Diversity and Unity in the TV Show Community – Pt. 2
Author: Lisann Anders University of Zürich
|Download PDF version|
In this regard, the dependence of society on each individual is not unidirectional but a mutual interdependence. Thus, individuals are also affected by the specific communities they belong to and the changes within the latter. Again, the episode to be referenced is “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” Fat Neil feels the negative as well as positive impacts of a community. The negative side of a community is shown by Jeff coining the name “Fat” Neil, hurting Neil even to the contemplation of committing suicide and preventing him from being included into any of the smaller communities within the college. However, realizing his mistake, Jeff tries to rescue Neil. As a group they succeed. Moreover, Jeff learns that he cannot help Neil alone but that he needs the group to help him. In fact, the group makes him stronger as an individual. It offers support and more importantly friendship overcoming its inner differences and contradicting worldviews as Johanna Sanders explains:
Jeff’s place of comfort is in the beginning only looking out for himself and concludes the episode with the realization of him not having all the answers, both figuratively and literally, and being dependent on the support of others for success, thus having changed to accepting the presence of others in his life. (2012, 40)
The series shows the audience that they can still be individuals in a group—after all the study group consists of members of various ethnicities and religions—but as soon as you belong to a group and identify with it (and its shared values), you are exposed to change as the group dynamics start to shape and influence you. In the beginning of the show, Jeff is just in the group to hit on Britta and at Greendale to actually get a degree—his lawyer’s degree from Colombia was not valid after all (Jeff technically never lied about his degree but never corrected anyone who thought he had a degree from Columbia). His motives for his actions are predominantly selfish; yet, over the course of time, he learns to appreciate being part of a community that supports and loves him as a friend. Therefore, it “seems soundest […] to accept the reality of human diversity, oppose the exaggeration of our differences, and see that we in our concrete existences do share something crucial” (Sellers 1978, 169). It can thus be seen that a community is not only about a shared location or bonding for power but that it is, in fact, about the identification with the community, the relationship among its members, it is about friendship.
This message is also important when applied to American society. Of course, the United States are diverse in its different ethnicities, religions, worldviews, etc.—which is the main cause for inner conflicts after all. Viewing diversity as conflict-causing differences would, however, be a quite negative and rather narrow point of view on the matter. If more neutral variables are taken into consideration, diversity can even be seen on a geographical level. On a political level, the US can be regarded as diverse since they are federal states, which are combined in the United States of America. Therefore, they have to act united and stand together as a community, especially in times of crisis but also in order to function as a country. Of course, even though the show embodies this united diversity and focuses on bonding and friendship, it does not preach to be friends with everyone—it actually illustrates quite the opposite, i.e. that there are always people excluded from the community. However, it intends to display a community which works together despite the diversity among its members. The incoherence of the country is pointed out in form of a synecdoche, in which the community or rather the community of Greendale stands in for American society. The glue which holds the latter together are the tropes which bind culture together, such as alleged shared values represented in the aforementioned concept of the “Frontier Spirit” but also the “melting pot” and other American myths, to use Heike Paul’s terminology. What is important to note is that
these myths are not fixtures in the American national cultural imaginary: The explanation for their longevity and endurance lies in their adaptability, flexibility, and considerable narrative variation over time and across a broad social and cultural spectrum. (Paul 2014, 11)
Hence, the tropes of cultural and political American identities are adapted and changed according to society’s needs and for that reason, they often have been challenged and surpassed. In the TV show, a sample episode for this change from a melting pot to a mosaic of different individuals is episode 6 in season 1 (“Football, Feminism and You”). In the episode, the dean tries to come up with a mascot for the college’s football team. The mascot, called the ‘Human Being’, is supposed to represent any American individual without including any “stereotypical identifiers from any race or gender” (S1E06, 13:45). By means of this task, the concept of the melting pot is parodied and criticized since the mascot has no face and wears a white body suit, which disguises its gender; in fact, the Greendale Human Being does not look like a human being at all but rather extraterrestrial.
Through the episode’s and, in fact, the entire show’s self-referential view, the Greendale Human Being comments on the show’s representative function for American society on a meta-level, showing that a community, a society, a nation is rather a patchwork, forming a unity through diversity. This is also reflected upon in “Basic Rocket Science” (S2E04) when Greendale needs a new motto and flag. The study group draws on the motto of the United States, “E puribus unum”—‘out of many, one,’ which refers to the original 13 states being united under one flag, but it also suggests that the United States are a country of immigrants who are united as one nation. The study group picks up this slogan and transforms it into “E pluribus anus” comparing their college to a butt; moreover, the image is to represent a butthole. However, the characters realize even if their school is a “toilet” represented by a “butthole flag,” it brought them together, as Jeff observes, “We earn the right to pick on Greendale every day by going there. Our school may be a toilet but it’s our toilet. Nobody craps in it but us” (S2E04, 12:45). Interestingly enough, at the core of this statement lie the key concepts of democracy, i.e. equal political participation. Through the contest, each member is able to actively participate in the college politics and make a difference by voting. This synecdochic relationship helps the characters realize that through their various backgrounds, they are able to learn from each other. Likewise, the viewers of the sitcom can profit from each other’s knowledge about and beyond the show and form bonds independent of their environment. This shows that a community and friendship can overcome not only spatial, but social and political boundaries, i.e. the ethnic and religious background of others have to be accepted and tolerated and more importantly, each background can contribute to the group so that all members of that group benefit from each other’s knowledge and experience.
This support can have a great impact on the individual’s decision processes and his or her identity as a person in society and as a human being in general. Thus, the study group strengthens the personality of its members. An example for this would be the episode “Introduction to Film” (S1E3) in which Abed has to defend his decision to study at a college and his love for movie making against his father, who wants him to take over the family restaurant. In this episode, the study group takes care of the situation and mends the conflict between Abed and his father. Whereas in this case the community functions as a supportive force in an individual’s identity formation, episode 6 of season 1 would be a negative example of such an impact of a community on its members. Here, Jeff Winger convinces Troy in a manipulative way to play for the Greendale football team even though this is not in the best interest of Troy but of Jeff himself, who was blackmailed by the dean. Jeff has to make Troy join the football team and represent the college so that Jeff in turn does not represent Greendale on flyers and posters, since this could potentially threaten his reputation and future career. Troy joins the team and his personality changes—he becomes arrogant and aggressive caused by his new community, i.e. the football team, as well as his new position in the college community. This episode demonstrates that manipulative influence out of egoistic motives leads to negative changes in one’s personality and does not necessarily help to develop the character for the better. After all, a community is only as good and strong as its members. Over the course of the six seasons, identity formation and finding one’s true vocation is highlighted. In season 5 episode 4, “Cooperative Polygraphy,” this is made clear when Troy inherits shares of Pierce’s company valid 14.3 million dollars under the condition to go on a boat trip to find himself, to experience the world, to live and “become [his] own man” (S5E04, 17:38).
Self-development and self-fulfillment are accentuated as an overarching theme in the show. It is also the core of traditional American values as Richard Lamanna highlights when stating that “At the heart of […] institutional practices is our commitment as a society to individualism—the belief that everyone should pursue autonomously his own destiny” (1972, 35). However, as seen above, this destiny is also dependent on the community the individual is part of since it is the community which is able to shape a person. If Jeff Winger started out as a self-absorbed fake lawyer whose cover was blown and who had to get a degree to get back into his job, he ends up as a law teacher at Greendale, prioritizing dissemination of knowledge to the community over his social status. Other characters have to find themselves over the course of the series, too. Abed and Annie start out as students fresh from high school and even though they have dreams, they need to learn how to actively pursue them. In the end, they both leave Greendale to achieve their goals—Annie gets an internship at the FBI and Abed goes to Hollywood. Britta learns to accept herself as part of society and her limits and even gets a job as a barkeeper (“Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television,” S06E13). Joe Russo (2016) states:
the study group is supposed to be a reflective of society in a more or less ideal form. It discusses social communities and their individuals. In its core, the show is about identity, finding one’s own identity and positioning oneself in a community and society, respectively.
It is this position of the individual on the paradigmatic and syntagmatic level within the community which forms not only an individual identity but also an American identity as the community is to form a synecdoche of American society and, at the same time, to hold up a mirror to the latter. Therefore, it can be observed that not only in single episodes a character’s development and the changing of dynamics within a community are analyzed but that the entire show is about identity formation in a mosaic American community.
Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso.
Brooks, David. 2001. “One Nation, Slightly Divisible.” The Atlantic, December 2001. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/12/one-nation-slightly-divisible/376441/.
Cohan, Steven and Linda M. Shires. 1988. “Theorizing Language.” In Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction, edited by Steven Cohan and Linda Shires, 1–20. London: Routledge.
“community, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.
“community, n.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, October 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.
Detmering, Laura. 2014. “‘Just Tell Me the Rules, and I will Follow’: Active Viewership, Community Engagement, and Dan Harmon’s ‘Community’.” Studies in Popular Culture 37, no. 1 (Fall): 39–56.
Jenkins, Henry. 2009. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture. Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kelleter, Frank. 2016. “Community, Mediality, Seriality: On Narrative Feedback Loops and Capitalist Self-Reflexivity.” SANAS Conference 2016. University of Bern, November 4, 2016. Keynote lecture.
Lamanna, Richard A. 1972. “Change and Diversity in American Community Life.” The Review of Politics 34, no. 4 (October): 26–43.
Lavery, David. 2012. “The State of the American Sitcom (1): Community.” Critical Studies in Television Online December 14, 2012. http://cstonline.tv/telegenic-7.
Paul, Heike. 2014. The Myths that Made America. An Introduction to American Studies. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.
Ruiz, Vicki L. 2008. “Citizen Restaurant: American Imaginaries, American Communities.” American Quarterly 60, no. 1 (March): 1–21.
Russo, Joe. 2016. “Interview with Joe Russo.” By Lisann Anders. Phone interview from August 23, 2016.
Sanders, Johanna. 2012. “The Television Series Community and Sitcom.” PhD diss., Karlstads Universitet.
Sellers, James. 1978. “Membership in the American Community as a Component of Identity.” The Journal of Religious Ethics 6, no. 2 (Fall): 165–185.
Chandrasekhar, Jay, dir. 2012. Community. Season 3, episode 21, “The First Chang Dynasty.” Aired on May 17, 2012, on NBC.
Davidson, Adam, dir. 2009. Community. Season 1, episode 12, “Comparative Religion.” Aired on December 10, 2009.
Johnston, Joe, dir. 2011. Captain America: The First Avenger. Paramount Pictures.
Lin, Justin, dir. 2010. Community. Season 1, episode 23, “Modern Warfare.” Aired on May 6, 2010, on NBC.
McTiernan, John, dir. 1988. Die Hard. Twentieth Century Fox.
Melman, Jeff, dir. 2011. Community. Season 3, episode 4, “Remedial Chaos Theory.” Aired on October 13, 2011, on NBC.
Russo, Anthony, dir. 2009. Community. Season 1, episode 3, “Introduction to Film.” Aired on October 1, 2009, on NBC.
—, dir. 2010. Community. Season 2, episode 4, “Basic Rocket Science.” Aired October 14, 2010, on NBC.
Russo, Anthony and Joe Russo, dir. 2009. Community. Season 1, episode 1, “Pilot.” Aired on September 17, 2009, on NBC.
Russo, Joe, dir. 2009. Community. Season 1, episode 6, “Football, Feminism and You.” Aired on October 22, 2009, on NBC.
—, dir. 2011. Community. Season 2, episode 14, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” Aired February 3, 2011, on NBC.
—, dir. 2011. Community. Season 2, episode 23, “A Fistful of Paintballs.” Aired May 5, 2011, on NBC.
—, dir. 2011. Community. Season 2, episode 24, “For A Few Paintballs More.” Aired on May 12, 2011, on NBC.
Schrab, Rib, dir. 2015. Community. Season 6, episode 13, “Emotional Consequences of BroadcastTelevision.” Aired on June 2, 2015, on NBC.
Shapeero, Tristram, dir. 2012. Community. Season 3, episode 14, “Pillows and Blankets.” Aired on April 4, 2012, on NBC.
—, dir. 2014. Community. Season 5, episode 4, “Cooperative Polygraphy.” Aired on January 16, 2014, on NBC.
Sturges, John, dir. 1960. The Magnificent Seven. United Artists.Blue Bloods. 2010–present. Created by Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess. CBS.
Hawaii-Five-0. 2010–present. Created by Leonard Freeman. Developed by Peter M. Lenkov, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci. CBS.
NCIS. 2003–present. Created by Donald P. Bellisario and Don McGill. CBS.
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