Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Are You Being Meta?" A Sketch Toward Community

All I've been watching lately is the two seasons of Community. I love it more than any show I've discovered in a while, and we've been watching it in big batches--all the first season in a weekend, the second as fast as we could while still going to our jobs, and now we're working through it a second time, but just doing a few a night. I hadn't thought to write about it at first. It so compulsively watchable that it seems like a confection. Perfectly delightful, but no real substance. Not that I want to be the one who always explains what things mean (and is wrong about it half the time), but I think there's more to Community than a brilliant series of TV and movie homages. I think that the fairly regular but seemingly glib gestures toward "community," that the crazy study group must somehow become a family, actually indicates the significant substance of the show.

The show obviously appeals to pop culture aficionados. Spotting the references would be an obvious drinking game, and any research into the show would soon lead you to a site like TV Tropes. The existence of such a show proves that we've reached mass teleliteracy, just as technological changes starts to drain television audiences away. But despite episodes that ape My Dinner with Andre, Goodfellas, The Right Stuff, Bass and Rankin Claymation, and many other sources, Community is more than a parade of parodies. Instead, this shared imaginarium is a tool for the focal character, Abed, to understand the world. We, whether we admit it or not, are a lot like Abed. The savvy audience knows, with the characters on the show, that we don't want the telegenic leads Jeff and Britta to be together, because we've see Ross and Rachel and we've seen Sam and Diane. Instead of avoiding the romance, the show seems at war with it. They "hooked up" at the end of the first season, but the show explicitly disfavors this relationship in the first episode of the next season, declaring its attention for more stand alone shows, like Paintball. Abed wants to make life conform to TV. He tells Jeff, on one of his more despicable days,  that "TV makes sense. It has logic, structure, rules. And likable leading men... We have you." It's the inclusion of imperfect matches with its sources that show us that TV can and does help us understand the world. Even as the televisual fires die down, we still gather around them, to listen to stories together, to puzzle out the world together, and to become community.

Shirley, a blessedly non-sophisticated character, at one point asks Abed, with complete sincerity, "Are you being meta?" We get the sense that she only knows the word from having to understand her new friend's odd approach. The answer is always yes, but not only yes. In Community, we're being meta, but we're also being human.