Damn you, NBC, give us Community back
I finally had a chance to watch the holiday episode of "Community" last night, and like most everyone on the internet who gives a shit about quality TV, I'm now wailing and rending my clothes in frustration that this show is being put on hiatus and possibly facing cancellation before they even get to finish out the season. "30 Rock" probably doesn't have many more seasons in it, "Parks and Recreation" has been declawed, and it seems that even NBC is just going back to unfunny-but-safe laughtrack-dominated sitcoms. "Community" was our last great hope for network sitcoms. Of course NBC had to take it away. Ugh.
Spoilers, of course.
One of the best parts of "Community" is that, even though it's a fantastical show where things that can't really happen in real life happen all the time, it is perversely also one of the few sitcoms I've seen that happens in the real world as we know it. Like Alyssa Rosenberg recently wrote, one of the most frustrating things on TV is that characters just never seem to acknowledge that they are eligible voters in a democracy, and subsequently they seem to have no political opinions. I will add to that this observation: in most of TV-land, you would think feminism never happened. Sure, some of the results of feminism are evident, such as female characters holding jobs or delaying marriage and childbirth until they're in their late 20s/early 30s, but they never say the word "feminism" and you never hear anyone discuss the stresses of male/female relations in terms other than personal and resigned. "Parks and Rec" and "30 Rock" are exceptions: characters not only use the word "feminism", but seem to understand the phrase "the personal is political". And while "Community" doesn't get much attention for its politics in this way, it's a definite example of being a show where the feminist movement happened, the characters are aware of it, and they behave in ways that show it. It's not just that Britta is an outspoken lefty and feminist, but also that she defies certain gendered expectations about sex and dating, and every other character knows better than to judge her openly for it. But—and this is why the show is so genius—you discover in subtle ways that some of them judge Britta quietly for it. And that they do so is their problem, not hers. The Annie character also owes a lot to feminist writings about "perfect girl syndrome". If you read Courtney Martin's Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and used it to create a template for a comic character, you would get Annie: an immature perfectionist who has bought wholesale into the Britney Spears-style pressure to be a sexy virgin. I also like how the way the guys ogle her is portrayed on the show, as a genuinely dehumanizing thing to do that Jeff, at least, has the maturity to strive to get past. Plus, and I just really appreciate this about it, the female characters develop in ways that aren't about being someone's girlfriend. Even Shirley, who is a character the writers struggle to find stories for, is still more that a wife/mother figure. Her biggest struggle is the conflict between a humanist morality that tugs on her and her Christian beliefs.
There's a branch of online feminist comedy criticism that basically recoils at making fun of anyone, so I can see how some might disagree that I see a feminist sensibility in jokes such as having Annie throw a screaming, childish temper tantrum when she doesn't get her way. (They pull a neat hat trick of making you feel angry at her, bad for her, and hopeful that she's eventually going to learn to chill out a bit.) But I love being able to watch a show where women get to be just as goofy and wrong and hilarious as the men. I like that "Community" shows Britta as being well-meaning but constantly fucking up; characters who are ciphers for audience insecurities are pretty much all male. Just changing it up and making that character female is a subtle but marvelous bit of subversion. "P&R" and "30 Rock" also do this, but they pull their punches by making their main characters enviably competent. Britta is more of a pure fuck-up.
But as the holiday show demonstrates, they are willing to go for the throat on occasion. The holiday episode borrowed its plot from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", but intstead of being infected with aliens, the study group all gets infected with a desire to be in the glee club. The show was an epic takedown of "Glee"—and really, does any show deserve it more at this point?—but the musical numbers were about more than mocking musicals. They also had some great jabs at some of the more odious aspects of American culture in general. Such as Allison Brie's remarkable performance mocking the whole "sexy baby" thing.
I can't say I've ever seen a bigger middle finger raised on TV to objectifying women. More than that, I really thought hard about how Annie's character is a commentary on how women really struggle with objectification, since there's so little space in our culture to be sexy and attractive without being seen as inviting negative attention. Of course, that sort of challenging humor is exactly the sort of thing that a lot of people don't want in a sitcom, thus the show's low ratings. Which is an incredibly depressing thought.