Contemplations of Reality with 'Community'
Created by Dan Harmon, Community is a TV show about an assortment of outcasts reminiscent of The Breakfast Club whose study group morphs into a topsy-turvy family over the course of 110 episodes. It all starts when Mike Ross wannabe Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) gets disbarred for never having gone to college. He’s then forced to join the Greendale Community College which boasts students like Leonard (who has been a student at Greendale for some 50-odd years), Magnitude (who, in Groot-like fashion, can only ever say “Pop, Pop!”), Star-Burns (with actual sideburns shaped like stars), and pseudo-activist Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), who Jeff is immediately taken with.
In his attempt to woo Britta, Jeff sets up a fake study group to which these The Breakfast Club oddballs who need help with college flock: Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) who is as checked out of ‘reality’ as people who think Tupac is still alive, post-modern jock/nerd Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), rebellious cheerleader turned goody-two-shoes Annie Edison (Alison Brie), the heir of moist towelette manufacturer Hawthorne Wipes Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), God-fearing Christian Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley Bennett) — all at the sinking helm of supreme overlord Dean Pelton (Jim Rash), who competes with the unhinged Spanish teacher Chang (Ken Jeong) in a never-ending round of bad puns on their names.
What sets Community apart from its contemporaries like Parks and Recreation is exactly this: its meta-ness, the way it works the writing of the show into the show, and the self-referential callbacks to pop culture’s repository of brilliant movies and shows. This is most noticeable through the character of Abed who thinks that we are all fated to live out character arcs in real life. In an episode where the group organizes a Pulp Fiction-themed birthday party for Abed, he is hellbent on reenacting the 1981 comedy-drama My Dinner with Andre with Jeff. He wants to live out the storyline of the movie on his birthday. It is this trope of not being able to differentiate between reality and fantasy—be it a make-believe camera that records Troy and Abed in the Morning (a fictional show that Troy and Abed host at the end of most episodes), a Black Mirror-esque episode that explores alternate timelines and what the characters’ hamartia might be in these alternate timelines, a stop-motion Christmas episode when Abed cannot see his friends as anything but stop-motion characters, or a Dungeons & Dragons fiesta, or a pillow/blanket fort show-off–that makes up the basic premise for Abed’s character.
It is quintessential to note the voyeurism of entering another plane of reality where you are allowed to step back from your person and observe your character with an inkling of a trajectory that such characters are supposed to follow. This vantage point can put things in perspective and provides a space for self-reflection sans personal bias. You can critique yourself because you are being watched by you. Call me the lit major who cried Foucault, but that sounds a lot like panopticism to me. Underlying the voyeurism is the desire to have an identity–to fit into a box, to have an easily-assigned role in a social space such as a community college. (Cue Bjork’s “Human Behaviour,” as Abed might say.) Is it the uncertainty of reality that drives Abed away from it? Can we really call Abed a sociopath for preparing a framework for social behaviour by internalizing character arcs such that he can gauge precisely what one might say in the unpredictable yet universal and mappable set of social interactions? He pieces together for himself a blueprint to follow in reality from what he has seen, both in real life and on screen. Insofar as reality is a sociological thought experiment, who are we to step on Abed’s creative toes and call him checked out (of it)?
One might ask then: why is Abed the only one preoccupied with the question of what is real? Why don’t the other characters share his affliction? The show attempts to portray the inner reality of Abed, the fantastical realm only he seems to occupy. However, it is important for the other characters to try and wrest him out of his fantasies because the show is trying to create a new genre altogether: through the confluence of the individualistic attempt to live out a story in a story and the collective imperative of being grounded in reality. The point of complete and total departure from external reality is often alluded to but deferred interminably. In this attempt to mingle fantasy with reality, to the extent that Abed can barely tell them apart, Community is able to reproduce on camera what we do in real life every day: make sense of the external using the internal.
Everything the viewer thinks is realistic (including that which is off-screen) is so because they think that it is. Realism is inextricably tied to the unending search for meaning and, implicitly, the belief in its existence. The viewer imbues each scene with a meaning that allows them to make sense of what’s happening by employing their attention, memory, and imagination, so as to correlate it to reality. The intention of perspective in art is to depict reality, the ‘truth’. However, if the perspective is from the human eye, then how real is the realism at play? Is it scientific realism or human realism; that is, is it real because it has been commonly agreed upon to be real (scientific realism), or is it real to every viewer uniquely (human realism)? While interpretations do not play a role in the former, they do in the latter. Our obsession with reality is shifting because our definition of reality is shifting. Perhaps the camera seeks to capture our imagination as well, a part of our everyday reality. And perhaps that is the culmination of our obsession with realism: banal platitudes. Community seeks to explore reality through a portrayal of the realness of our fantastical imagination. If a work of art is not judged on the basis of what it adds to reality, or how it distorts reality, but rather on the basis of how it reveals reality, one is led to question: whose reality?