Community: (Postmodern) Media Studies 101
The sitcom serves an instructional function, so what does its syllabus look like?
By STEPHANIE BROWN
On the surface, the sitcom Community (2009– ) centers on seven characters who form a bond as as they navigate life at a second-rate community college. A closer look reveals the series can also be read as a class on American pop culture, complete with quizzes, homework, points, and a reading list.
It’s no coincidence critics are fond of using academic language when discussing Community. For example, Matt Zoller Seitz invokes the word “footnotes” in his premature obituary for the series, and Alessandra Stanely says it’s the only show that “cites its sources.”
So, if Community serves an instructional function, what does its syllabus look like?
Again, superficially, Community is about Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) and his band of Greendale Community College classmates. More deeply, however, the series instructs viewers on facets of postmodern American pop culture, storytelling, and fandom. As we’ll learn below, it devotes entire episodes to classic TV shows, movies, and video games.
More advanced lessons cover the very nature of popular storytelling. Specifically, Community teaches us 1) fandom and pop culture are important tools we use to relate to the world and to each other, and 2) all new stories are based on old stories.
In Community, the popular culture references deliberately scattered throughout function as more than just comedy.
In a 2014 interview, Dan Harmon, the show’s creator, explains that his range of pop culture references are meant not only to further a story or develop a character, but also to show viewers where the ideas for those stories and character development come from.
This is clear in Harmon’s 2010 interview with Vulture in which he explains 14 references from the episode “Anthropology 101” (2.1). (Again, that’s 14 allusions, in only 22 minutes of television.)
Virtually all writers create new stories by combining tropes, ideas, and characters from other stories that have influenced them. See Star Wars or any Quentin Tarantino film, for cryin’ out loud. But one of the unique things about Community is that it outright tells viewers which stories did the influencing.
Such extensive referencing means that to enjoy Community fully, its audience is required to enter class with some outside knowledge. This probably also explains the show’s small but loyal audience. In Community, references become a way for fans to relate to the characters and to each other.
Yes, Community’s fans are expected to engage with storylines through their prior knowledge. Some would also argue the fans are expected to take active roles in discussing the show online.
Because Community’s fan base is so small, producers have long relied on its fans’ loyalty and activity to keep the show on the air. For instance, the hashtag #SixSeasonsAndAMovie became a rallying cry every time the series was in danger of cancellation — which was often. What’s more, fan devotion is likely what influenced Yahoo! Screen to pick up the series after NBC’s cancellation of it in 2014.
Since its debut, Community has exemplified ways the Internet can be used to build relationships among fans and between fans and producers. Interestingly, the show’s audience resembles sci-fi or fantasy fandom more than a sitcom audience as fans come together to discuss the episodes, collaborate on projects, and share their own work.
As the Course Description and Prerequisites indicate, Community “tests” its audience on popular culture, knowledge of the show itself, and attention to detail. In this postmodern text, the dialogue is quick, the jokes are plentiful, and the references are dense.
Fans who watch or rewatch episodes are often rewarded with verbal and visual easter eggs. For instance, a hidden storyline that ends with Abed’s (Danny Pudi) delivering a baby plays out in the background of “The Psychology of Letting Go” (2.3). But only the most observant of fans likely noticed the secret storyline at first.
Community doesn’t just test the audience’s observation skills; it also quizzes fans on their cultural knowledge through parodic allusion, a fancy way of saying parody that’s more homage than satire. The more references viewers understand, the more “points” they get.
The series is also famous for devoting entire episodes to mimicking a single movie, television show, or genre style — thus testing the depth of the audience’s knowledge of that particular pop culture text. Some examples include
- “Basic Lupine Urology” (3.21), a spot-on homage to NBC’s Law and Order
- “Regional Holiday Music” (3.10), a musical episode and take-off of Fox’s Glee
- “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (2.11), an episode executed almost entirely in the style of Christmas claymation movies
- “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” (2.14), an episode devoted, of course, to a game of Dungeons and Dragons
Community also often weaves various cultural allusions together to form an entire episode, thus testing the breadth of the audience’s general knowledge of pop culture. The most famous examples are probably the popular “Paint Ball Episodes,” which are veritable festivals of genre references.
The first, “Modern Warfare” (1.23) tests the audience’s knowledge of action movies, the second “A Fistfull of Paintballs” (2.23) covers westerns, and the third “For A Few Paintballs More” (2.24) does Star Wars. The series has also covered zombie films, mockumentaries, space movies, and postmodern filmakers.
An episode that exemplifies the potential for Community both to quiz and teach is “Critical Film Studies” (2.19). In this episode, Jeff attempts to throw Abed a Pulp Fiction-themed birthday party, but he’s nearly thwarted when Abed attempts to re-enact the low-budget 1981 film My Dinner With Andre.
Not only does the episode reward audience members familiar with My Dinner With Andre, but it also prompts them to locate and watch the movie in order to make up for the “points” they may have missed the first time. Homework!
With the increasing ability to access, save, re-watch and collect television series, producers know audience members will be able to deal with increasing levels of density and complexity.
To this end, Community’s writers know fans are able to “study up” on any allusions that they may miss, either by re-watching episodes or by Googling references they don’t understand. With the show’s now airing on Yahoo! Screen, fans can even use the very platform on which they’re watching the show to search for any missed references. Meta!
As with any college class, the degree to which students/audiences engage in Community’s pop culture lessons varies considerably. But with the Internet, fan Wikis, and almost the entirety of popular culture history now at their finger tips, Community’s students can take full advantage of all of the educational opportunities it has to offer.
Originally published at stephbrown.net on April 1, 2015.
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