‘Community’ Blues: Learning to Let Quirky Be

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Oh. My. God. Did you see “Community” last night? The Troy and Abed scene! They’re like my real friends. Did you catch that reference that Britta made? And honestly, Jeff and Annie totally need to hook up. I mean, seriously.

If you’re not one of the 1.5 million viewers who tune into NBC on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. to watch the adventures of Jeff Winger and his community college study group, I may as well be talking code. If you do, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

As an obsessive pop culture consumer, I love “Community.” I live for the cult movie references that distinguish the show. Last week, when I realized that showrunner Dan Harmon was giving me an episode in the style of a Ken Burns Civil War documentary about a campuswide pillow fight (complete with a deadly-serious voiceover), my laughter woke half the Silliman library.

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Unless you’ve seen both films in question, it’s impossible to explain what’s funny in an episode that pretends to parody “Pulp Fiction” before sidestepping into homage to 1980s cult hit “My Dinner with Andre.” I’ve strained friendships with my insistence on sharing the famous (infamous?) paintball episode. The standard reply to my last resort, a diatribe about how “Community” stands for the logical next progression in television history, from “Cheers” to “Seinfeld” onward, is “I don’t get it, can we watch that show with Sheldon?”

“Community” is my awkward best friend. Together we speak a sort of spastic, self-referential code. With friends, that’s okay, but if we go to a party? “Community” inevitably drops a Dungeons and Dragons reference.

To be fair, the Dungeons and Dragons episode of “Community” was one of the best of the second season. It displayed real character development as the study group, led by a guilty Jeff Winger (former lawyer, permanent jerkass), tried to help seriously depressed “fat Neil” feel comfortable with himself by playing his favorite game. It’s hilarious — at one point the jock, Troy, played by Donald Glover (Childish Gambino), questions whether there should be something to Jenga. More importantly, it has heart. But I’m already backtracking. I’m already defensive. You haven’t known “Community” for as long I have. I have the privileged, elitist view. Why don’t you love everything about it already?

It’s a scientific fact that small reference pools can’t tell you the whole truth. That’s the basis for dropping the lowest test grade, for revisiting a restaurant and for giving someone a second chance at a first impression. People are forgiving, but when you really love something, you don’t want forgiveness; you want your friends to share the same love from the get-go. In response, you develop a certain overprotective zeal.

This can happen with anything, whether it is a TV show, book, class, sport, food or friend. In last year’s Christmas episode of “Community,” the pop culture-savvy Abed is let down when the rest of the study group literally doesn’t share his vision of a Claymation Christmas. We so desperately want to share how we feel about something that we forget its flaws; we lose distance.

These flaws are harder to ignore with a show that is intent on celebrating them. The characters start out as stereotypes — the jerk lawyer, the jock, the rebellious blonde, the book-smart brunette, the sassy black lady, the old guy — and they remain stereotypes, but become self-aware. Often, Jeff delivers big on speeches about how the study group has become a “community” and has learned to recognize the humanity of each member, but the show also recognizes the undercurrent of difference that pushes people apart. In the more recent episodes, Troy and Abed, formerly best friends forever (think Turk and J.D. in “Scrubs”), begin to fight, realizing that they won’t always be. Friendship, the show argues, is as much about acknowledging difference as similarity. In this sense, the bothersome idiosyncrasies of the show are not only important but essential.

This is a problem that we struggle with every day. You don’t introduce your friend by saying that he’s simply quirky. You either point to the mainstream, preparing to shudder when he slides out of it, or oversells the charm of that quirk.

“Community,” however, taught me that things can stand on their own. I can argue that the show will appeal to anyone, but I can’t change what it is, I can’t make its idiosyncrasies anything but what they are. All I know is that I am devoted. Maybe my devotion really does lead somewhere, maybe it doesn’t. For now, I’ll let the awkward kid speak for himself.

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