandson, a mutually destructive couple, a community college study group, or a depressed horse.
It’s important to understand the difference between two words that are often used interchangeably. Sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is the feeling of compassion you have for someone outside of yourself. It’s peering into the life terrarium of someone else and feeling a reaction to their circumstances. While very real, the emotions that are channeled during sympathy (usually sadness and care), are still behind a barrier. There’s a metaphorical glass that you peer through to the subject of your sympathy and it’s what divides those feelings from true empathy.
Empathy is going beyond the glass.
I’ll go into this more, but first I want to step into the way back machine and teleport back to 2010.
Greendale’s Human Beings
The first time I watched Community, my feelings were that it was “good, not great”. It had all the trappings of your typical sitcom (which is probably how creator Dan Harmon got it on network television in the first place) and did typical audience numbers for an NBC comedy circa 2010 (bad-ish). Every year, when it came time for cancellations, Community would survive the ax by the skin of its teeth and the perceived mandate would create an even starker contrast.
“Do network television numbers or die.”
But rather than fold and pantomime the other safe, successful network sitcoms of the time like Glee and Modern Family, Community only got weirder and more idiosyncratic. Where most show runners would see the poor numbers and create something more accessible, Harmon instead revealed that the first half-season of the show WAS the safe version and ran the other way. Britta went from blandy cool to the more believably combative ‘worst’. Ben Chang went from mean-spirited Spanish teacher to unhinged, vent-crawling psychopath. Most perfectly mirroring the show’s change was the transformation of Troy Barnes, who went from dumb athlete (a stereotype network executives and audiences could understand) to the sweet, bizarre soul of the show (more on this in a moment).
Harmon (a famous, self-admitted asshole) would get fired from the show for Season 4, be brought back to save Season 5, and the show would limp to Yahoo Screen for a web-only Season 6 to complete part of its fan goal for #SixSeasonsAndAMovie. This mess would never allow Community to return to its previous heights, but Seasons 2 and 3 would be some of the best television I’d ever seen in my life to this point. However, that was still bizarre to me as the show was a pretty cut-and-dry sitcom. It wouldn’t be until years later, re-watching old episodes in an alcohol-infused haze, that I really understood what it was that made it different.
Harmon is on the record as endorsing that Community is a show about ‘broken people’ but he also makes it clear that he thinks “normal people” don’t exist. Everyone is weird in their own way and Community was written to be a place about misfit people coming together in a place where they are bound together by their common alienation. Because “normal people” don’t exist in Harmon’s world, this really just mean that it’s a place for everyone; the softer, less prickly version of the real adult world. At least that’s my theory and I’ll spell it out more explicitly later, but what I want to point out is that Harmon thinks that everyone is weird, but, in spite of this, there are still people whose weirdness makes them feel lonely. The tragedy in that is that, when taken as fact, those two things are an absurd paradox. How can something that everyone feels make them all feel alone? The answer there is that there are falsehoods in the real, adult world that can obscure you from the people who stand right next to you. I think that’s the meat of what Community explores; “broken” people finding out that they aren’t as alone as they think.
If Community is about a world of broken people, than Harmon’s two avatars in this world are the two ‘main’ characters in Jeff and Abed. On the one hand, Jeff is the cynical and detached ‘adult’ part of Harmon who is forced to have a foot in both the “real” world and the misfit nation of Greendale. Jeff can be shitty and is an arrogant asshole a lot of time, but that ironic detachment is build in to protect his own weirdo core. A common thread with Jeff’s plotlines are instances where his commitment to his own “cool character of the real world” alienates others or make them feel worse. Jeff is a liar and, as he says, he does “most of his lying 6 inches away from a bathroom mirror” to tread water above the other weirdos at Greendale. However, he often finds his redemption when he lets go of his detachment and acts like his real human self, temporarily leaving behind his cool guy persona to align himself with the bizarre Greendale community long enough to confront a specific problem, before retreating to his natural position at the border of these separate places. As Jeff is the study group and school’s bridge to the real world, he’s also one of the most lonely characters, which ties back into the show’s central concept of alienation.
On the other hand, Abed, the innocent, TV savant on the spectrum, represents the other ‘child-like’ half to Harmon, who is so totally entrenched within his own weirdness that he needs to mimic television tropes to behave ‘normally’. Abed is the other side of the Jeff coin, devoid of irony, but totally unable to function in the real world on his own because he is so unapologetically himself. Even though Abed’s robotically even emotion can make him seem the most alien, it shrouds the fact that Abed is the most caring, altruistic character on the show. Abed’s not behold to the pretension of the ‘real’ world, but, while that’s what makes him too alien to survive there, it’s also his grounding strength at Greendale. He’s a sort of Peter Pan character, who can’t and won’t develop the way the other characters can and will, but within the halls of Greendale, where quirks are lauded, he becomes the most powerful figure. However, Abed is frozen in his childlike state and while it makes him a powerfully central character at the community college, it also means that he won’t be able to follow the others outside to the ‘adult’ world, when they graduate.
This is explored in one of my favorite episodes of television, Season 3’s Virtual Systems Analysis, when Abed is separated from Troy by the latter going on a date with Britta. In order to facilitate this date and rebuff Abed’s lack of social cues, Annie agrees to fill in for Troy during a scheduled dreamatorium Inspector Spacetime session. A disaffected Abed is seemingly upset with Annie’s lack of understanding of the universe, but the rooted source of his discomfort is later revealed to be the prospect of Troy outgrowing their friendship. Troy’s interest in Britta signifies him growing up and stepping out into the real, adult world that Abed can’t inhabit. Abed feels he’s being left behind and his rejection of Annie as as an acceptable fill in for Troy leads to her inverting Abed’s “machine” he uses to build his interactions with the rest of the group. Annie challenges him to put the feelings of others first, and Abed has a mini-virtual reality breakdown where in which he “It’s a Wonderful Life”s himself out of the reality. Annie tracks him through said reality, which is Abed’s version of an “adult world” where members of the study group are all sexy grown-ups who want to bang each other. In true Abed fashion, it’s mostly nods to ER and Grey’s Anatomy. He repeatedly channels Jeff to try to distract Annie, using her own “adult” fantasy against her and trying to get her to endorse the Abed-less world that he’s created. The idea being that with Abed (and by extension his child-like values) removed from the universe, the rest of the study group were free to be adults and leave him behind.
This later culminates in Annie discovering Abed in a metaphorical locker (“I spent a lot of time in junior high in here”) and him admitting that he “ran the simulations” and none of them involve him getting married, inventing a billion dollar website, or getting a film into Sundance. There’s nothing in the outside world for Abed, and it’s clear the “Abed-less world” that he mocks up is really just his vision of the future. It’s a tragic and uncomfortably dark turn for a character who carries a lot of the show’s heart, and even more uncomfortable is how correct he is.
Annie eventually explains to Abed that his feelings are anxieties, something that he shares with the rest of the group and (again, tying back to the “loneliness of everyone” that Harmon always wants to address) explains to him that this means he’ll never be alone. However, even though Abed accepts the speech and is able to use this human connection as a touchstone for future empathy, it doesn’t change the fact that there’s not really a place for Abed in the world. In spite of his mechanical, affectless presentation, Abed is the most human character in the show simply by being unapologetically himself. Abed doesn’t care what anyone thinks and often doesn’t consider what effect he has on others. He simply does what he wants to do. You can say that Abed is pure id or that he’s selfish, but really he’s just himself. It’s something that so simple and straightforward that it creates a pure innocence around him. Even though he hurts people, it’s never malicious or mean, only an accident that comes from not considering what might be going on in someone else’s mind.
Abed doesn’t empathize with others (what Annie spends most of Virtual Systems Analysis trying to draw from him) and he’s incapable of sympathy, because sympathy is reactive. It’s creating a new feeling based on what happens to others. We’ve established that Abed exists almost entirely within himself, so the best he can do is try to make “himself” the “others”. In other words, to try to empathize. However, he lacks the ‘adult’ gear that prods the rest of the study groups anxieties, so he’ll never really get there.
I’ve talked a lot about the Greendale and adult worlds without really explaining it, but I thought it was important to have the context of Jeff and Abed as the respective Greendale touchstones to both worlds. If they are the avatars of Harmon in the Community world, then Troy, Annie, Britta and Shirley represent the people caught in the middle, navigating the alien limbo of Greendale to figure out which side of the fence they will ultimately come down on. Up to this point, I’ve referred to them as as the adult world and the “misfit world” of Greendale, but these worlds are really the worlds of systems and the world of individuals.
The ‘adult’ world is a place where big tents are built and the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. This is the way the world has to be for things to improve and move forward, especially if you believe in democracy like most Americans do. However, in this world of metaphorical machines that drive civilization forward, everyone eventually falls through the cracks. Everyone hits a point where they are left behind, excluded, or left unaddressed. It’s in these moments, when the big machines of today move on without you, that you feel most lonely.
Greendale, by contrast, is a place specifically for the unaddressed and left behind. It’s for people who have been ground out of the machine of regular society. Really, Greendale is a metaphor for stopping, taking a breath, and remembering that everyone, no matter what, is going to be different and weird at some point. That’s what being human is. It’s being who you are and remembering that you don’t have to feel ashamed or lonely because of it. By extension, it’s also encouraging to remember that others don’t have to be exactly like you. Originality is to be celebrated, because, weirdly, what binds us together are the things that distinguish us.
It’s when people try to hide from their own identity that they get into trouble. I already went through Jeff’s lying, but the same can be applied to any of the other characters. Shirley enters Greendale lost after her identity as a wife and mother is abruptly pulled out from underneath her. Britta consistently points herself outward, “raging against the machine”, fighting injustices, and psychoanalyzing her friends, but this is all because she wants to build and project who she wants to be, rather than find out who she is. Annie is driven and ambitious, but pushes herself so hard to fit into the systems of the adult world that she burns herself out and realizes her greatest fear by failing to follow a “normal” path by being unable to go to a “good” school.
At the forefront of this exploration of identity is Troy, who’s friendship with Abed and admiration of Jeff places him squarely at the division of the two worlds. Troy’s journey is more linear throughout the run of the show, as his identity of “high school athlete” is thrown off” relatively early in the show and is replaced quickly with the Harmon-ian embrace of self. Part of this is Troy’s friendship with Abed, whose own lack of blissful commitment to being himself requires that Troy be as honest with himself as Abed is.
Where this becomes interesting, is when Troy begins to be recruited by the air conditioning repair school and begins to find a place for himself in the system of “outside the Greendale bubble”. Abed, as previously touched on, has no place outside the Greendale bubble and it puts a strain on their friendship as Troy’s natural identity carries him away from Abed. Troy’s becoming an adult and finding his place in the larger systems of the world. However, this isn’t done at the expense of his identity, as with some other members of the study group. Instead, Troy’s community arc is one of a healthy person growing. He…
- Loses his identity as an athlete due to injury.
- He sheds that identity, and (with the help of Abed) follows what feels right to him.
- He discovers something about himself while being himself (he’s good at repair work).
- This is valuable to the system of the adult world.
- Troy becomes a part of the system, but doesn’t sacrifice his identity to do so.
This is what really makes Community special.
Harmon is a notorious disciple of Campbellian storytelling, and has written about his story embryos and the implementing of the monomyth. You don’t have to be a professional story teller to see how Troy’s arc applies to the monomyth, but I think it’s important to understand Greendale and the real life mechanics that it apes. Greendale is a place where you examine and remember what it is that makes you different. You can’t discover how you fit into the systems of the ‘real’ world until you know who you are, and you shouldn’t contort your identity to make yourself fit.
Also, the show is funny as hell.
Community comes off as cynical to most audiences because it acknowledges that “being yourself” will not always be met with universal acceptance. Not everyone can belong everywhere and there will be times where you are hurt or you hurt someone else. However, by acknowledging those dark times and moments of despair, it earns its moments of sweetness and optimism and, at its core, its a show filled with hope.
Community wants everyone to remember that everyone feels alone and that there will always be a place for someone who lets themselves be a Human Being.
It’s not a mistake that Community died a public, drawn out death. NBC demanded the show fit to its system and Harmon demanded the system fit the humanity of his show. The system fed to the majority and Community would be ground against the cogs until it was nearly unrecognizable. Network television was never going to be the place for Harmon and his devotion chronicling the messiness of being human. The phoenix of Rick and Morty (foreshadowing) would later rise from the its corpse in the more open environment of Adult Swim, but Community left an unmistakable legacy that would be built on by the other shows that I will discuss later. It took the typical TV systems of sympathy and replaced them with a human show about empathy. For that to get on network television in the early 2010s was pretty cool.
Cool, cool, cool.
This is part one in a four part series detailing one dude’s defense of his favorite TV shows. Check back for parts two through four.