Last Saturday, one of the best sitcom ensembles on television and their producers huddled together with fans at the Paley Center in Los Angeles to celebrate the end of a three month long hiatus with a screening of a new episode, followed by a panel discussion that teased at what’s to come for the rest of Community’s third season, plus the prospect of the show’s future beyond that. Here on the other side of the country, fans also gathered at New York’s own Paley Center to see the new episode and a live stream of the panel in the Bennack Theater organized by New York Comic-Con—but before that, there’s trivia, costume contest, and a Greendale Pep Rally at the lobby featuring a blanket fort.
I tried to get under said fort, but it was pretty full of people in going-out attire just sitting around talking, not lounging in comfortable pajamas as seen in the “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” episode it was emulating. It looked a bit more Zucotti Park than blanket fort. Then it hit me: this is probably unusual for a network sitcom, to be able to inspire this kind of quirky gathering from its audience.
Case in point, the trivia contest breezed through almost comically fast when people kept answering correctly before the question had finished being asked. At one point, the host only had time to say “Donald Glover also...” before someone answered “Childish Gambino.”
The rabid Community fans differ slightly from the equally-enthusiastic fans of other sitcoms like, say, The Office or the coveted Arrested Development, in that there’s a level of detailed scrutiny, day-to-day obsessiveness and familial pride in being a Community fan that’s reminiscent of the type of fandom more commonly found attached to mythology-inclined genre shows like Supernatural and LOST, not half-hour comedies. Community is not necessarily a geek show, but it clearly appeals to the same crowd. There’s a certain insular language these cult shows speak in that cuts right through the masses and straight to its core audience, and evidence of this in Community can be seen in how far their webculture-savvy fans have taken a throwaway spoof like the show-within-a-show Inspector Spacetime and extrapolated their own convincing alternate universe fandom for a show that doesn’t even exist (to say nothing of the way it intersects with actual Doctor Who fans), which the Community creators noticed and then embraced, inspiring them to incorporate that enthusiasm back into the show. If you step back and examine that feedback-loop relationship from a distance, it seems absolutely nuts.
Yesterday, show creator Dan Harmon unexpectedly logged onto Reddit and for the first time since last year’s AMA wrote a comment just to address a random fan’s theory about Abed’s much-speculated background adventure. He had this to say, among others:
Every day, my stomach is in knots, and I still owe 14 pages for the video game episode (the part where they're in the video game) and it's a week past its deadline and I can't finish the pages because I want the show to be as good as people now think it is. I also can't finish the pages because I know once they're done, they're done, and season 3 is done. I've never had a job or a relationship that's lasted this long. The interaction for which you're grateful cuts two ways. It's been keeping me alive and driving me insane, like the black gooey spiderman suit or the hobbit ringy thing.
The misfortune of Community’s approach to the typical 22-minute comedy series is that when it pushes itself to be more ambitious and more experimental than your average banter-driven set-up-and-deliver sitcom, it loses those broad strokes that draw the stray and languid viewers who just want to sit back and laugh for half an hour. Instead, it chooses to reward a perceptive and diligent audience with episode-to-episode continuity that builds into an arc and pays off (Pierce’s leg cast, Shirley’s baby), elaborate and consistent inside jokes (Kickpuncher, Cougar Town), and sometimes even a background easter egg that took three seasons to set up (the Beetlejuice cameo).
“A young lady tweeted me a couple days ago suggesting that when Pierce recites the order of his favorite marriages (in the upcoming March 15th episode, she probably saw it at Paley) that it somehow relates to the order of the timelines in the Yahtzee episode,” Harmon wrote on Reddit. “I remember seeing a blog post featuring a photo of the cast sitting around the table and their shirts were ordered in accordance with the electromagnetic spectrum and they were speculating about the significance of that. I can't tell you how nervous it makes me to know that there are fans out there holding us to that high a standard. I guess we do bring it on ourselves when we do stuff like the Beetlejuice easter egg.”
All this is prime material to win critical applause and a cult following, but not the dreaded viewing figures. The thing is, this show doesn’t have a rabid fanbase in spite of the low ratings; it has a rabid fanbase for the same reason. The show is very much coming from the mentality of the pop culture-minded, social media-inundated Tarantino generation that’s more likely to own a laptop than a TV, which is a far cry from the average household that the Nielsen families represent, but precisely the age demographic that’s susceptible to Community’s niche appeal. They watch episodes over and over on Hulu (and torrents, ahem), they create and share laborious fan art, they create countless animated gifs on Tumblr, and they wear unlicensed merchandise that make subtle references to the show. These are fans who, upon learning that this little sitcom was benched for a mid-season replacement, feared for its future so much that some banded together to form the Occupy NBC movement, gathering at 30 Rockefeller in Manhattan with signs and chants demanding that the show be put back on the airwaves. Others took to Twitter and letter-writing, adopting the rallying cry #SixSeasonsAndAMovie and comparing the network to buzzkill Britta.
For Gillian Jacobs, she considers it “so great” that her character’s name has become a verb for doing the worst thing possible. “That sort of hit right before the show got pulled, so to see, like, ‘NBC Britta’d it!’, I feel like it gave our fans such a great verb to describe the action,” she said at the Paley panel. “Because that’s what verbs do.”
It may conjure memories of the Conan O’Brien-Jay Leno fiasco, but the difference here is that there’s no antagonistic backstabbing narrative woven into it. It’s simply a case of a television show not drumming up numbers and being put on lower priority, thus leading to these past few months’ dark period of absence. It’s coming to an end, though. We are less than a week away from being able to return to Greendale, with a new episode of Community scheduled for March 15th to secure its place back on NBC’s Thursday night comedy line-up for the rest of Spring. The aforementioned Paley panel will be available to watch on Hulu on that same day. Be sure to catch it, if only just to hear Dan Harmon’s contemptuous dissing of Alexander Payne, his brilliant idea for the hypothetical Community movie after the hypothetical sixth season, and spoiling the ending of Quantum Leap for everybody. Or Gillian Jacobs taking three tries to fulfill a fan’s request because she kept characteristically Britta-ing it.
Fans expecting a big return might be slightly disappointed by the lack of an obvious theme in “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts." There’s no identifiable gimmick, no pop culture spoof, no overt genre take, there’s not even a specific type of college class being taken. In short, it’s not an episode that gets those water cooler conversations going. Like “Asian Population Studies” from Season 2 and “Studies in Modern Movement” from earlier this season, this episode abandons the idea that the study group always runs into crazy adventures and simply focuses on them interacting in order to help one of their own with a problem—in this case, it’s planning Shirley and Andre’s wedding. This is how completely untethered Community is. Any other sitcom, a wedding episode would surely be considered a stunt episode; but with this show, it barely registers as anything out of the ordinary. This is a sitcom, after all, that just a few episodes ago explored alternate dimensions born out of chaos theory, then does an episode-length mockumentary that riffs on Hearts of Darkness. Whatever you may think the show’s shortcomings are, you have to agree that ambition is not among them.
“To me, my worst nightmare is like the middle-of-the-road kind of ‘meh’ response,” Harmon admitted during the panel. “I need the show to be ambitious, otherwise we’re going to lose to people who are better at being middle-of-the-road. Our middle-of-the-road sucks. Our good stuff is the stuff when we’re risking doing the worst stuff ever.”
And there will be plenty of risk-taking. Harmon teased that the rest of Season 3 will include a highly experimental episode where Abed and Annie spend the entire episode in the Dreamatorium, a Law & Order homage episode, and an episode where the group goes inside a video game. Furthermore, John Goodman, Michael K. Williams and Rob Corddry will return, and we'll see John Hodgman and Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito dropping by Greendale.
Recently, The Daily Beast did a wonderful interview with the female cast of the show, as well as writer Megan Ganz, to discuss the role of women in modern comedy, and the subject of the show’s consistent representation of the female point of view was brought up. The new episode certainly touches on this aspect, with Shirley having to choose between pursuing a newfound career and regaining a marriage she devastatingly lost, and figuring out which is truer to her needs as a woman. Many have praised Community’s diversity since its first season, for using such a wide range of ethnic, age and gender in ways that subvert stereotype in the core group alone, but what the writers of the show are really good at is using them to put forward interesting and typically unchampioned opinions. In the episode, Jeff and Britta are the ones least enthusiastic about Shirley’s wedding, one due to romantic cynicism and the other due to an objection to its patriarchal roots (you know who’s which).
“For all the people that have only heard about our show—it’s spoofs, it’s pop culture, it’s genre—they’re missing the fact that these are different, new characters on television that people have grown to love,” Jacobs told The Daily Beast. “So even when we do an episode which is set in the apartment and there’s no obvious spoof or takeoff, people still want to watch it because they love and care about these characters.”
This, too, keeps the show genuine, rather than merely be a soulless reference-and-gag factory. It’s the difference between the early seasons of The Simpsons and what it is now. Unlike a certain more successful sitcom that recently incorporated a real role-playing game superfluously in a sitcomy plot that doesn’t require an outsider to understand the game, a Community episode like “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” used D&D to actually demonstrate its appeal and develop multiple characters’ growth within the context of RPG.
The geekiest thing about Community is not Abed and Troy’s pop culture allusions or the themed episodes; it’s this ability to understand the type of situations and relationships that geeks are interested in, which makes it truly For-Us-By-Us, rather than reducing “us” into easily quantifiable caricatures—no matter how lovingly—that blatantly pander rather than be informed by the culture.
JEFF: Maybe we are caught in an endless cycle of screw-ups and hurt feelings. But I choose to believe it's just the universe's way of molding us into some kind of super-group.
TROY: Like the Traveling Wilburys!
JEFF: Yes, Troy, like the Traveling Wilburys of pain. Prepared for any insane adventure life throws our way. And I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to every one of them.