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You Say “Smug” Like It’s A Bad Thing

November 16th, 2011

November 14, 2011: The Day the Internet Lost Its Collective Shit; aka The Day It Learned that Community Wasn’t on NBC’s Midseason Schedule.

Community, currently in its third season, stars Joel McHale as a smug lawyer whose lack of a legitimate degree sends him to community college, where he becomes the de facto leader of a misfit study group. It’s a good show. Sometimes it’s even a great show. But it’s also a prime example of television that’s too clever for it’s own sake.

Its first breakout character was Abed, a pop culture-immersed twentysomething with what appears to be 21st Century TV’s favored disorder, Undeclared Asperger’s Syndrome. Reportedly, Community creator Dan Harmon has a fair amount in common with his fictional mouthpiece, and that may be why the show has had such difficulty connecting with a mass audience.

Because Community is a show that dares you to enjoy it. It says, “You tune in at 8:00 pm Eastern/7:00 pm Central looking for easy laughs? Fie! We will give you multi-layered meta commentary punctuated by uncomfortable moments and populated by emotionally-damaged and occasionally unlikable characters!”

I’ll give you a couple of examples, both from the show’s sophomore year. In “Mixology Certification,” the group convened at a bar to celebrate the 21st birthday of their friend Troy, only to fall into alcohol-laced melancholy. While it worked as an encapsulation of what it was like for me in my early twenties–feeling alone in a room full of friends–it was difficult to watch. Later that season came another birthday episode, “Critical Film Studies,” a demonstration of the series’ self-indulgence. What began as a Pulp Fiction tribute morphed into an extended riff on My Dinner with Andre, a 1981 indie film that even Community‘s hipster audience probably never has seen.

That Community has lasted this long is testament to the floundering of NBC, whose inability to spawn hits has had the not-unwelcome side-effect of encouraging them to stick with low-rated critical darlings such as 30 Rock and (my current favorite) Parks and Recreation.

To be clear, I never miss an episode of Community. I love the ensemble cast. (Even Chevy Chase.) Alison Brie is my girlfriend. (Yeah, right.) And I can appreciate a zombie-themed episode as much as the next AV Club reader.

But my main beef with it is that it’s too in love with its high-concept installments. Lots of TV series have produced format-breaking episodes–think M*A*S*H‘s war documentary or Buffy‘s musical theater–but what made those notable was their deviance from a well-established baseline. Community doesn’t have that. When you tune in, you don’t know what you’re going to get. They’re stop-motion animated! They’re simultaneously existing in seven parallel realities! They’re aboard a Kentucky Fried Chicken-sponsored space shuttle! (All actual episodes.)

Really, it should be no surprise to anyone that Community is taking a little lie down. But don’t despair, it will most likely go on for at least another season. The same economics that kept it around this long should sustain it until it reaches the magic number of episodes required for syndication. (Sony has already been taking out sales ads in broadcasting trade publications.)

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