TV On My Terms: Chaotic Community Trades Character for Caricature
For those who remember my reviews last season, I was often a champion of NBC's ratings-challenged series, Community, even on occasion awarding it five stars for the sheer creativity and knock-you-on-your-keister hilarity the series provided.
Oddly enough, though, over the summer break, I gradually lost the love I once had for the series, to the point where I removed it from my DVR schedule this fall. It began to dawn on me that what I had mistaken as character development was actually the increased ballooning of caricatures and I was just getting high on the helium.
Sadly, last week's "Remedial Chaos Theory" just exacerbated that feeling.
Don't get me wrong: on a purely creative level "...Theory" was one of the most brilliantly thought out and executed plots I've seen in a 22-minute sitcom... ever. My mind is still reeling from how intricately detailed it was, and that is saying something because Community often delivers some of the most so-far-fetched-they-work plots on the tube.
So why the qualified praise? Because I think what Community delivers in originality, wit and intelligence, it shortchanges on true character definition and the development of inter-personal relationships. The latest episode demonstrated this more than ever.
Let me explain...
For all the time these people have spent together over the last two years, you would think they would have a bit more security as to their respective positions in the group, yet they always seem to be struggling for relevance among their peers.
Shirley, for example, still feels the need to force an identity upon herself in order to fit in; in this case, by baking assorted desserts. Which begs the question: why does she still care? If after two years you still don't feel like you have a place in this group, why are you bothering to try? Because they're the "cool crowd?"
In the alternate timeline where Abed left the room, she practically gnawed Britta's head off for having smoked a joint. If she really thought Britta was a godless addict, and she truly considered Britta a close friend, wouldn't she have tried to help her friend rather than pronounce her evil? Just goes to show how tentative their friendship really is.
Annie and Britta are diametrically opposite to one another and in this instance I do not believe it's a case of opposites attract. Annie is upbeat, positive and ultimately naive, where Britta is cynical, acerbic and a constant buzz-kill. In what universe would these two actually hang out together, much less care about each other? Both waver back and forth in the most horrendously awkward rubber-band relationships with Jeff and Troy, respectively, neither of which are the least bit credible. Troy and Britta making eyes at each other in the bathroom felt completely awkward and out of place. Even though the show has hinted at feelings in the past, it's as if it suddenly get to the point in the script and said: "Oh, this is where we're supposed to pretend to have the hots for each other."
Not at all organic - especially considering Troy often spouts inane insults at her such as "You're the AT&T of people!"
As far as the near-creepy Jeff and Annie dynamic, the second Jeff uttered the words "I worry about you Annie" last week I let out a huge guffaw. I don't think that was the intended reaction.
Jeff is just a nasty individual, and not in the amusing way that Jerry Seinfeld and his pals were, either. Despite the occasional pang of conscience, he's constantly attempting to rule the school with his carefully tousled hair, smirky know-it-all attitude, and he's always failing at it. He cares more about his status and appearance than he does about anyone or anything else. Why would any of these people want to remain friends with a jerkwad like this? I don't believe that anyone would voluntarily spend time this guy, much less attempt to make out with him (eww Annie!) after his repeated efforts to control and force them to fit his ideal mold for each of them.
The fact that the Jeff-absent timeline resulted in the rest of the group having a great time is just proof of how toxic he is to them all. And I ask again - they are friends, why?
With Pierce... do I have to even address him? He's been out of the group, back in the group, out of the group and back in again...and he's still jackass. He's what, 90 years old, and he's still acting out at the clique, terrorizing of Troy with a tiny gnome because he's jealous? Even Abed paused to straighten his Indiana Jones action figure rather than rush to Pierce's side after the latter had been shot. Some friendship, huh?
Some may argue that the groups "quirks" serve to balance each other out, but in only one of the alternate timelines were the characters even getting along by the end. I don't consider that as much balancing out as removing the catalyst (Jeff) from an otherwise volatile situation.
When it's all said and done, the only actual semi-believable relationship on the show is between Troy and Abed.
So while there is a lot of humor, intelligence and ingenuity that goes into the show, Community doesn't achieve the level of balance between crazy plot and character depth of, say, ABC's Cougar Town. Sure, the Cougar Town characters are pretty whacked out, too, but despite the frictions and ridiculous situations they get themselves into, there is a consistent undercurrent of care, appreciation and love between each of them... even between pseudo-rivals Ellie and Laurie. I actually care about what happens to these characters.
Not so with Community. I just don't care about them as people, and I wonder if that's why it has so much difficulty finding an audience. I could almost argue that I'm not supposed to care about them, just laugh at the insanity and shake my head at the depths to which they will descend each week - except that it wasn't always this way. The first season held a greater sense of togetherness between them (Jeff's attempts to shake them off aside), when everything was fresh and new and they didn't really know each other that well. Their interactions were less contentious and their escapades slightly more normal.
It seems the more outlandish they try to take the plots, the more over the top the caricatures become and the less care goes into fleshing out actual characters and giving us a reason why these seven nut balls would want to spend so much time together. I find that to be just a bit disappointing.
Jeffrey Kirkpatrick is a TV Fanatic Staff Writer. Follow him on Twitter.