When Community was at its first wave of popularity, I remember reading a tumblr post praising it for its authenticity in comparison to the other, more successful and advertiser-prone alternative geeks-and-jokes series, The Big Bang Theory, which chose to describe the latter Bazinga-Em-Up series as nerd blackface. A phrase that at the time I thought ‘yeah, that’s a smart way to describe it’ and now I think ‘oh no, that’s a real sign of how brain-rotted I was to see geeks as an oppressed underclass.’
I think this helped to create a narrative about Community; that it was the ‘real’ funny sitcom about nerdy things made by nerdy people who were good, not like that other one, that was bad. And make no mistake: Big Bang Theory is extraordinarily tedious basic-ass sitcom made with a laugh track to prime delivery and a condescending view of nerds’ abilities to, like, respect women’s boundaries. By comparison and also just, on it own, Community is a really funny show.
In fact, so much so I’m just going to spend a few paragraphs here talking about things in it that I think are funny as hell.
The deaf girl and Abed rivalry. Troy embracing dance, but not the other thing, with the theatre. Jack Black showing up and making fun of retroactive continuity. Troy being a savant at Air Conditioning. The flag being a butthole. The pillow fort/blanket fort contention. Abed’s rap. The episode with the six rolls of the dice. Physical comedy on many levels. Dean Pelt’s many ridiculous outfits and the time when he burst out rapping even if sounded like he wanted to drop a hard n.
Hell, even just single lines are amazing and bring to mind an entire comic situation. Would that this were a Time Desk. You can excuse racism? Oh he’s too attractive, even the shadow. Football is in your blood. I’m a living god. I hope this doesn’t awaken anything in me. The professor was SO old. How about I pound you like a boy? My father held grudges and I’ll always hate him for that. This isn’t budget daycare.
Now I mean this is a series that I may have just praised but you’ll also notice that for example, Ben Chang doesn’t show up in any of those anecdotes, and Laverne barely does. It’s because Laverne’s a fucking homophobe and everyone around her is just okay with that because everyone else in that room is a homophobe, as you might note by the way they’re totally okay with one of their friends being a blatant homophobe. It’s a quirky belief, just like her antisemitism. Oh wait I’m supposed to mention something that’s acceptable. Her fondness for parental abuse?
I like this series. I like Community. There are a bunch of episodes that are funny and it has some great sequences of dialogue and some episodes A plot or B plot is really great and forms an enjoyable, thoughtful whole. Lots of plots resolve out cleverly, the reference pool is very relatable to me, and when the show dips into nerdy topics, I get the strong impression that I, as a white guy who is now approaching forty, am the kind of nerd they want to be talking to. It’s really good at being a funny show with a cynical edge.
But there’s always something that comes up, eventually, and ruins it.
If you want the short reason, before the fold, here’s the simple bit: Britta. But for more, we need to lay down a content warning for Child Sexual Assault.
Britta is awful. As a character, she is obnoxious and selfrighteous and selfish and fantastically stupid, like, can’t-manage-a-simple-problem stupid. After a first impression of the character based around her being the person in the group smart enough to see through Jeff’s bullshit, she quickly degenerates into a complete idiot around the point the narrative decided she couldn’t really work with Jeff. At that point, she was just the non-stop awful punching bag, constantly being brought up in the context of being awful at things and awful to things and just a non-stop miserable presence where the whole point of the joke was how much Britta sucks.
And uh… Britta doesn’t deserve that?
If it was just that this show had this one character who was flat and bad it wouldn’t quite be the same problem. Like, I also find Laverne exhausting and tedious, but that’s as much because she seems to exist to talk about how religious people and bad families are things you should obviously cut out of your life, but wait, no, she’s fine. It’s not like there’s fantastic depth to Pearce either, or the one-season wonder characters.
The thing with Britta is that Britta is flat and the story delights in visiting cruelty upon her. To the extent that there’s an entire ‘b plot’ backstory for Britta that feels overwhelmingly gross when you notice it. You don’t get to pretend it’s not there, either: this is a series that lays a Beetlejuice joke across three seasons, if there’s a low-key subplot throughout the series that gives you hints about ‘why Britta is the way she is,’ you don’t get to pretend that wasn’t something done with intention in a series this thoroughly plotted.
like, the ‘joke’ here that if you pick through the series is that Britta was sexually assaulted as a child by a party clown wearing a dinosaur costume. You’re meant to be rewarded for your attention to this, with the new information not like, Robbie from Victorious is Fran Fine’s son, but instead, no, that Britta was assaulted as child and all of her ensuing behaviour is traumagenic.
Just uh, yep.
And that’s kinda an incredibly shitty thing to just, you know, visit upon a character in a ha ha funny comedy that rewards you for paying attention to details. It’s not like a subtle joke you’ll learn about when you put all the pieces together, it’s just literally one of the worst things that can happen to a character in this kind of media. Then you add the garnish that the creator has suggested that Britta is in fact, the best, most sophisticated character in the series, because she’s a post-post-feminist work of art underscores that this is a man who is very used to getting people to believe whatever stupid bullshit he has to say.
And I get it, he’s very funny and he’s very good at being mean and also, Community was funny in a way a lot of other TV wasn’t being. Plus there were all these actors who we have now seen since then who are dynamic and funny and clever and witty and turns out that they were a large part of why this series worked. But it’s still a series where one of the long-form low-key bits of lore is that Beetlejuice exists and also that one of the main characters is a victim of child sexual assault and receives no sympathy nor respect for that fact. That she’s based on an old girlfriend of Harmon’s, and that this is the series’ explanation for her is kinda only funny if you really fucking hate Britta.
What does it say about this series being so beloved, so culturally important, that even the ways it’s bad are considered to be part of its charms? The idea of the ‘gas leak year’ or the jokes at its own changes in quality, or the whole podcast about how Chevy Chase being a pain in the ass to work with was all in aid of taking the problems with this series, and instead focusing on the best elements of it.
Community is a series that gets to enjoy the best benefit of the doubt. It gets to be about its best moments, and its best characters. It gets to focus on Troy and Abed and Annie and clever messaging about how much it hates sitcoms. It doesn’t elevate the sitcom – the sitcom is a media genre that is as much defined by the constraints it has being cheap as it is as is it is about high concept. Community was a terrible sitcom – as you might expect given all the cost in its production and the way it got cancelled repeatedly for its weakness.
It is an immensely cynical show, a show that relies on hating educators, hating sitcoms, hating Jeff and hating people who don’t like things in the right way, hating idealism, hating the nerds who don’t nerd right, quietly hating the Dean who interrupts and wants attention and has a crush on Jeff because he’s weird so it’s okay to laugh at him and… ultimately, most importantly, absolutely, hating the fuck out of Britta.