Each Friday in The Televangelists, one of our writers examines the met and missed potential of television.
The outlook for Community is not good (one news outlet helpfully called it, “the darkest of all possible timelines”). Despite 13 more episodes, its poor ratings virtually ensure cancellation. Further, creater and executive producer Dan Harmon has been shown the door, and the executives at NBC don’t want to talk about it . . . but they are looking forward to next season.
There are three places where Community comes up in my life. The first is work, where I am the only one who watches the show. Co-workers repeatedly ask if I watch Big Bang Theory, and I remind them I probably never will so long as Community is on. The second is when I watch it with my wife. She rarely can sit through an entire episode, and her response runs along the lines of, “How can you watch this? It just isn’t funny.” The third is when I hang out with my friends Rich and Kiel; we revel in the sheer brilliance of the show.
I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for responses to the show; most people don’t like it or are indifferent, while a few absolutely love it. What is it about Community that produces a fan base so small yet so passionate?
It starts with observation. The show observes the characters by exploring their strengths and weaknesses. It makes observations about relationships and about the sense of failure that comes from being part of an admittedly poor school. It shows how life resembles tropes we see in pop culture and then expands the story in wildly excessive ways so it can both appreciate and mock those tropes.
One good example is the episode called “Contemporary American Poultry.” In it, our little group of heroes has a problem that any of us might face: the cafeteria has only one good product (chicken fingers), and they constantly run out. Meanwhile, the guy who makes the chicken fingers abuses his position to gain favor with women.
But the show isn’t content to merely explore the humor of this situation. Instead, it tells the story in a format strikingly similar to Mafia movies like Goodfellas or The Godfather. It leaves connections with our lives behind so it can both appreciate and laugh at the tropes governing the gangster movie genre; voiceovers, a rise and fall story arc, wild excess, the power of bribery. But then the story returns to the personal and closes on a note about small group relationships, with each person struggling to know who they are and how they fit in.
This personal component allows Community to rise above mere pop culture critique and cynicism. It creates a space for lessons about participation. Two characters in particular, Jeff and Abed, seem to be extensions of Dan Harmon’s personality. Both are observers: Abed due to Asperbeger’s, Jeff due to apathy. They are always watching and commenting on the world. Jeff makes himself feel cooler through critique of the uncool, and Abed is fascinated by how tropes in the fictional world can be reflected in his “real” world.
But Harmon is not content to let these two act as eternal observers. Through various circumstances, the importance of participation is brought home again and again. The group needs Jeff to be an active leader by mediating internal conflict, taking point in conflicts against people outside the group, and explaining the meta-narrative behind the experiences they have together. Though Jeff is reluctant, he repeatedly accepts these roles because that is what the community needs.
In a similar way, the group needs Abed’s empathy. His unusual combination of skills and knowledge has power for good and ill. On one hand, he can be the group’s savior through his intelligence and imaginative creativity. On the other, he can hurt feelings and rip away the illusions that help maintain peace in the group. For him, community is about learning empathy for others to make better choices about use of his skills. This demands a level of focus and participation that is difficult for him, but he works at it because the wholeness of relationships is important to him.
The complicated relationship between bemused observation and earnest participation is the struggle at the heart of the show, and it speaks powerfully to me because that same tension defines many of my relationships. At work, it is not enough to have the best data or ideas; I also need to consider whether people will feel threatened or slighted by them. At home, being an observational father (amused by my kids, impressed by my wife) is not enough; I must also actively participate by thinking of things to do and leading in constructing healthy habits, no matter how difficult those actions are for me.
The struggle is important for first-world Christians, because riches and religious freedom allow us to choose our level of commitment to our local church. We can choose observation by attending large churches where nobody knows our name, laughing at awkward Christians doing their best, and never revealing enough of ourselves for anyone to speak into our lives. Or we can be participators, getting into every activity and finding all our self-worth in meetings, clubs, cliques, and political protests.
But my hope and prayer for you is that you will be able to find the balance: that you will observe the Church wisely so you can carry out your Christian life with care and discernment, but also that you will participate joyfully. No matter who you are or what skills you have, the Church will be better off when you involve yourself. It is a difficult tension to maintain, but we work at it to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15–16).
God’s best to you as you help build your own community!