Diversity and Unity in the TV Show Community – Pt. 1
Author: Lisann Anders University of Zürich
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What is a community? And what does it mean in the context of contemporary American popular culture? The TV show Community tackles these questions in a creative way. It looks at how communities are constructed but also idealizes them in a fictional way. The show is constantly aware of its fictionality and is thus self-reflexive in its representation of communities. It is aware of its own constructedness and of the way in which American life is represented. The aim of this article is to analyze what effects a (constructed) community can have on individuals by means of the group relationship in the show. It is to be shown that a community is a major part in shaping and changing one’s individual values and thus has an effect on a person’s character and identity traits by drawing on Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” and by incorporating director Joe Russo’s thoughts on the series. Eventually, it will be argued that the consequence of an individual’s change is a change of the dynamics of the community. Hence, by means of the effects of a person’s change by a community, the community itself is changed. That again means that such a portrayal on TV can serve as a role model of an ideal vision of a community and opens perspectives on possibilities of social change.
At this point, society and community have to be distinguished. The OED defines society as “a state or condition of being politically confederated or allied” (“society, n.” 2a). In contrast, a community is a “body of people” who share the same interests, ideals, or living area (“community, n.” 2b). The term ‘community’ is thus more diverse than the term ‘society’ since the former is simply a group that has something in common whereas the latter is culturally and politically connotated and is rather understood on the level of nationhood. Still, society and community have in common that its members share a sense of belonging, be it through choice, faith, residence or citizenship. In his article “One Nation, Slightly Divisible,” David Brooks claims that while America often seems divided, there is indeed one American community after all. While America’s division is, of course, debatable—it more often than not feels more divided than unified—he draws an analogy to a high school cafeteria, in which there are different groups of students, such as theater geeks, nerds, or athletes; yet, they all belong to the same school. Brooks concludes that “that’s the way America is. We are not a divided nation. We form cliques (call them communities or market segments, or whatever) and when they get too big, we form subcliques.” In this way, society can be seen as such a clique despite ongoing racism, which the US is still struggling with today. Thus, in this instance American society can be used synonymously with American community even though there are differences in the communities or subcliques within.
According to Benedict Anderson, the nation has to be “imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (2006, 7). It is no secret that there are still many major problems that have not been solved yet in terms of integration and racial issues and although the American nation remains diverse, American communities stand side by side when it comes to external threats towards their country—as could be seen after 9/11. In the moment of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and before George W. Bush’s declaration of the “War on Terror,” it seemed that Americans of any ethnicity, any faith, and any political affiliation demonstrated their loyalty and patriotism (Brooks 2001). Yet, the resulting “War on Terror” led to a division again. Nevertheless, the enemy was immediately declared by the Bush administration, trying to follow arch-enemy constellations of WWII and the Cold War era that were supposed to unite the nation on a political level. Of course, this black & white mentality does not always work in real life, but it surely serves intriguing plots in fiction. Therefore, a politically motivated American is often represented in popular culture. Movies such as Die Hard (1988) or Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) are only two examples that pick up on this sense of shared patriotism through a shared enemy. TV shows also like to incorporate this model of good vs evil or ‘America vs the enemy.’ This can be seen especially in crime shows such as NCIS, Hawaii Five-0 or Blue Bloods. These shows constantly focus on the threat of terrorism and juxtapose it with a need for American patriotism and nationhood. Of course, these shows simplify and almost romanticize the view on American society. However, they also try to highlight internal struggles of racism and homophobia to raise awareness to internal threats against the American national discourse of ideologies and values of brotherhood and friendship. Eventually, even though they are not directly associated with the processing and managing of these conflicts, comedy series complement the comment on political issues.
Although comedy shows in general and sitcoms in particular hardly ever mention real events nor do they present realistic fiction in terms of political problems, the sitcom Community (2009-2015), created by Dan Harmon, is an excellent example of popular culture reflecting on social and political issues. The TV show Community fictionalizes life in America in a self-reflexive way; it comments on American communities by promoting and challenging American values through the depiction of a study group at the fictional community college Greendale. In this context, it is necessary to address the question of how a community shapes and changes one’s individual values and thus affects a person’s character and identity traits and how this change in turn influences the dynamics of a community as a whole.
Joe Russo, the director of 47 episodes of the sitcom Community sees in the term “community” the relationship between the individual and the group or rather the individual within the group:
A community is a collective of individuals working together towards certain goals. The group puts effort into achieving these goals. A community defines you as a person. Moreover, communities are necessary because human beings are social creatures after all. (Russo 2016)
The etymology of the word also hints at its integrative character. The word community stems from Latin communis, meaning “common, public, […] shared by many” (“community,” Online Etymology Dictionary). The last definition, “shared by many” points at shared values as well as the concept of a group. However, the OED goes further and offers more definitions of the term, from “a religious society” to “a nation or state” to “a group of animals or plants in the same place” (“community, n.” 3a, 2a, 7, OED Online). These definitions of community seem rather diverse; yet, they share some characteristics. The religious society refers to common interests and values, whereas the characterization of a community as a nation refers to its political unity and power. Even the botanical explanation hints at the fact that a community can be located, it has a place—the space of this place can vary from the size of a church, to a neighborhood, a college, a town, or even a country. That is why a rather broad definition of the term is needed. Thus, according to the OED, a community can be regarded as a “group of people who share the same interests, pursuits, or occupation, esp. when distinct from those of the society in which they live” (“community, n.” 5b).
Hence, a community establishes itself by means of similarity and difference and thus, in a way, by means of paradigms and syntagms. With regard to Ferdinand de Saussure’s sign system, Cohan and Shires describe the axes of paradigms and syntagms. Here, they talk about the analysis of narrative fiction and do not refer to social communities, but their concept can be applied, nonetheless. The syntagmatic level, which can be seen as a metonymic level, sorts the differences into a coherent unit. In that sense, the differences stand for the whole, the unit, the community, and the nation. On the other hand, the paradigmatic level is defined by similarities and can thus be seen as the metaphoric level (Cohan and Shires 1988, 12), one could even say an imagined level. Benedict Anderson draws on this notion of an imagined community, even though he considers it in a less figurative way, when he defines nation as “an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (2006, 6). The limits and sovereignty can also be seen in metaphors and synecdoche of the community which substitutes the nation as a whole. The figurative description of American society has its limits, but it serves as an appropriate synecdoche in this case as the show itself creates an imagined community of viewers who are represented in the show’s content through the use of different types of communities—seen in individual characters—within the show. For example, Pierce, played by Chevy Chase, not only represents an older generation but also sexists and racists. Shirley, on the other hand, represents African Americans, moms, and Christian women. Abed, Troy, and Annie portray the younger generation; yet, they, too each belong to several different communities. Annie is Jewish, Troy is Jehova’s witness, and Abed is Muslim. There are thus different communities represented even in the community of the study group, which is, of course, again part of the community of Greendale. Due to its hierarchical structures, the latter, then, can be regarded as a metaphor of the United States. This is substantiated in the college’s motto, which is “E pluribus anus” reminiscent of the motto “E pluribus unum.”
Even though the motto suggests that all the different groups stand united as one, forming small communities also means the exclusion of other communities. The differentiation or rather the separation of one group from other groups becomes evidently clear in the TV show Community where not only the study group, which consists of the main protagonists Jeff, Britta, Annie, Abed, Troy, Shirley and Pierce, has to establish itself as a community but position itself within the larger community of Greendale Community College. Of course, the show does not set out to be an exact imitation of reality and thus of the United States; it is, after all, a parody which does not aim to show reality in a straightforward way:
Verisimilitude is hardly a concern for Community’s writers. And yet, much of what the show tells us about life within a community college rings tune. The students at Greendale differ significantly from students at more elite institutions. They are diverse, they are mostly nontraditional students, they have worked, and they may take a long time to finish school. (Detmering 2014, 53)
In the first episode of season 1, Jeff Winger, one of the lead characters, pronounces the Spanish 101 study group a community (“Pilot,” 19:20)—he is thus the ‘founding father’ of the group. This act of declaration creates a bond between the members of the study group just like the Founding Fathers of the United States wanted to create a new and free society by declaring their independence, by declaring America a community. Yet, whereas the motives of the early leaders of the American nation are generally presented as noble or at least for the common good within the national discourse (even though that is open to discussion), Jeff’s motivation is quite selfish in the beginning; he tries to manipulate the group to get a date with Britta. However, over the course of the seasons, Jeff starts identifying not only with the study group as a community but with the community of Greendale. This becomes evident in the episodes in which Greendale has to fight City College and the community of Greendale students have to stand together. Therefore, the students of Greendale are a community because they differentiate themselves from other communities, such as City College and the study group is a community because they define themselves as one.
Likewise, the same effect can be observed on an audience level by means of identification, which is the key to be a part of a community as Benedict Anderson confirms by describing nations as imagined communities. They are, in fact, “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson 6). This can be applied not only to Greendale Community College, which functions as a nation in this regard and even more as an allegory for the American nation, as outlined before, but also to the audience of the TV show. Being a community of viewers does not only mean to be part of the study group or identify with side characters who would like to be part of it, it means to form a community because of the shared interest for the show in general, to share knowledge of the show and to recognize the meta-fictional references to popular culture which are made within the show. This community of viewers is still imagined though as they do not know each member of this fan group. However, they can break boundaries by communication, they can reach out and discuss the show and thus actively participate in the meta-world of Community(Detmering 2014, 42, 47). The engagement and active discussion of the audience presents an important aspect since it is the viewership who rewrites the show and puts it into a new, a virtual-real context. The show is in itself as serial narrative highly self-reflexive and thus it offers a description of popular culture and comments on the latter. Frank Kelleter outlines that “series watch their audiences watching them and they react.” This substantiates the democratic character of serial narration and shows the influence the viewer can have on a series. Furthermore, the audience as an imagined (virtual) community comments on the comment in turn and thus “story telling [is extended] onto story consumption” (Kelleter). Thus, perpetual discussion is triggered, which shows not only democratic structures in this “participatory culture” (Jenkins xi) but also highlights the strong identification within the group of viewers with the show’s configuration and content. Laura Detmering discusses this effect of identification by comparing the audience to characters in the show:
Much of the experience, both intellectually and emotionally, of watching a series like Community is being ‘in’ on the joke, feeling that one is a part of the community. Within the series itself, side characters like Buddy constantly try to become part of the study group, and the show’s audience is meant to identify with these characters’ efforts to fit in. (2014, 39)
Hence, identification with a group presents itself as an important characteristic of the concept of a community.
This identification gives power to the community since they appear as a unity, which stands in for each of their members. In the show, it seems that each member of the study group is fighting for themselves to survive college life, but they realize they can only survive together. This is highlighted in episodes such as “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” (S2E14), in which they not only have to survive an (imaginary) adventure but also have to prevent Fat Neil, a fellow student, from committing suicide by means of the game. Furthermore, the regular protagonists on the show learn how to trust each other. Pierce, played by Chevy Chase, is excluded from the game because of his insensitive behavior, but he manages to work himself into the D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) adventure by taking up the role of the evil antagonist, who steals Neil’s sword in the game and tries to break him for good. Although it seems contradictory to the forming of trust, his actions actually help Neil to survive in real life by making this game afternoon the most memorable D&D mission for Neil. The group includes Neil and treats him as part of the study group community. Fighting Pierce is in this game a means to confront and overcome the fears as well as the loneliness Neil had been experiencing up until this point. By winning against Pierce and killing the latter’s character, Neil gains not only back the sword Pierce as stolen from him, a metaphor for Neil’s strength and his will to live, but he also gains friendship and respect. In the end, he survives and becomes stronger because he is included in a community. This shows that indeed every member of a community is an important part and has to contribute something to the survival of its members.
The interdependency of community members is also emphasized in “Remedial Chaos Theory” (S3E03). In this episode a die is rolled to determine who should open the door for the pizza delivery guy. The die, however, according to Abed’s theory, creates six different timelines. Abed draws the viewer’s attention to the constructedness of the series as he sees his life as a TV show, and more specifically, the TV show Community. This self-awareness through Abed’s character lets the audience experience the show as if they were part of the fictional show. Through the Chaos Theory episode, then, the audience is reminded that there can always be different outcomes depending on the decisions we take. Each timeline is presented to the audience to show what might happen if one of the members was missing. The timelines demonstrate how the dynamics within the group are dependent on each person’s actions and how it can change the unity of the group—in one of them, Shirley has a nervous breakdown and runs away from the group, in another Pierce is shot and Jeff loses his arm in a fire just to name two examples. Hence, each member is needed to create a harmonious unity, as Abed concludes towards the end of the episode:
Chaos already dominates enough of our lives. The universe is an endless raging sea of randomness. Our job isn’t to fight it but to weather it—together, on the raft of life, a raft held together by those few rare beautiful things that we know to be predictable. […] Us. It won’t matter what will happen to us as long as we stay honest and accepting each other’s flaws and virtues. Annie will always be driven, Shirley will always be giving, Pierce will never apologize, Britta is sort of a wild card from my perspective, and Jeff will forever remain a conniving son of a bitch. (S3E03, 16:53)
Of course, on a larger scale, the influence of each character on the community, as observed on the TV show, can be transferred to society in general and American society in particular. That does not mean that the US is a harmonious unity but that every American can contribute a part to American society, even if only on a microcosmic level.
The members of the study group all pursue individual goals, which makes the creation of a unity often more challenging. Everyone in the group sees Greendale as a second chance in becoming who they want to be. Jeff needs a degree to get his lawyer’s license back, Britta has to control her anti-societal rebellious behavior to find herself and get a job and Pierce needs to free himself from his father’s control. Abed is in a similar position as Pierce and uses Greendale as a way to break into film business and Shirley has to learn to follow her own dreams after her husband has left her. Finally, Troy has to discover new sides and talents after having failed to get a football scholarship for a better university due to an alleged injury. The TV show tries to encourage its audience to follow their dreams while simultaneously warning them that the dreams might alter or even fail. Ultimately, it is clear though that each individual shapes the dynamics of a community and of society and that, as James Sellers points out, “changes in American identity must come from within” (1978, 166).
These changes from within are addressed in several episodes of Community. It is the study group who often has to rescue Greendale from within. On the one hand, they standup for their college against external threats, such as the abortive takeover bids of City College, as in “Modern Warfare” (S1E23), “A Fistful of Paintballs” (S2E23), “For a Few Paintballs More” (S2E24), in which the study group defends Greendale in paint ball games. On the other hand, they have to face internal imperilments such as Abed’s and Troy’s fight about of The Legit Republic of Blanketsburg and The United Forts of Pillowtown in “Pillows and Blankets” (S3E14), which is to reenact the American Civil War in a parody of Ken Burns’ documentary miniseries The Civil War. Another internal struggle, which uses not only John Sturges’ Western movie The Magnificent Seven (1960) as a reference, but also explores the machinations of dictatorship can be seen in “The First Chang Dynasty” (S3E21). Chang’s attempt to become the dean of Greendale, ending in the captivity of the real dean and a war-like situation in which the study group, alias The Greendale Seven, has to free their college from Chang’s despotism. The study group constantly has to defend the freedom of their college, which is reminiscent of the fight the American nation has to fight in the face of external struggles such as terrorism, but it also sheds light on internal conflicts, such as ignorant politicians, racism or health care.
The Christmas episode of season 1, “Comparative Religion” (S1E12), picks up on the internal problems by discussing diversity in terms of religious faith. In this episode, the different beliefs of each group member are outlined. Especially Shirley, the Christian, wants to proselytize the others by giving them bracelets with charms that read “WWBJD”, standing for “What would baby-Jesus do?” (S1E12, 1:05). The episode is not about missionizing the study group members or the audience though. It is about proving that human values stand above religious ones. Shirley acts in a non-Christian way by excluding Jeff from her Christmas party because he wants to defend Abed and his own honor in a fight. In the end, Jeff acts in a responsible way and even rejects fighting when Shirley realizes that friendship is worth fighting for—the whole group joins in the fight for friendship and they celebrate the holidays (not Christmas), themselves and friendship at the end of the episode. As a consequence, an idealized version of society is presented in which faith, especially faith as an expression of religious antagonism, does not matter anymore, which leads to acceptance, tolerance and togetherness. By this, the study group as a sub-community teaches the community of Greendale what a community is about.
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SUGGESTED CITATION: Anders, Lisann. 2020. “Diversity and Unity in the TV Show Community.” PopMeC Research Blog. Published November 3.
Dr Lisann Anders is a Research and Teaching Assistant at the University of Zürich, Switzerland. She holds an MA in English Literature and Linguistics from the University of Zurich and an MA in Screenwriting from the National University of Ireland, Galway. While her PhD discussed American postmodern literature, her teaching and research focus lies primarily on Shakespeare, comics, and movie adaptations. Lisann’s most recent publications include chapters on feminism in Disney films, identity formation in the circus space of the movie Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, and her book Communication in Postmodern Urban Fiction: The Shadow of Imagination. firstname.lastname@example.org