Community to Fans: Get a "Meta" Life

NBC’s Community remains an enigma to me.  I know I should like it better than I do.  I keep watching it thinking I will end up really, really liking it, but that never seems to happen.  And the more I read about why other people passionately love the series, the more I realize this enthusiasm centers on the very thing that often makes the show off-putting to me.  Community is very clever and self-aware, especially about television.  And it knows it, too.   

As someone produced within and still orbiting the institution of film studies, I feel that I and my kind are somewhat to blame for this.  Starting in the mid-1970s or so, the idea that movies sometimes reference other movies became, for some reason, a vitally important issue.  Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) seemed incredibly important for no other reason than it “de-mystified” how movies were made.  Watching one of the Marxist revolutionaries in Godard’s Weekend (1968) radio to another fighter as “Johnny Guitar,” film scholars of the era tingled with a sense of excitement that both the cinema and having knowledge about the cinema were at the vanguard of an aesthetic/cultural revolution.  To be literate in film was to be part of a popular elite, to “get” what other multiplex suckers did not.  This mania was so intense in the era that it even allowed for the critical recuperation of Star Wars, not as an embarrassingly slavish adaptation of Joseph Campbell’s ahistorical humanism, but as a sly “wink” to The Searchers and the regressive pleasures of the matinee serial.  Film brats, they were eventually called, a school of filmmaking echoed in parts of the academy by film brat studies—more a taste formation, really, than a coherent intellectual project (although I remain open to the possibility that any and all intellectual projects are products of variously exclusive taste formations—Zizek has just joined forces with Lady Gaga, after all). 

Later, this basic mechanism of modern literary production found a new iteration in the lexicon of “postmodernism.”  Over time, postmodern theory’s more complex meditations on the relationship of subjectivity, capitalism, and cultural production collapsed into a critique and then, tellingly, a celebration of “pastiche” and rampant “intertextuality.”  Once an esoteric marker of high modernism, intertextuality quickly became the engine of “smart” television and popular culture, marking products as formally sophisticated and critically appreciated precisely because they understood the otherwise crappy components from which they were constructed.  Now, of course, seemingly all of television is ultimately a quotation of or a response to other forms of television—especially television comedies, and now most especially Community.

I sense that some fans believe Community’s pop-cult obsessions are significant because they are done with more “wit” and “complexity” than, say, Family Guy’s open taunting of Renee Zellweger or its “gratuitous” shout-outs to long lost dreck like ThunderCats.   The difference, again, is one of taste, and I suppose Community is considered the more sophisticated show because its intertextual citations are staged in such a way that they flatter viewers into thinking they have done actual critical work by deciphering them.  Repeatedly invoking the “Kool-Aid” pitcher as a running gag, a la Family Guy, is a bit “on the nose,” a reference made for the sake of making a reference and one that is impossible to mistake (and a habit/technique that seems to have particularly angered Southpark’s arbiters of “proper” satire, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who in their own bit of comedy-war intertextuality, attributed the writing of Family Guy to listless manatees randomly assembling Proppian gag balls in a swimming pool).  Community’s recent “Fat Neil” episode, on the other hand, is a 22-minute excursion through the psychopathology of Dungeons and Dragons/LOTR that also ends up telling us something “meaningful” about one of the central characters.   It is thus “complex,” artful, and, yes, clever-- in short, all of the things that so often conspire to make television insufferable.  Worse yet, it ultimately subordinates all this clever textual play to the bane of almost all popular narrative since the late nineteenth-century: relatable, “realistic” characters who learn lessons and “grow” over the course of the series. 

For me, Community works best when it is centered unreflexively on the very architecture its title invokes—a community of television characters living, for the most part obliviously, in the limbo world of a sitcom.  The more Community becomes “Community,” on the other hand, a show that gazes deep into its own navel about the conventions of television and other popular forms, the more it begins to make my skin crawl.  Even more so when I imagine the legions of “pop connoisseurs” who watch the show and think they are especially clever in that they and they alone have somehow miraculously come to understand how television “really works.”   As with irony in general, I think Community appeals primarily to those who fantasize there are other people out there who do not “get” the references, or who might think the show is “too weird” and “quirky” because they simply don’t understand how it’s playing with the conventions of the form (a stock character I like to call the “hypothetical idiot”--and yes, I am aware that my own image of Community's audience replicates this strategy once again).  It’s the same type of contempt film snobs (myself included) used to have for people who thought Sirk films were racist or sexist—the poor, poor ignorant fools.

And yet despite all the irritation, I don’t give up on Community.  The writing is consistently excellent, the performances are really good, and it certainly beats watching The Big Bang Theory over on CBS. Joel McHale remains the most fair, talented, and humane practitioner of "snark," a skill cultivated over the years at The Soup (although I’m surprised more fans of Community are not put-off by the rather patronizing premise of the series: the cool, handsome adult in charge of paternalistically healing all his less fortunate and damaged children.  It’s like The Andy Griffith Show for hipsters).

And then came last week’s episode—appearing under the media-professor-catnip title, “Critical Films Studies.”  Depending on one’s perspective, this episode either consolidated the program’s worst habits or, perhaps more provocatively, suggested the writers are themselves getting tired of the fan-flattering hall-of-mirrors they themselves have created.

The episode opens with narrative focalizer Jeff Winger (McHale) meeting resident Aspergian, Abed (Danny Pudi), for dinner at a swanky restaurant.  Jeff’s voiceover tells us he is there to escort Abed to a Pulp Fiction themed surprise birthday party with the gang.  True to the “difference within repetition” imperative of series television, Abed is at the beginning of this particular episode uncharacteristically animated—“smooth” and “adult” in a way that completely contradicts his typical character function on the show as uber-geek pop chorus.   This leads to dinner conversation and a major confession on Abed’s part, a bit of TV writing/performance that, as it was unfolding, seemed both revelatory and even a bit dangerous.

Abed begins his story by reminding Jeff of his immense love of ABC’s Cougar Town.  That’s funny in and of itself, of course, but it’s only the beginning of a longer Cougar Town story, one that gradually bears down on the very constituency so vocal in promoting the excellence of Community.   Abed continues, “I even started a Cougar Town fan club on Facebook, not to accomplish anything mind you, but simply to express my love for the show.”  Wait, I thought, could Community at last be calling out its own core audience of pop literati, the ones who actually believe that using social media like Facebook, twitter, blogs, etc. somehow make them a part of show business?  The people who are convinced that producers, writers, and the newest Gods of the entertainment universe, show-runners, actually pay close attention to fan sites, message boards, and hashtags so as to collaborate with fans in the creative process?  Is Community really going to bite the admittedly tiny hand that feeds them, those who feel they have “accomplished” something by using Facebook to create new marketing vectors for a corporate franchise?  Needless to say, having thought much about these issues in the past, I was on the edge of my seat.

Abed continues.  The people at Cougar Town indeed fulfilled his greatest fantasy—they notice him!  He gets a call thanking him for his support of the show and an invitation to visit the set in Los Angeles.   “I sold a few of my action figures and bought a round trip ticket to Los Angeles,” he tells Jeff (apparently the producers of Cougar Town appreciate Abed’s support, but not enough to spring for air fare).  Holy shit, I thought, they are going there.   We’ve moved into fan fantasy II:  my childhood acquisition of ancillary merchandise will somehow prove a wise investment in adulthood, when I will convert the knowledge/appreciation these figurines represent as fan capital into something more worthwhile.  As is said in Corinthians 13:11 -- “When I was a fan, I talked like a fan, I thought like a fan, I reasoned like a fan. When I became a man, I put fannish ways behind me and fantasized instead that I was a part of the media industry itself.
Abed arrives in L.A. and finds that the people of Cougar Town “were wonderful, not just the actors, but the crew, everyone.”  Fan fantasy III:  In a world that seemingly has no place for anyone anymore, and where increasing portions of our psychic life are devoted to consuming entertainment media as the west’s last viable arena of productive activity, the only realistic fantasy to have is that of finding a “home” in the glamorous world of media production itself. (Abed goes on to describe Cougar Town as a “village” wherein each person has his or her own individual function but where all are dedicated to a common vision—Cougar Town.  It echoes Marx’s utopian sentiment: “from each according to his ability to each according to his need…in the service of generating products for television.”     

But the fantasy goes even further.  The director asks Abed to do a “walk-on” during a Cougar Town scene, an honor that pushes Abed to the point of existential crisis—“How could I be a person who watches Cougar Town and be in Cougar Town?”  To resolve this dilemma, Abed imagines himself as someone who is from the actual town of Cougar Town, a born and bred citizen that Abed decides to call “Chad.”  In the brief act of walking across the set, Abed elaborates an entire history of “fake” real experiences for his fake “real” Chad.  Fantasy IV:  I would really, really like to live in the world of television series “X,” a “community” (if you will) that seems so much more welcoming and exciting than the drudgery of everyday life.

And then the kicker.  There is only one “take” of the scene (“Courtney nailed it,” Abed notes with the embarrassing false intimacy that characterizes so much contemporary fan discourse).  With all of Abed’s fan fantasies at last fulfilled, he nevertheless feels hollow inside:  “Chad had lived, Jeff, Chad had lived more than Abed,” he laments.  Confronted with the horrifying realization that he has annexed his life to fantasy worlds produced by others, and weirder yet, to the fantasy lives of those who produce these fantasy worlds, Abed has only one option: 

“I pooped my pants,” he tells Jeff. 

Unbelievable.  Did they really just call out their fans as delusional stalkers so enthralled by the hocus-pocus of the entertainment industry that they would literally shit their pants if put in actual proximity of the Warner Brothers lot?   

Of course, Community wants to stay on the air, and so Abed’s sobering epiphany was quickly subsumed by yet more of the very same intertextual shenanigans that reward the “skill set” Abed’s Cougar Town story had just critiqued.   The anticipated “Pulp Fiction” episode instead becomes a “My Dinner with Andre” episode.  Those who have seen both movies get to celebrate their critical acumen, as well as thrill to the basic plot mechanics of a temporary “misdirect.”   Yay for us. 

Still, I was curious as to how Abed’s speech might be received by the Community community.  Would they take offense at such a direct assault on their dreams, habits, and continence?  Incredibly, from my admittedly limited survey of various TV recap sites, the major questions occupying the show’s fans in the wake of this episode are as follows:

Was Abed’s speech meant to be a dig on how much Cougar Town sucks?
Do you think the people who make Community really hate Cougar Town?
Do you think the people at Cougar Town knew this was coming?
Will Cougar Town respond and mention Community on a future episode?

Various aspiring “insiders” were quick to supply the important answers, assuring other posters that the producers and writers for both shows are all “twitter buddies” and have immense respect for each other (and as I “follow” all of them myself, continues this insider logic, I too am a part of this Cougar Community fraternity).   Moreover, the producer of Cougar Town definitely knew this was coming and thinks it’s great, and in fact they are going to respond in kind in a later episode of their own show! No one, it seems, could imagine in a million years that the writers might have been oh-so-discreetly ridiculing the very audience base that makes their show possible; instead, Abed’s rather undisplaced saga of the pooped pants has apparently only led to more and more fantasizing about the relationships of those involved in making the show itself; in other words, a doubling down on the faux “first-name” familiarity and public performance of privileged backstage information that constitutes contemporary critical insight.

It's enough to make you ask: what is the point of insulting someone if they don’t even know they're being insulted?


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