Whenever people ask me for the definition of a great TV show, the first thing I always list is “the continual possibility of surprise.” Community has that quality in spades. There are no rules except that the characters have certain personalities and specific relationships to one another. Yet somehow that’s enough to ground the show’s flights of fancy and make it seem like more than a collection of bits.
I feel a tingle whenever I cue up a new episode. It reminds me of what I used to feel years ago when I sat down to watch new episodes of The Sopranos, Seinfeld, golden-era Simpsons, and (reaching way back here and dating myself) Moonlighting. Those shows all had just one thing in common: They took maximum advantage of TV’s formal flexibility. You tuned in expecting the unexpected — a twenty-minute dream sequence, a film noir or Shakespeare parody, an anthology broken up into 32 self-contained segments, a whole episode set in a Chinese restaurant or a parking garage.
Community’s virtual-reality room or “Dreamatorium,” which was at the center of last night’s episode, might be the best of the show’s playful metaphors for what it (and all fiction) does to an audience. It foregrounds its influences so pointedly that there might as well be footnotes onscreen, then it expects you to surrender to the story anyway and let the mechanics become just one part of the experience. It’s TV pointedly referencing TV — specifically the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation in one sequence, and the ER/Grey’s Anatomy style of prime-time hospital soap in another. But it’s also a marvelous characterization device that gives us direct access not only to the main players’ personalities and fantasies, but their perceptions of themselves and others.
Last night’s episode, “Virtual Systems Analysis,” pushed that particular gimmick far indeed. As in other peeks into the mind of Abed (notably “Critical Film Studies” and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”), the episode’s flourishes were of a piece, with other striking images and situations — notably Dean Pelton’s curtain-raising and hair-raising entrance as a half-man, half-woman that expressed “the dual-a-dean of man.” (Talk about trying to be two things at once!)
David Mamet is fond of saying that there is really no such thing as a “character,” only words on a page brought to life by a playwright or filmmaker and an actor and (hopefully) embraced by the audience. I thought of this when Abed showed Annie the “high technology” that supposedly produced the magic of the Dreamatorium. It seemed to be comprised mostly of discarded containers for paper products: a Kleenex box, a cardboard tube from a paper towel roll, and so forth. When Annie rearranged a couple of the pieces to alter the Dreamtorium, pierce Abed’s façade of cold and controlling detachment, and get him to feel as well as imagine (“We lower-functioning brains call this ‘empathy’”), the episode cut to the heart of what makes Community so special: its ability to analyze what it’s doing without taking you out of the moment. The charmingly low-tech Dreamatorium effects, like something out of an eighties science-fiction show, laid out Abed’s imaginings in an almost mathematical way. But we were always conscious that we were seeing projections of a singular consciousness, pop-culture fantasies made tangible.
And as in “Critical Film Studies” — still the show’s aesthetic peak, though this episode came close — you got to see the show’s actors show off their chops in service of a story. When we were watching Abed “play” Jeff Winger, we were not seeing Jeff, but Abed’s conception of Jeff, which was plenty intriguing. But there was something equally thrilling happening at the level of pure performance: We were seeing Joel McHale play Jeff Winger as imagined by Abed. McHale was channeling aspects of Danny Pudi’s screen presence (the intense stare, the birdlike head movements and jabbing hand gestures, the slightly clipped delivery) even as he was playing “himself.”
I’ve read elsewhere that Pudi should get an Emmy for this episode, and I’d be delighted if he got one. He deserved one for “Critical Film Studies,” in which he played Abed playing Andre Gregory in My Dinner With Andre while dissecting his self-image in a candid, unexpectedly serious conversation with Jeff. But it would be ironic indeed if this were the episode that finally won Pudi some kind of industry recognition for his brilliance, because much of our insight into Abed came via McHale’s performance as Abed/Jeff, and from Alison Brie’s equally complex but more emotionally direct performance as Annie, who struggled to separate her feelings about Abed from her feelings for Jeff.
I can’t think of many shows in the history of American network TV that have managed Community’s trick of being pretty much like every sitcom you’ve ever seen and like nothing you’ve seen anywhere, in any medium. It’s at once a goofy, shenanigans-driven comedy, a self-aware commentary on pop culture, and an examination of ethical and philosophical concepts, and it demands to be viewed on all three levels simultaneously; that’s a lot to ask of people who are mainly looking to unwind on Thursday night.
As such, Community always struck me as a series that might have had a more comfortable run on British TV (it owes a lot to Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Spaced, which had its own paintball episode) or on a niche-y cable channel. That it has survived (and recently thrived) is a small miracle. Series creator Dan Harmon and his writers and performers are at once inside and outside of their material, viewing every line and situation analytically, at times very self-consciously, while making sure that you believe in the characters as characters. It’s like one of those Penn & Teller–style magic tricks wherein the illusionist explains the trick as it’s being performed, yet somehow gets you to suspend disbelief and be thrilled anyway. In every scene of every episode, Community tries to do startling, sometimes impossible things. When it fails (as it often does) I forgive it, because the degree of difficulty is so great that it makes other current shows, even great ones, seem like the work of underachievers.