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Community’s Chevy Chase Problem

I spent this Friday morning, as usual, marinating in recaps of Community. Today’s obsession, universally, was the trouble with Chevy Chase’s Pierce. If you’re interested, you should read all the reactions — from Vulture recapper Andy Greenwald to Alan Sepinwall, Tara Ariano, Jamie Poniewozik, and Jace Lacob, who kind of put the truth moose on the table, saying what everyone was thinking, or at least, what I was thinking: that the problem with Pierce is not so easily distinguished from the problem with Chevy Chase.

When Community started, Chase was its one name-brand cast member. But that didn't mean he came without baggage. Because really, even way, way back in the hip seventies, when he became Saturday Night Live’s breakout talent, Chase was famous for being kind of a dick. He’d alienated his SNL buddies; decades later, magazine profiles inevitably tended to paint Chase as an intimacy-impaired sadist, an isolated figure brooding on tiny slights. And in Community’s early episodes, it was hard not to see parallels: Pierce Hawthorne was rich but lonely and full of rage, his nastiness tolerated mostly because he was so damn old. He was Jeff Winger's worst outcome, the ultimate expression of what happens when a young man's wit metastasizes into mean.

If Chevy Chase’s name wasn’t in the title, his role still fit solidly in the Roseanne tradition, the Seinfeld tradition, the Everybody Loves Raymond and Cosby and Chris and John Laroquette and Drew Carey and Tina Fey tradition. (Not to mention the parade of self-mocking/self-glorifying — glorimocking? — celebrity cameos on shows like Entourage.) When we adore a comic, it's fun to see their persona planted in any new character, to enjoy Fey’s tart nerdliness inside Liz Lemon, or Carey’s underdog sanity, or Raymond’s itchy melancholia, or Roseanne’s salty pragmatism.

But Pierce’s Chevy Chase–ishness is a trickier matter. I have no idea what the man is actually like in person—I can only pray that Marc Maron will have him on his WTF podcast—but his public persona is more like Larry David's: an agitated nerve that stayed jangled. The character he plays on Community can’t love or be loved. He’s a pure-cut misanthrope, like Greenberg, or House, or the Larry David character in Woody Allen's Whatever Works (there are a lot of fellows like this out there these days). He’s also the sitcom analogue to the Tony Soprano era of cable TV antiheroes — those sour men who challenge viewers to keep watching. Or really, to turn back the pop-culture clock a bit, he’s the Puck of the cast’s Real World: San Francisco, the sort of toxic individual that any shrink would advise you to cut out of your life. In Community’s second season alone, Pierce has ruined his friends’ secret spiritual trampoline, taken advantage of Annie’s poverty to seize center stage at her anti-drug show, and in the most extreme example, attempted to bully a suicidal nerd into suicide. He also became a pill addict, had both legs broken, and last night—after trying to mind-game every member of the study group—was almost beaten to death by the show’s central character, Jeff. You can’t say the Community writers have gone soft on Pierce.

And I suppose that in the end I have to admire this. If the writers are locked in a creative struggle with the character or (as Lacob suggests) the actor — and Abed’s comment last night that he is “bored” by Pierce seemed awfully meta, as well as the group’s confessions of pity during the D&D episode — they’ve done so, as Community often does, by testing the limits of ordinary sitcom conventions. They’ve given Pierce a meaningful loss, when his mother died. They’ve given him an excuse, his addiction. They’ve made stabs at empathy, writing monologues with a Pierce-eye view, showing that he feels snubbed, pushed aside, and mocked. But they refuse to do the obvious thing, which is make him truly repentant, or changed, or capable of romantic love. Instead, they’ve beaten the crap out of him, literally, a form of catharsis but also an oddly refreshing refusal.

At this point in the series it’s hard to deny that it makes little sense that the rest of the study group would continue to hang with Pierce. Unlike Pedro and Rachel and Mo, these are not seven strangers picked to live in a house to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. And yet I'm perfectly happy to live with that contrivance, because I'm curious, week after week, about whether they can solve this narrative puzzle—land the triple-lutz of Pierce Hawthorne. At times, I even wonder if the series is headed toward a place where sitcoms rarely go. Last night's deathbed vigil was a joke, but it did seem to cast a strange shadow of possibility. Death is not the usual subject for a comedy, especially one on network TV. But with Chuckles the Clown's memorial as its long-ago echo, Pierce's funeral, if it ever came to pass, would be just what showrunner Dan Harmon seems to want: the ultimate sitcom challenge.