In the first episode of the sitcom Community, Jeff Winger, a lawyer disbarred for faking his bachelor’s degree, has to go to Greendale Community College to get his degree. To win over a woman in his Spanish class, he pretends to be a Spanish tutor with his own study group. Five others from the class join the group too, and they form an unexpected friendship over the show. Thus begins six seasons of film homages, subversive self-referentiality, and resonant character development.
Community references specific movies and entire genres of film, and references can last anywhere from one line to an entire episode. What distinguishes homages in Community from your average spoof is that the characters recognize homages when they see them, often making a point of accentuating the homage, especially Abed, the film enthusiast who seems to know more about television than the real world. The show has many paintball episodes (in which the entire school plays a game of paintball assassin) and a Hot Lava episode (in which the school plays a game of Hot Lava), which include homages to Star Wars; Lord Of The Rings; Mad Max; and the post-apocalyptic, western, and spy genres. In the Star Wars episode, Abed “calls dibs” on playing Han Solo once he realizes the game is becoming like the aforementioned movie.
Appropriately, for a show that seems to know all the tropes of popular culture, it knows when to subvert them, too. When Annie loses her pen, she makes everyone in the group stay in the study room until they find out who took it. Abed sighs, saying he hates bottle episodes, which take place in one room, usually to save money or to speed through character development. Like other bottle episodes, this episode was highly emotional, but lacks the forced character development. The episode “Paradigms of Human Memory” is in the format of a clip episode, which is a tool used mainly to dramatically cut costs by recycling old footage. The episode, however, included entirely new footage, and was one of the most expensive episodes of the show.
Community has been on the verge of cancellation many times, which the show has addressed. In the season 5 finale, when NBC had cancelled the show, Abed said, “We'll definitely be back next year. If not, it'll be because an asteroid has destroyed all human civilization. And that's canon,” looking directly at the camera. The show references itself in a very intelligent way, using Abed’s love of film and habit of relating life to TV to be self-referential without breaking character or losing realism.
But without great characters, Community would fall flat. While in the pilot episode, they appear to be nothing more than one-dimensional stereotypes, they quickly become fleshed-out characters with realistic portrayals of their diversity. Abed has Autism Spectrum Disorder, and “represents a unique individual on the autism spectrum rather than a stereotypical bundle of symptoms,” according to Interacting With Autism. In addition, each episode has ramifications. A revealing episode focused on one character forever changes how others treat them. In the episode “Advanced Dungeons And Dragons”, Pierce bullies Neal, whom the study group is trying to prevent from committing suicide. As a result, Pierce and the rest of the group become more distant and fight much more often.
One of the main characters on the show, Shirley, says when talking about Abed’s favorite show, “It’s smart, and doesn’t talk down to its viewers.” It would be very hard to find a more appropriate and succinct description of Community.
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