Wrapping up this season, we asked some of our contributors to write about some of their favorite comedies that have aired since the fall. Instead of handing out accolades to just one show, we're looking at a number of shows that all deserve to be called the best comedy of the season.
Thanks to the Internet, I both love and hate Community far more than when I started watching the show. On one hand, the rabid online fan base has reassured me that I am not alone in my appreciation for the show’s playful storytelling, unearthing wonderful little gems like background story arcs and jokes three seasons in the making. And I understand the need for a deafening marching band when the team is getting demolished on the field.
But when you live on the sidelines as I do, the Community martyrdom becomes a little exhausting. I feel like my tastes have aged. As a longtime fan of Donald Glover from his days with DERRICK, I cheered his getting cast and enjoyed the evolution of Troy from ex-jock into Calvin to Abed’s Hobbes. But excitement turned into cynicism when Childish Gambino took off and Community-philes took pitchforks to Pitchfork for its (rightfully) negative review of his Camp album. Then there was the ugliness in March, when this site’s readers voted “Remedial Chaos Theory” (which I loved) as the Best Sitcom Episode of All Time, beating The Simpsons’ “Marge vs. the Monorail” with a whopping 73 percent of the vote.
Community's asterisked win, along with the sobering mid-season hiatus, half-measure of a fourth season renewal, and recent firing of showrunner Dan Harmon, forced us to accept the truth: Community is not “great television.” Yet, paradoxically, I believe it was the best sitcom of the 2011-2012 season. Two reasons:
1. “When the world goes bad, the good go crazy. But the smart… go bad.”
Let’s consider what it means to be “great television.” Community fans know full well that television is a business, as much as we hate to admit it. A network television show is not an artistic expression by an auteur — it’s eye candy designed to expose millions of eyeballs to paid advertisements. So “great television” is best defined as a show with universal appeal, scoring huge audiences, critical raves, and armfuls of statuettes. If we looked at food the way we look at TV shows, “great restaurants” would include Outback Steakhouse and the Cheesecake Factory.
Not that I don’t love me some bloomin' onion. But unlike Outback Steakhouse and the Cheesecake Factory, universally beloved television comedies are extinct. Juggernauts like Seinfeld, Friends, Will & Grace, and Everybody Loves Raymond are long gone. Their closest living relative, Modern Family, draws in a (relatively) paltry 13 million viewers and airs new episodes so sporadically that it hardly qualifies as “appointment television.”
With television becoming more fragmented and niche-oriented, the fact that a show like Community has lasted this long on network television — instead of a more fitting home of, say, Adult Swim — isn’t a miracle. It’s a sign of the times. Community may not be “great television,” but neither is any other comedy these days. In the land of the blind, Community isn’t the one-eyed man — it’s the blind man who prefers blindness.
Of course, Community is not “bad television” by any means, and I am not suggesting we regard it with the gallows humor of the front row of MST3K. Rather, we shouldn’t judge a show according to standards that are not currently being met by anyone else.
2. More fun and more weird than the first two years combined.
Dan Harmon ended Season 2 of the show with a sequel to his wildly successful “Modern Warfare” (aka, “the paintball episode”) from the first season. The move was an attempt to fire up his core fans, who had been encouraging him to punctuate the world of Community with more “paintball moments.” Unfortunately, the episode scored a 1.4, tying for what was then a series low.
Over the summer, fans speculated whether Harmon had finally reached his limit. Would he attempt to restore the series as one driven by grounded characters, or would he dig in his heels, pursue more concept-driven episodes, and risk turning away more viewers?
From the very first shot of Season 3, we had our answer. Despite the tongue-in-cheek promise for more normalcy and an attempt to be “appealing to all mankind,” in typical Community fashion, the medium — a big musical number with Chang wearing a suit made of money and Jeff flying — was the message. What followed over the coming months was a plunge into chaos: central characters suffering severe nervous breakdowns, three deaths, the campus wrecked several times over, expulsion. Reality-bending moments that were once rooted solely in Abed’s imagination now enveloped the entire study group, with characters exploring alternative timelines, imagined scenarios in Abed’s “dreamatorium,” even the notion that Greendale is actually an asylum that they’ve been living in over the past three years. Exhilarating concept episodes opened up Community to new, alternative storytelling forms (alternative timelines in “Remedial Chaos Theory,” whodunit mystery in “Basic Lupine Urology,” history doc in “Pillows and Blankets,” video game narrative in “Digital Estate Planning”).
Curiously, the new devices weren’t limited to the concept episodes, often finding their way into more routine storylines as well. Jeff and Shirley had a foosball battle as anime characters. Jeff took anti-anxiety meds, and his inflating ego was represented by an expanding apple (awkward metaphor brought to you by Britta, of course). Abed performed scenarios in his dreamatorium, and we saw his outline flash in and out of characters. In Season 3, “weird” lurked around every corner, fearing not the backlash from first-time viewers and transforming Community into a show where anything, at any time, can happen.
As far as I’m concerned, a weird Community is a great Community. This show was never going to top the humor of Parks and Recreation or the warm, third-act embrace of Modern Family. Community's strength is the way it plays around with different types of storytelling, and Season 3 placed all of its chips on it and rolled the dice. The payoff — one that somehow managed to escape all the ink about Dan Harmon’s public feuds and job security, and all the online chatter about whether the show is over- or underrated — is that Community quietly became the most exciting, original sitcom on network television this year. It did so consistently and in a way that was true to itself. It's time we accepted what Community truly is: not “great television,” but something undeniably great that somehow found its way onto television.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team The Cartel at the iO West theater. His favorite Community episodes are "Contemporary American Poultry" and "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design."