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TV On My Terms: Chaotic Community Trades Character for Caricature

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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.

In Some Timeline

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.

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Chris Mayer / I would add snmethiog, but you really nailed everything. Love, love, loved the episode!

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I always see articles like this one on other sites as well. Citing that Community needs some character development. I don't know how can that be done to be honest. Not saying that it's impossible, but I don't know if it's necessary. Community's reason why it has huge ratings is because of the concept episodes like the timeline episode and making fun of pop culture and also with being meta most of the time. I wish they go back to their roots in the first season and I guess the character development does sound good now. I think what I just wrote made no sense due to the stuff in my head arguing on which should come out of my mouth :|

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I understand your argument, but I think you're looking at it wrong. The point of the episode was just that-- to show us how much of an asshole Jeff can be. In every timeline he was in the room, he essentially was the cause of every conflict between the characters. I think this season is going to deal with him figuring that out, and realizing he can't call these people friends if he keeps hurting them like he has the past two years.

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Of all the episodes that drove you away from the show I'm honestly most surprised that it was THIS one. I felt similar to you during the opening 3 episodes of the season, but "Chaos Theory" pretty much made all the confusion about the last few episodes much more understandable considering the characters. I miss the first season writing too, but I feel like the only reason those episodes were so likable was because we only knew most of the characters from the surface. Now that we're below the surface we're starting to see things we might not like. That seems pretty natural to me; the longer I know people, the more likely I am to find out things I don't like about them. You can either choose to leave them (like you are), or you can accept them for what they are just like they do with you. Love the read, but I'd also really love if you DIDN'T give up on a show as deep as Community. In other words, I'd highly encourage you to give the show as many chances as possible =)

Piecar

While I am not willing to give up on the show yet. I agree with everything Kirkpatrick says. It used to be about a group of disparate people who become friends and face things together. Now it's seven "types" doing wacky things, and the show trying to outclever itself. I'm sorry it happened. I'm hoping that the show will get back to it's original premise and make the cleveryness more organic. The paintball ep is at fault, I think. It was SO clever that the show runners spent more time trying to top it than they did with the characters. I don't like any of these people anymore. I really liked all of them in the beginning, even Pierce. The "lab partner" episode was SO mean spirited that I came close to dropping the show. This ep brought it back around, but left exactly the questions Kirkpatrick outlined behind. I mentioned the same thing in the review comments. Sorry you fell away from the show, Jeff. The new reviewer is very good, but I enjoyed reading your articles.

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It's commentary like this that gives the show a bad name. Where is your sense of quirkiness? I think you just don't get it. Last week's episode was one of the best. The team knows they went a little far last season and are going to pull back on the reins a bit. But it is gradual. Give it time. If only other half hour or hour shows would have a modicum of creativity, intelligence, and clever humor that this show has, tv would be better. But they don't. And it isn't. Thanks to Community for its bravery and wit.

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It's fiction. These characters are not real. Each week they are resurrected for another "story." Their idiosyncrasies are written into the characters. Sheesh.

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Even though I understand this analysis, I can't agree with it. I think that when you're in a group of 7-8 people it's very usual to feel a bit 'out of it', especially with so many different personalities. And it's very hard to make it work on the long term too.
I was myself in a group like that in high school, we were very close as a group, and each of us felt from time to time set aside, but if you took one out of it, the balance just wasn't there anymore. And some were closer to ma than others, but that was how it worked. Maybe I can relate to this show because of my experience.
I also think that the balance between crazy situations and character's depth is well, as well at least as in Friends. I liked the characters in Friends, but in the end I liked the fact that the deep feelings were always expressed with humour. I like less the last seasons because it's not as funny as in the beginning, it doesn't have as much dynamic.
Okay I'm not a fan of the Britta/Troy thing. But I think that Jannie isn't so creepy after all. At the beginning I was a bit surprised to see this relationship begin to form, but I think the writers have handled it well so far. I believe Annie has the power of bringing the best out of Jeff, whereas Britta had a tendency to make him more a jerk. That's why I don't find it awkward when he says he cares about her.

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I agree with the sentiments that the show isn’t what it used to be and that caricatures are mostly to blame [at least for me] for the shows declining, but that’s pretty much where my agreement ends. Other than that I think you are reading a bit too much into things. This is a half hour comedy sitcom after all, not an Oscar nominated film.
Like the Shirley pie thing. I didn’t see that as much as her trying “fit-in� the group but as more of trying to get an identity for herself, sort of a midlife crisis per se. She was a middle aged divorcee with two kids and little else to show for it. She didn’t really have much going on in her life then Christianity and baking [the reason she is at greendale] two things she clings to. And as for her “gnawing Britta’s head off� I think that was more of a “shooting the messenger� scenario, she found out the group was doing something behind her back and took it out on who told her about it.
My reason why I think the show is not as good as it was season 1 begins and ends with caricatures. In season 1 the show was grounded. Britta, Troy, Jeff, etc. felt like real people. Yes, they had quirks that made them interesting, but real people nonetheless. I remember in one of the dvd commentaries someone remarked that they kept getting compliments on how their school is “just like that[Greendale].� And I would be shocked if anybody still does this. Britta [my poster child for the shows caricature-ness] went from being a person who every once in awhile said a feminist or hipster line. To pretty much only saying feminist/hipster lines. All the way to pretty much exclusively being a laughingstock. I made a comment about how much I hated her “me so hungee� dance,[whether she was high or not and whether Gillian improvised it or not it was STILL an extremely juvenile and retarded bit] I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I hated it so much, but I did. And after an epic marathon of Community Season 1[BEST 550 minutes I ever spent] I finally realized why. because they took Britta, a well rounded character, who had, stood up for, and had no problem vocalizing her ideals, but wasn’t defined by them; who had flaws but [again] wasn’t defined by them and everything that makes a character real and great, and turned her into a character who whenever she is on screen is either launching into a feminist/hipster speech or acting like an idiot [sometimes/often right after another] all for a couple chuckles. Similar cases of caricature-ness can be made for various other aspects of the show [although most others are to an extremely lesser extent].
And I will admit that I don’t care about the characters as much as I used to either[something you allude to and I definitely agree with the end result but idk if we are just saying the same thing in a different way or not].
Season 1 was ~550 minutes of pure, unadulterated, awesome and genius. It was BY FAR the best comedy on TV and why it didn’t sweep the emmy’s is BEYOND me Season 2 was ~530 minutes of good/great comedy imho still the best comedy on tv and probably should have garnered a few emmy noms. [The comedic actor category was complete and total BS im still mad about it. The fact that they decided to have modern family completely monopolize the comedic supporting actor category was BS Ron Swanson and Jason Segel definitely should have been nominated; but I digress ] My opinion is still open for season 3 but other than Chaos [which I still have my qualms about] it has not been off to that great of a start.

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I don't agree with this analysis at all! AT ALL! I connect to and care for the characters on Community just as much as I do the characters on Modern Family. You're just comparing two wildy different shows!
With Community, the characters always bicker and jocky for status within the group because dysfunctional people gravitate to other dysfunctional people. This is a show about dysfunctional misfits: Abed is a high-functioning autistic nerd, Annie is a former pill addict who had no friends in high school, Britta is nuts, Pierce is Pierce, etc..., And, ALL of them come from broken families! Even Troy, the nicest and most emotionally stable has a dad who is nailing some girl Troy's age! People who grow up in a world of dysfunction and chaos repeat that cycle in adulthood. You don't believe Britta and Annie would "Both waver back and forth in the most horrendously awkward rubber-band relationships with Jeff and Troy"? Really?! That's what emotionally messed-up people DO! And those 2 ladies are messed-up. As are the men of the group. It's INCREDIBLY realistic that they all lack boundaries and engage in sexual-partner swapping.
Modern Family, on the other hand is a show about a FUNCTIONAL extended family. Sure, there are minor mishaps here and there, but this not a show about dysfuntion at all. That's why people like it so much! The parents are loving and emotionally available to their children. The children are growing up with (at least) 2 parents who love and protect them. Even Manny, a child of divorce whose mother is married to a man twice her age is better off than most real life kids in that kind of situation. Jay is a loving stable father-figure.
So I'd say both shows present realistic characters. It's just two different versions of reality.

Community Quotes

Britta don't make jokes, you're bad at it!

Annie

Sensible night, appropriate night.
Snow on ground, left and right.
Round yon purchase of decorative things.
Tolerant rewrite of carols to sing.
Function with relative ease,
Function with relative ease.

Shirley [sung to the tune of "Silent Night"]