Never Underestimate the Power of ‘Community’

The underdog comedy was as influential as it was excellent, but in many ways, it still stands alone.
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By  · Published on November 29th, 2019

This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.

At Community’s height, I thought the show would live forever. I didn’t necessarily believe that the series, which began on NBC and later moved to Yahoo Screen, would last for a dozen seasons, but I knew in my heart of hearts that it deserved a place on the top shelf of TV comedy, to live on in our collective consciousness for years to come alongside other beloved genre-innovators like Seinfeld and Arrested Development.

So what gives? Why aren’t we talking about Community? Dan Harmon’s hyper-creative, endlessly endearing weirdo series about an all-ages community college study group has mostly fallen out of the pop-culture conversation just five years after its finale. That’s a shame because, in addition to dozens of near-perfect episodes, Community also gave us at least a half-dozen trends and figures that would go on to define the decade.

Before helming the biggest movie on earth, Marvel directors Joe and Anthony Russo brought us dozens of episodes of Community. Though it’s hard to imagine the men behind Avengers: Endgame returning to their humble roots if the series’ #SixSeasonsAndAMovie campaign ever comes to fruition, it’s surprisingly easy to see how the duo went from study group stories to Captain America. Community built itself on numerous all-in genre detours, from a chicken-finger-centric gangster movie (“Contemporary American Poultry”) to a conspiratorial thriller (“Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design”) to an action epic (“Modern Warfare”).

While the Russos weren’t in the director’s chair for most of the show’s more experimental seasons, they served as executive producers for the entire elaborate series. Marvel’s signature balance between humor and spectacle feels like a natural, if large-scale, extension of the work the Russos did on the little NBC show that could.

Troy Abed

The Russos weren’t the only members of the cast and crew to take leaps and bounds post-series in the latter half of the 2010s. Harmon’s Rick and Morty is a clever, kooky animated series that’s inspired legions of fans. Actor Donald Glover is a phenomenon as hip hop artist Childish Gambino (though he had released music as Gambino during the series’ run, his breakout album, Because the Internet, dropped just weeks before his final episode aired), and created the consistently mind-blowing FX series Atlanta with his brother Stephen. And actress Alison Brie leads the cast of Netflix’s GLOW, an empowering and enthralling comedic drama that’s gotten better every season. All three series are among the best that TV has to offer, and all contain a dash of the offbeat underdog spirit that made Community so lovable.

The collective cultural cred of the series’ cast might be impressive, but Community is so much more than the sum of its parts. While it wasn’t the first to rely heavily on meta-comedy, nor the first to be saved from cancellation and relocated to streaming, it’s perhaps the most complex hard sell of a series to ever mobilize fans into successful preservation campaigns. “We’re gonna seem like a mainstream dream and be appealing to all mankind!” Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) belts out while wearing a purple dress in the Season 3 opener, with a song that directly addressed the box in which audiences and networks consistently tried to put the uncategorizable series.

Each of the seasons Harmon helmed — he was fired at one point but brought back after the comparatively lackluster fourth season — was bold, ridiculous, and smarter than a sitcom is ever expected to be. Pop culture fanatic Abed (Danny Pudi) began referring to the series’ seasons as such outright, while a branding deal with Subway turned into a hilarious plot about Britta (Gillian Jacobs) falling in love with a man who is a trained corporate emblem.

Community offered up one stroke of genius after another, and while the show isn’t always credited as a pioneer of next level meta-comedy, other series like Supernatural and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia only took meta turns after Community began airing, while Emmy winner Fleabag later tapped an essential meta vein as well.

Community Halloween

If a host of talented people and influential genre-bending risks aren’t enough, Community also did things so singular and intrepid that they haven’t been replicated since. Few, if any, serialized comedies before Community believed that a show could be something different every week. None after have taken that belief to the level of ambition that Community reached. As the show veered into trippier territories (a puppet episode! a clip show made entirely of clips that didn’t happen! a multi-part faux-documentary!), the only through-line was the core cast of characters: smooth-talking ex-lawyer Jeff (Joel McHale), type-A Annie (Brie), perennial boy-at-heart Troy (Glover), hippie stoner Britta, awkward geek genius Abed, wealthy racist Pierce (Chevy Chase), and flamboyant Dean Pelton. For six seasons, Greendale Community College was a vortex of wild ideas and ragtag gangs, but together the study group weathered every creative storm Harmon could come up with.

Like any great meta work, Community gets the last word on its legacy. In the series finale, Abed says of his favorite medium, “It’s TV; it’s comfort. It’s a friend you’ve known so well, and for so long you just let it be with you.” Some part of me wants to fight long after it’s gone to get Community a top-tier spot in the comedy canon, but I also know that what Abed says is true. Community may never get the recognition it deserves, and that hashtag-prophesied movie is no sure thing either, but the series we loved will always live on as a friend to the underdogs.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)