I am a huge fan of the — former — NBC cult hit show, "Community." I think it not only represents what makes a good comedy show — smooth writing, sharp humor, multi-dimensional characters and a heart so gold it would have caused a second Civil War back in 1849. I mean, technically from their pre-actual-Civil-War perspective back then, it would have been the first Civil War, but we're looking at this issue from a retrospective stance, so even more technically, it would indeed be a second Civil War.
Anachronistic semantics aside, "Community" is a great show. For those who may not be so familiar with it, "Community" follows a group of six life-rejects — as well as an ever-evolving slew of highly-entertaining side characters — and the travails they embark on while studying at a small Colorado community college known as Greendale, where, slowly but surely, events become more and more surrealistic — and self-referential — as time goes on.
It's a fantastic work of television, and that becomes even more clear after repeat viewings.
Which is why I'm writing this article now.
As I've been rewatching — or rebinging, whatever word choice you want to throw around — the show over the past couple days, I noticed an interesting trend. The main character, Jeff Winger — played by the cleverly caustic Joel McHale — is a constant fountain of cynicism. At first, that is. However, over the show's lifespan, and even just within the first season, he matures out of his cynical shell and begins adopting more sympathetic and genuine attitudes towards life at what he initially calls a "school shaped toilet."
This is fascinating to me, not only from a character development standpoint, but also from a tonal standpoint in regards to the show, because it's in direct opposition to the current theme of our "artistic age," or whatever you want to call it.
Let me explain.
Right now, we're all living in what's called a "Postmodern Society." It's a convoluted term that a bunch of people made up because people have been making up these terms for centuries and these contemporary people just wanted to fit in.
Basically, Postmodernism is a rejection of the "grand ideals" of the past. There is no reverence for the eternal struggle of good and evil, light and dark, Wheat Thins or Triscuits. It's an ideology centered around rational thinking, hardline questioning and speculation and, most importantly, cynicism.
Take the movie "Deadpool," for instance. Many art snobs would consider this a purely Postmodern work. It's devoid of any attachment to the "grand ideals" most superhero movies possess a strict adherence towards. Deadpool himself is cynical of superheroes despite actually being a "superhero" himself. He cracks jokes, points out tropes, and engages in meta-humor that shows he's self-aware of his surroundings and the context within which he dwells.
Another work of Postmodernism, one that's considered a hallmark of the genre, if you can call it that, was actually thought up hundreds of years ago by a little writer who went by the name "Miguel De Cervantes."
That may not ring any bells, and I realize that. His book, or at least the name of it, may, though — "Don Quixote."
This was the "Deadpool" of Cervantes' time. The Character of Don Quixote was a satire of the legendary knights' tales that were so prolific during the age. Quixote was a simple farmer convinced that he had to save a princess, ride a noble steed and vanquish great evil in order to fulfill his destiny. This would be all fine and dandy if the princess actually liked him, the noble steed wasn't an overworked and underfed donkey and the "great evil" was something more fearsome than an immobile windmill.
Point being, Postmodernism is the kid in the back of the class who cracks jokes and takes jabs about everything around him, while simultaneously "giving no fucks."
"Community" was this way for a while, and it maintained that sort of self-aware, self-critiquing air about itself through its six-season — waiting on that movie — run.
But for as much as the show hurls nasty comments and scathing indictments about various pop culture icons or literary, cinematic, or television tropes, it also reflects on its own cynicism and seeks to correct it at times.
Jeff Winger, the conduit for most of this cynicism, often must learn lessons — or must help others do so — after royally botching something up thanks to his cynical, sarcastic, detached nature. And the source of the show's meta-commentary and meta-humor, Abed Nadir — played by the charismatically methodical Danny Pudi — must also learn similar lessons as well.
These characters, while operating within contexts of cynicism and harsh inquisition of their surroundings, must often times come to terms with their present reality and learn to simply "just go with it." They gradually shed the protective layer of disaffected critique that acts as their insular exoskeleton, and they open up. They embrace tropes, they go along with crazy schemes and tales of good versus evil, light versus dark. They care about each other. They show compassion. They are sincere.
And those are all qualities that Postmodernism — and that jackass kid in the back of class — lack. Quite heavily, in fact. The whole idea of the Postmodern movement is to critique from afar. This creates a disconnect between the reader, viewer, listener and in general, the audience, and the one who is doing the critiquing.
Because there's no heart. Just skeptical, cynical analysis. It may be funny, it may be enjoyable to watch for awhile, but when I walked out of "Deadpool," I couldn't help but feel a little hollow. Sure, it's not like the characters were that great, or the story was superbly-compelling, and the humor was scattershot, so those could all be reasons for feeling empty. But that missing part of me felt like it ran deeper than just the superficial and generic criticisms one can have regarding a film such as "Deadpool."
Even with one of my favorite shows, "South Park," I feel this way. Don't get me wrong, I personally believe that "South Park" is one of the greatest pieces of American writing and satire since Mark Twain roamed the Earth in an eternal search for a bottomless whiskey bottle.
But the characters on the show aren't "characters." They don't feel like real, tangible people. They're simply loose collections of gags and behavioral tendencies based around stereotypes and anchored by names and appearances. And "South Park" shows occasional bouts of sincerity and endless amounts of deep-cutting insight... But it doesn't feel as whole to me as "The Office," "Archer," "The Simpsons," "Parks and Recreation"... Or "Community."
And I honestly think "Community" is what we need more of. Not more of the show necessarily, one should let sleeping dogs lie, but more shows in the same vein. More shows willing to both break traditional conventions by pointing out their flaws, and then acknowledging the flaws in simply just critiquing the flaws of traditional conventions, and overall creating a wonderful hybrid of satire, heart, cynicism and authenticity that is unlike anything I, personally, have ever seen.
Not everyone is like me. Not everyone shares the same tastes, thoughts, opinions, beliefs and so on. I understand that. Me, I like a broad range of humor styles. Gross-out, dark, existential, meta, slapstick, satire, you name it and I'll watch it.
But there's one thing that elevates a comedy above all others in my mind, and that's heart. I like a show with heart. With care for its characters and respect for the world and subjects it's addressing. And in shows like that, sacrifices have to be made. They may never be as funny as other programs that ditch character development for laughs. And there's no problem with that. People can create whatever they want, whenever they want and simply because they want to.
The thing is, I'm a little tired of cynicism. And I see a lot of people my age who feel the same way, and a lot more who feel the exact opposite. The way I see it, I have my whole life ahead of me — granted that no conspiracy theories suddenly come true within the next several days and/or years. I have plenty of time to become jaded, to create works of art that are satirical and pull no punches.
Right now, what I want to see and what I want to make is something with humor and heart. Something character-driven. Something compassionate. Something satirical. A mixed bag of literary and thematic granola that's worth the risk of trying because, even though you're going to end up with a few almonds — I hate almonds, my apologies — there will be some M&M's in there to sweeten the taste.
And I have "Community" to thank for showing me there's a way to do just that.
So, I thank you, "Community." Here's to the greatest non-Postmodern, Postmodern work to ever exist.