I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been very lonely.
The year is 2020. A mysterious new disease is mercilessly stealing the lives of countless victims worldwide. To survive, we must refrain from social interaction, from touching one another, from attending school and for the vast majority, from going to work. Instead, many of us live our lives via webcam, grasping for human interaction through the internet. It’s a frail stand-in for the intricate networks of connections we build in our normal lives. We’re living through an episode of “Black Mirror.” It’s dull, dark and desolate. The antidote is a scrappy little sitcom called “Community.”
As we’re cut off from the social ties that bind us, many of us may seek refuge in television. No series is better suited to the task than “Community,” a comedic romp through everyday college life. It’s weird, hilarious and brilliant; it’s the show we desperately need right now.
People make “Community.” The premise centers on a ragtag group of students at Greendale Community College: there is Jeff, the disbarred lawyer; Shirley, the Christian housewife; Pierce, the racist moist towelette heir; Annie “Adderall,” the straight-A drop out; Abed, the robotic pop culture devotee; Brita, the well-meaning but misguided SJW; and Troy, the fallen quarterback. Orbiting them is an eccentric set of characters, including Señor Chang, a nutty Spanish teacher who would probably count himself as a group member; Dean Pelton, a “pansexual imp;” a dude everyone calls “Starburns;” an old fart named Leonard; some John Oliver character; and many, many more. We enter Greendale through Jeff’s eyes, but the series is powered by its ensemble, pumping with a college-brochure-ish, self-consciously diverse cast. The protagonist is the school itself, animated by the manic menagerie of misfits who occupy it.
That is to say, watching “Community” feels how college is meant to feel. Unified. Buzzing. Alive.
“Community” kicks off when Jeff, mortified to be stuck at Greendale, poses as a Spanish tutor as a ruse to seduce Brita. Uninterested in Jeff’s advances, Brita assembles an actual study group. What follows is a flurry of attempts at manipulation: Jeff orchestrates arguments between each of the group members, delivers a courtroom-esque inspirational monologue and tries to win them over with a packet of test answers that (whoops!) turn out to be blank. All his plans fail. Tail between his legs, Jeff sulks outside. For possibly the first time in his life, Jeff can’t cheat his way out of this one. But Brita, Troy, Abed, Pierce, Annie and Shirley forgive him.
And so forms the study group — which, over the ensuing six seasons, seems to do everything but study. Each episode is an idiosyncratic journey into obscure movie parodies, television tropes and intricately structured meta-wormholes. Bouncing from Pulp Fiction analogues to two-part paintball Spaghetti Western/Star Wars pastiches, “Community” hits nearly every corner of popular culture. Crackling through every episode is meticulous comedic writing, with characters ping-ponging jokes around the study table, rapid-fire, nonstop.
It’s a tad chaotic — but it works, because at the heart of each episode are the genuine relationships forged between members of the study group. While the show genre-hops into screwball comedy, claymation and countless bouts of homage, the focus remains squarely on the characters we’ve grown to care about. It’s sincere. Love is the common thread through “Community,” unifying the antics that dissemble, then reassemble, the evergreen study group at its core.
So armed with razor-sharp humor and bleeding pathos — and set on the familiar grounds of a campus — each episode offers an escape to a world so many of us long to return to. Do you miss Durfee’s tenders? Watch season 1, episode 21, “Contemporary American Poultry,” where Abed becomes the leader of a mafia to secure the group access to chicken fingers. Miss imposter syndrome? Watch “Beginner Pottery,” an episode in which Jeff has a breakdown when he fails to be the best in a course he took for an easy A. Miss Halloween parties, gut classes, debate tournaments, Dungeons and Dragons, Gheav sandwiches and a cappella drama? It’s all there, encapsulated in some farcical arc. “Community” is the college experience punched up and packaged, a sincere and severely heightened look into the hysteria and euphoria possible only in a campus setting.
No medium is better suited to coronavirus times than television. Part of the beauty of TV is its ability to remove us from the world we live in and immerse us in one entirely removed from our own. It’s a form that lets us, however briefly, forget ourselves in someone else’s problems. Who hasn’t delighted in concerning themselves with Carole Baskin’s ex-husband, or Jim and Pam’s romance, or Spongebob’s quest to find Gary? TV is uniquely long-lasting; we return to it, we grow with it, we come home to it. Day after day, the hours drip by, the only characteristics distinguishing today from yesterday are the new bad news and the subtle fading of daylight from the outside world. This regularity is why TV is so comforting. It’s why I turned to “Community” in the first place, and why I keep coming back.
When the coronavirus crisis exploded, the phrase that reverberated through my skull was “this is the darkest timeline.” It’s a line pulled from one of “Community”’s best episodes, in which the group rolls a die to determine who has to pick up a pizza, and, in doing so, creates six alternate universes. In five out of the six, hilarity ensues. But in the darkest timeline, a series of unfortunate events leads to horrific injury, insanity, death and felt goatees (Abed’s attempt to “commit to being evil”). I can’t help but feel like we are trapped in the darkest timeline, living through a disastrous series of progressive tragedies. In another, brighter timeline, we would be frolicking on Cross Campus, complaining about the Saybrook dining hall closing and saying tearful goodbyes to our senior friends. But that’s not the reality we happen to be living in.
So I turn to TV. The theme song blares and a wave of calmness washes over my body. Dulcet harmonies belie the desperation of the lyrics: “Give me some rope / Tie me to dream / Give me the hope to run out of steam.” The upbeat, 2010s-era pop-rock overwhelms me with sweet familiarity. “Somebody said it can be here…” Then, that familiar grief: “We could be roped up, tied up, dead in a year.” Home at last. Finally, “I can’t count the reasons I should stay / One by one, they all just fade away.” And for 21-minute increments, I find myself where we are supposed to be: in college, together with friends and happy.
Watching “Community” is the perfect respite from the nonstop barrage of fear, despair and uncertainty we’re now facing. It takes us on wild adventures to the banal world we’ve had to leave behind. Coronavirus has cost us time with our newfound families. We cannot soon return to the loved ones and lives we once took for granted. We can, however, watch “Community.” It’s streaming on Netflix and Hulu. And it’s great, I promise.
It’s not the community I hoped to find in college. But it’s something — a place to come home to, an escape to the mundane and the steady, a way to visit the things we miss. And I’ll take it.
Zoe Larkin | firstname.lastname@example.org