Sin in Syndication: Breaking the ‘Community’ Spirit

Sin in Syndication: Breaking the ‘Community’ Spirit August 8, 2013

NBC’s comedy Community has always survived while on the cusp of cancellation, thanks in large part to a small but vocal and devoted fan base. The series’ ostensible plot follows the standard grab-bag of misfits who’ve ended up at Greendale Community College; they are initially brought together by the conniving of slick former lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), who contrives a study group as a subterfuge to mask his intentions toward hard-left activist Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs).  Despite — or perhaps because of — their varied personalities and neuroses, they form the central “community” suggested in the show’s title. But a mere synopsis of Community could never capture its distinctive mix of erudite, self-referential humor juxtaposed against (and often critiquing) the generic array of college-humor laughs.

Many fans were mortified when Community’s run was extended to a fourth season only at the expense of its maniacally inventive creator, Dan Harmon, who departed with no small amount of evident tension. Reviews of season 4 from viewers and critics have been mixed, while Harmon himself — back on board for season 5 — was openly critical before apologizing extensively. But the extra season earned Community a spot in syndication, where it has subsequently been picked up by Comedy Central. Fans of the show may rejoice at its continued existence with a rousing chorus of “Cool cool cool.”  However, as Slate’s Aisha Harris has recently observed, Comedy Central’s marketing of their new product is depressingly cynical.

Harris observes that the series’ promotional material gives individual attention to most of the show’s male cast, while characterizing Britta, Annie (Alison Brie), and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) as “the girls.” Harris rightly notes that “the video — which takes pains to emphasize the female characters’ physical attributes — cares far less about what Community fans have come to love about the show than appealing to its [Comedy Central’s] male, heterosexual fanbase.” As a fan of Community myself, I am in full agreement with Harris’s analysis. The promotional spot is actually surprisingly light on the kind of well-crafted and self-conscious humor that make the series so delightfully different from almost anything else on television.

At its best, Community takes the traditional sitcom elements and characters and deconstructs them, subverting all the stereotypical roles, even subverting the eclectic community spirit it ultimately advocates, while still managing to be more genuinely heartfelt than more sentimental television comedy fare. Any sexual objectification of the show’s female characters always exists within that subversive context.

Of course, it may be unreasonable to expect that Comedy Central — or any network — could craft a minute-long advertisement that could encapsulate such complexity. But there is something disturbing — indeed, as Harris puts it, downright “gross” — about the video as it exists. As a fan, I found it almost painful to watch. There may be truth behind the cynical assumption underlying Comedy Central’s marketing — that most viewers just don’t want thoughtful satire (however hilarious), and prefer frat-boy party humor. The very nature of syndication may incur such passive watching. While a show producing new episodes relies on loyal fans to keep it going, the syndicated viewer is more apt to be channel-surfing, and chooses to watch a show like Community because it looks like it may suck a little less than everything else.

But if that’s true, I for one would rather see Community fail in syndication than preserved with the sexualized formaldehyde of its current marketing. We at Christ and Pop Culture have long admired Community for its witty exploration of what true human community in a diverse environment means, and how that community often requires sacrifice and self-denial. Comedy Central’s portrayal may be, as Harris puts it, “the show NBC has always wished Community would be,” but it is not the true Community true fans know and love.

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