Community may be the new show that I was most interested in. Glee is the one I was most excited about, but I pretty much knew Glee would be awesome. I hoped Community would be awesome, but I had my doubts. First, while I have always suspected that Soup host and Community star Joel McHale is hilarious, it’s a long way from “suspected” to “known,” just like it’s a long way from making fun of Kim Kardashian to actually, you know, acting. Second, Chevy Chase. Third, Chevy Chase (although let’s be fair: Chase’s lifetime batting average is still somewhere around .42). Fourth, I tend to be a lot more demanding of my comedies than of my dramas, or even my dramedies. I’ve given Dollhouse a full season (and counting) to get its act together, but I watched two episodes of The Big Bang Theory, laughed once, and banished it from my DVR.
So while the premiere of Glee had me feeling excited, I sat down to watch Community feeling anxious. I really wanted it to be good — what if it sucked? Luckily, my fears were unfounded. It turns out that McHale can act, (although we’ve yet to learn whether he can act like a character that isn’t identical to his persona on the Soup). Chase is funny, probably because his character is such an unmitigated jerk. The writing is sharp, so most of the jokes work, and the brisk, almost overcaffeinated pacing ensures that the ones that fall flat don’t overstay their welcome. If I sat down to Community feeling anxious about whether it would be any good, I stood up afterwards feeling anxious about whether they’d pick it up for next year.
Now, what you’ve read so far is pretty much a review. Which would be fine, really, except that if you were privy to the cigar-smoke-filled rooms (uh, email threads) in which the OTI staff plots the future of our website, you would know that Overthinkingit is Not a Review Website. That’s right, we have a “not list” just like Wikipedia! Or to be more accurate, we don’t, but we could. Overthinkingit is Not A Review Website. Overthinkingit is Not Paper. Overthinkingit is Not Managing To Sell Many of These T-shirts, For Some Reason. Wait, where was I going with this?
Oh yeah. This post needs to be something more than a review. The preceding paragraph added a pointless digression, a random pop culture reference, and a bout of self-obsessed naval gazing (all important parts of the formula, to be sure), but I’m still lacking any actual analysis. Let’s see what we can do about that.
One of the interesting things to watch for in Community as it goes forward is the treatment of gender roles. McHale said in an interview here that he was first attracted to the Community script because “It’s not one of those shows where here’s the guy, he’s the normal one, and everyone else around him is insane. And here’s his hot wife. He’s going to be fat eventually. It didn’t have that thirtysomething guy, everyone else is crazy, and why can’t he find love? That was every pilot that I read. And Jeff is not the moral barometer of this show. Britta, the girl [Gillian Jacobs], is.”
McHale is absolutely right that Jeff’s lack of morals makes Community a more interesting show. (One of the great strengths of Arrested Development — still my once-and-future gold standard of sitcom brilliance — was that Michael Bluth was actually just as self-absorbed as anyone else in his family.) But then at the end, almost as an aside, he suggests that there’s something original about making the female lead the show’s “moral barometer.” And in this, he is dead wrong.
Scott Kurtz, of the wildly successful gamer comic PvP, wrote an interesting piece of self-criticism a few months back (I have no idea where to find it or I’d link to the thing), in which he admitted, more or less, to letting his female characters down. The male characters were always the ones starting crazy schemes, getting into fights, having midlife crisises, and more generally, like, doing anything at all. The female characters had become sidekicks. Worse, they’d become wet blankets: their storytelling function was to try to keep the unruly males in line, and once this inevitably failed, to clean up their messes for them. After vowing to do better in the future, Kurtz pointed out that this is a common pattern in media. And man oh man, does he have a point. Look at the comedies of Adam Sandler, or of Judd Apatow. Look at the “hot wife” in the kinds of shows McHale is mocking above — we’re talking Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens here, mostly, but also their precursor text Home Improvement. You could even look at Marcy from Peanuts, if you wanted to. What do these women want? They want the men in their lives to straighten up and fly right. Well, the last one wants Peppermint Patty. But you get the general idea.
Now, this archetype is by no means universal. Even if we limit ourselves to TV sitcoms, it’s easy to come up with counterexamples. Nor is it necessarily the mark of a poorly written character: people like this exist (of both genders), and therefore have a place in fiction. But it is often the mark of a poorly written character. What you have to watch out for is the woman-as-sounding-board, whose entire being is defined by her opposition to the irresponsible actions of the more interesting male characters. What’s going on in a case like this is the rhetorical strategy known as metalepsis or farfet: “woman” is standing in for “marriage” and/or “mother,” both of which in turn stand in for “social responsibility.” And whenever you have a character that can be neatly summed up as a rhetorical device…
Well, we could have an argument about whether this kind of writing is socially irresponsible, but what’s certain is that it is dull. McHale’s pursuit of Jacobs is shaping up to be the main overarching plot of Community. If her character is limited to trying to convince him to shape up and fly right, that overarching plot is going to get real insufferable, real fast.
But here I found the second episode of Community more promising than the first. Jacobs has a little arc of her own, which involves her being diagnosed (hilariously, I thought) with “likes-to-use-radical-politics-to-make-herself-feel-special-but-never-actually-does-anything. -Itis.” This was definitely the B-plot, and this is still definitely McHale’s show, and Britta is still a wet blanket. But!
1) The B-plot had nothing to do with McHale. I mean, thematic resonance, fine, that’s just good writing. What I mean is that it didn’t exist to teach him a lesson. It existed to teach her a lesson.
2) The character flaws she deals with in her plot are consistent with her role as the wet blanket in Jeff’s A-plot. (Compare here Marge Simpson, who is a textbook wet blanket except in the episodes where she abruptly snaps and becomes a compulsive gambler for precisely 30 minutes and no more.) Jacobs will always call McHale on his nonsense not because she just wants him to shape up and fly right, but because under a thin veneer of righteous indignation she is just a deeply negative person. And she recognizes this, and she’s working on it.
Which makes her a character, and not a mere figure of speech. And makes Community worth Overthinking, and not merely giggling at.