Community is the Abed of TV sitcoms. The Fonz emblematized Happy Days, Scrubs was embodied in the form of JD, MD, but Community’s avatar is the emotionally blind autistic savant of popular culture, Abed Nadir. Like Abed, Community focused more on pop culture than people, and it blighted the show.
Creator Dan Harmon is obviously thoroughly educated about pop culture, especially television. The problem is, he’s so educated about television, and so eager to explain, explore, and invert tropes, that Community is less about the characters on the show, and more about sitcoms, movies, and the inner mechanics of plot and story.
Community is ostensibly about 7 misfits, about half of whom exist in the shadowy border between “can barely function in society” and “here’s five bucks for a hamburger, you need it more than I do”. They’re students at Greendale Community College, literally the worst school in the country, where they form a study group for Spanish 101.
These guys don’t fit together. Virtually none of them share common interests, values, similar backgrounds, or anything else. There’s no reason for them to be friends, and much of the time, they’re not. The series—three full seasons and three half seasons—is about their wacky misadventures at the perpetually mismanaged (and incompetently politically correct) Greendale. And whereas the sitcom starts with off-kilter hijinks, it rapidly veers off into straight-up homages to other genres.
One Halloween, they get a sickness from mystery meat bought at an Army Surplus store, and a zombie apocalypse breaks out. Another time, they take over the chicken fingers fryer in the cafeteria, and use their monopoly on the tasty meat to organize a crime family (paralleling Goodfellas). Most memorably, in “Basic Lupine Urology” (S03-E17), Harmon mimics an entire Law and Order episode, twists and all, and exactly nails the show’s plotting, feel, and themes. Change the crime and the characters, and it would be a Law and Order episode. It’s one of the best sitcom shows ever shot, and definitely a highlight of the series.
There was the Western episode, the Star Wars episode, take-offs of M.A.S.H., buddy cop movies, action movies (with nods to John McClain and John Woo), conspiracy movies, Rankin-Bass Christmas claymation shows, 70’s dystopian sci-fi movies, Ken Burns documentaries, The Right Stuff, and many, many more. Then there’s the straight send-ups of sitcom staples, like a bottle episode or a clip show (made entirely of new clips shot just for this episode, defeating the entire point of a clip show).
The strength of these episodes was that they were not parodies (unlike, say, Airplane or Scary Movie). These episodes were just a zombie movie, a gangster flick, or a Law and Order episode set at Greendale. The situations and tropes were played straight, it was the characters who gave it the humor.
So why did the show fail? Don’t doubt that it did, in a certain sense. The show was always on the cusp of being cancelled, and eventually was. Several times. In fact, the show was cancelled, then reinstated at the last minute, so many times it had three separate series finales (and two additional pilot episodes to relaunch the next season, including one actually named “Repilot”). When it was finally killed, even Netflix wouldn’t touch it and its last season was broadcast on Yahoo’s aborted TV-on-demand streaming service. These are not the signs of a show enjoying unprecedented success. (Although Harmon did achieve the “6 seasons” half of “6 seasons and a movie!”)
One reason the show struggled is that it zigged and zagged so much, audiences had no idea what each episode would be about. Not just wildly varying genres, but the emotional tone of each episode was radically different from the previous one. Sometimes sentimental, sometimes cynical, sometimes just dopey, Community was less a coherent sitcom and more an anthology show like The Twilight Zone. Harmon was clearly afraid of his show becoming just another sitcom, but in trying to be unexpected he went too far and became erratic. Mainstream audiences didn’t like it.
More, the explicit focus on sitcom tropes—Abed continually commenting on the fact that the show was a show, and acting as if his life was on TV, bent the fourth wall to the breaking point—was also off-putting for casual audiences. There’s a big difference between a show about the relationships between a group of friends (like Friends), and a show that’s a technical dissertation on and dissection of TV shows themselves. Audiences are more attracted to the first.
Also off-putting was Harmon’s hostility towards romance. There were hints of romances here and there, but each time they were thoroughly quashed in later episodes. When one did begin, finally, it was wholly physical and happened entirely off-screen. It didn’t affect the show at all. Say what you like about Friends, but “Ross and Rachel” (and “Chandler and Monica”) mattered. Falling in love, then breaking up impacts people and colors their relationships ever after. In Community, all this was just glossed over, as if the characters had no emotions or humanity.
Simultaneously clinical and sentimental, it’s obvious that Harmon loved the characters and tried hard to humanize them, but their humanity was often lost under all the explicit analysis of the nuts and bolts of TV screenwriting or filmmaking. Like Abed, the show was overly focused on the intellectual, at the expense of the visceral. This doomed it to “Cult Classic” status.
Which is a shame. Dan Harmon worked hard at the show, and it was different from the lazy cookie cutter sitcoms that infest television. It had heart and comedy. For all that could be off-putting about it, it still managed moments and episodes that were unmatched by any other show (if only because no other show could do them). I’d like to think a little more heart, and a little less analysis of sitcom story structure, would have made the show more accessible and more successful.