‘Community,’ a bright light in ‘the darkest timeline’

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The year was 2010. NBC wasn’t the powerhouse television network it once was, but if you were looking for laughs on Thursday nights, the peacock station was the place to be. “The Office” was in its seventh season, “30 Rock” was on a roll and “Parks and Recreation” was finally finding its footing in season two. Three of the past 20 years’ most iconic comedies back to back to back, advertised as “Comedy Night Done Right.” And sandwiched in between “Threat Level Midnight,” a show of iconic performances from Tracy Morgan and Alec Baldwin, and the irreverent jokes of “Parks and Rec” was the underrated, barely watched but truly transformative “Community.”

Now streaming on Netflix, “Community” tells the story of a study group at Greendale Community College that works together to pass Spanish 101. But stating its premise doesn’t do the show justice. It was one of the first shows on a major network to break off the traditional sitcom format shackles, instead opting for parody, satire and unconventional storytelling. While many shows refuse to “jump the shark,” “Community” never embraced the idea of a shark in the first place.

Even in its first season, when most sitcoms are tepid and conservative, “Community” refused to play the game in any way but its own. Creator Dan Harmon gave himself and his writing staff free reign, resulting in episodes like “Contemporary American Poultry,” which parodies “Goodfellas” in an homage centered on the monopolizing of Greendale’s chicken tender supply.

Likewise, seasons two and three continue to push the boundaries of network TV, changing the show’s aim and focus from episode to episode. One moment “Community” satirizes documentaries and religious films, and in the next, the cast is depicted in a full-blown Claymation Christmas special. Bottle episodes and sitcom tropes get parodied in metacommentaries that simultaneously engage with the premise while criticizing it. 

When “Community” is at its best, its humor is unparalleled. The show is weird and meta — and almost always untethered to reality — but that’s exactly what makes it different from its contemporaries. By giving up the exaggerated “realism” that comedies like “The Office” and “Parks and Rec” hold onto, “Community” is able to find a niche that no other show has ever filled. It respects its genre while simultaneously rejecting the genre’s confines, the end result being consistent innovation that keeps the show fresh and exciting.

But even if you aren’t sold on the show’s imaginative, flight of fancy-esque approach, the cast alone should make “Community” a must-see. Chevy Chase kills it as the out-of-touch, under-woke Pierce Hawthorne. Donald Glover, before he blew up as Childish Gambino and became the multi-threat, A-list star we all know and love, got his big break on “Community.” The same goes for Alison Brie and Gillian Jacobs, who have both gone on to star in critically acclaimed Netflix shows. And yet these names only scratch the surface of a cast loaded with talent: from leading man Joel McHale’s sarcastic, dry wit to Jim Rash’s laugh-out-loud performance as the costume wearing, incompetent and overly sexual Dean Pelton.

The best part of “Community” though, what brought fans to fervently protest the show’s near-cancelation and now brings them to rewatch the show again and again, is its message about hope. Comedies have a tendency to fall on the side of pessimism. The humor in a lot of shows comes from a place of cynicism that primarily criticizes the human experience without ever bringing to light what makes people, and society, important.

“Community” often indulges itself in that same existential bitterness. In one episode, Frankie, an administrator at Greendale, goes as far as to say: “Hope is pouting in advance. Hope is faith’s richer, bitchier sister. Hope is the deformed, addict-bound, incest monster offspring of entitlement and fear.”

But in the end, as each episode draws to a close and a resolution is reached, the message of “Community” is the same. Hope and togetherness, while perhaps sometimes naive and foolish, aren’t just the foundations of a community, but the very fabric of our humanity. And when we go forward together, we succeed.

History has not been kind to “Community.” When it aired, it constantly battled cancellation, and the show has been moved around streaming platforms for years with no stable ground. And when you ask someone about their favorite sitcoms of the past 15 years, “Community” is almost never on their mind. But the show deserves to be considered among the comedy giants, if not for its unique approach to storytelling and narrative then at least for its message. With its move to Netflix, hopefully “Community” — which truly embodies its namesake — can find its place among the pantheon of legendary TV shows.

#SixSeasonsAndAMovie

Michael Brust is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @MikeB_DC.