“Hey, did you guys see Toy Story 3?” — Exploring pop culture as a catalyst for 21st century interpersonal relationships in NBC’s Community

Note: This is the “final draft” of an essay for my Television Comedy class at Bowling Green State University. It’s posted here for the purposes of a makeshift, internet-powered peer review. I’ll field any comments or emailed questions as they come in. If you read the whole thing, I really appreciate it. I intend to add clips of the scenes analyzed here within the next few days. Finally, sorry for the weird formatting in certain points, I literally could not get WP to do anything differently.

“I don’t need to use movies or TV shows to talk to people anymore. Before I only needed them because the day-to-day world made no sense to me, but now everyone is speaking the same language: chicken. I finally understand people and they understand me.”  – Abed Nadir, “Contemporary American Poultry”[1]

The Sony-produced comedy Community debuted in September 2009 as part of NBC’s resurgent and well-regarded “Comedy Done Right” Thursday programming block along with The Office, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. The series has since struggled to find an audience and as of the time of this writing, has only avoided major threats of cancellation because of the general disastrous state of NBC.[2] On the most basic level, Community follows a diverse group of seven individuals from different age, race and religious demographics as they attempt to make their way through life at Greendale Community College.

However, after just a few episodes, Community morphed into a more complex series, one that heavily relies on references to popular culture. Before the first season was over, most of the press, reviews and online discussion surrounding Community turned to the incessant barrage of references found within the series, with New York Magazine’s pop culture web site Vulture going as far as occasionally asking series creator/showrunner Dan Harmon to explain all the references found within specific episodes after they aired on NBC.[3] Some television critics, like Maureen Ryan, have not been too kind to the series’ use of meta commentary, deconstruction of the sitcom’s conventions and full-episode riffs on Apollo 13 and Goodfellas. Community’s reputation for specific, reference-laden humor is perhaps the primary reason why it is not successful with general television audiences.[4]

Yet, analysis of the series suggests that Community intentionally deploys instances of parody, satire, hyperconsciousness, meta commentary and reference humor (oftentimes using each one in an individual 22-minute episode) to create a specific world, as opposed to using these approaches as an easy way to tap into the zeitgeist. Though the series regularly comments on the tropes of the sitcom and features running gags that are entrenched in popular culture touchstones, these approaches are not simply empty ways to get laughs from the audience, but are instead catalysts for the attempted character development of the people of Greendale. Therefore, Community’s use of various post-modern comedy approaches like meta humor and reference humor serve as a framework for the series’ stories, which explore how individuals attempt to use popular culture as a way to relate to one another and understand the complex issues of an increasingly fragmented internet- and social media-powered 21st century.

This essay will discuss the details of our fractured, technology-centric society and how Community exists as a post-modern televisual text that emphasizes the lifestyles and relationships of people in this specific society. To further this discussion, I will explore specific episodes that depict the series using post-modern techniques to comment on how people relate to each other in the 21st century.

Media consumption, technology and the Millennial: The 21st century

In today’s world, much of our daily communication is done through “devices.” With the regular use of cell phones, instant messaging services, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, video chat or a dozen other services and applications, individuals –particularly those in developed countries –presumably do not rely on face-to-face communication as much as they used to. Meanwhile, new gadgets, social media spaces and internet applications are continuously introduced into our culture every few months. According to a 2010 report, the growth in internet access for people around the world increased 444.8 percent between 2000 and 2010, with less developed areas like Africa and the Middle East leading the way with the most rapid usage increase over this time span.[5]

Traditional news sources like newspapers and magazines are struggling to survive because readers can get news online for free from very specific and targeted sources. Digital piracy has damaged the entertainment industries financially but has also meant that fewer people are going to theaters together or watching television together. With the proliferation of hundreds of super-niche cable channels and countless technological innovations like the Digital Video Recorder (DVR), OnDemand services and online streaming, Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes argue that television used to give “diverse Americans a unified, seamless, and clear-cut image of their nation, its central players, and its agenda,” but that togetherness the medium once provided is now gone.[6] Therefore, the technologically advanced society of the 21st century is one built on rapid change, planned obsolescence and a lack of central space where a large group of people from a variety of backgrounds can gather. A well-publicized 2006 study in American Sociological Review suggested that more than 25 percent of those surveyed felt as if they had absolutely no one to talk to or confide in, more than double the amount of people who said similar things in a 1985 study.[7]

A cynical view of this landscape would suggest these changes are destroying society. Marxist interpretations would argue that the culture industry thesis came true and that the military industrial entertainment complex now dominates our culture in such a way that individuals only care about their personal consumption habits and little else. However, individuals growing up in this landscape are much more positive thinking. Millennials, the demographic group of people born between the mid-1970s and late 1990s, have been criticized in recent years for their supposed “failure to launch” into real-life responsibilities and for their supposed self-indulgent interests in technology, which plays into concerns about the state of society, particularly in the United States.[8]

However, a massive research initiative by Pew Research suggests a different profile of the Millennial. Pew’s Millennial data argues that despite their reliance on technology and social media – 75 percent of them have a social media profile[9], 36 percent of them go online “several times a day”[10] – the group is the most educated age demographic block of all time. As the group has come of age, college enrollment, especially community college enrollment, has reached an all-time high, according to a 2008 Pew study.[11] Finally, powered by their research on the Millennials, in 2009 Pew refuted the aforementioned 2006 survey about isolated individuals, noting that only 6 percent of those surveyed believe they have no confidant and that on average, the people we communicate most with online or through text message are often people we regularly communicate with in person as well.[12]

Therefore, the tensions between different age demographics of the 21st century seemed to be entrenched in the use of technology. Millennials are regularly criticized for their over-reliance on technology and their lack of knowledge and skills when it comes to “important” things or tasks. One 2010 survey showed that people could easily identify and explain Twitter’s purpose, but very few could identify the Chief Supreme Court Justice.[13] Community is a series interested in exploring how these age- and technology-based tensions come about, particularly inside a space where so many Millennials are spending lots of time: college.

One of the most crucial impacts of the fragmentation of larger groups into smaller, niche groups is how we relate through popular culture. Before the internet, message boards, Facebook, Twitter and whatever else, people still obviously consumed popular culture and discussed it among themselves. The old adage of the water cooler emphasized the idea that people would be discussing big moments in popular culture at work the next day because there were fewer choices and thus a larger chance that most people were watching the same things. As Nick Couldry argues:

“Media are part of the landscape of everyday life. Although media have always included a mixture of centralized and interpersonal communications, media-related practices have so long been configured in a particular one-to-many pattern that the mass communication paradigm has seemed automatic…as a fact of life.”[14]

The mass communication paradigm that Couldry refers to has ceased to exist in many ways as more targeted, niche media communication became more prevalent after the passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Contemporary individuals who want to consume a very specific kind of popular culture text can actively search for other individuals who like the same things, whether on Twitter, Facebook groups, fan message boards or YouTube channels.  Now there is such a thing as the digital water cooler, described by the New York Times’ Brian Stetler as a situation where “Blogs and social Web sites like Facebook and Twitter enable an online water cooler conversation, encouraging people to split their time between the computer screen and big-screen TV.”[15]

The explosion of consumption choices and avenues in popular culture texts means people can relate to one another through popular culture more so now than ever before. And although there is conflicting evidence on whether or not people are isolated from reality because of their increased use of technology, there is certainly tension when individuals go from their fragmented, specific, niche groups online and into the larger, mass world. This appears to be a legitimate tension of the 21st century and the following paragraphs will describe how NBC’s Community depicts a world in which these tensions come about.

Community as a cultural forum and post-modern text

In many ways, Community is an example of how real-world developments and issues are being reflected back to us through popular media. In that regard, the series’ ability to mirror the tensions of living in the fragmented 21st century in its stories make it a prime example of Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch’s seminal discussion of “television as a cultural forum”:

“In its role as central cultural medium it [television] presents a multiplicity of meanings than a monolithic dominant point of view. It often focuses on our most prevalent concerns, our deepest dilemmas…The emphasis is on process rather than product, on discussion rather than indoctrination, on contradiction and confusion rather than coherence.”[16]

Even though it does so through the use of pop culture-laced reference humor, Community touches on some issues of our time and presents a wide variety of diverse people and opinions. Newcomb and Hirsch argue that television series should pose questions without always providing the answers, and although Community is not overt in that approach, the series does focus on a number of problems that have been discussed in the media.[17] The series features seven lead characters, four of which can clearly be defined as Millennials and two of which are past their forties, with lead character Jeff Winger caught somewhere in the middle (though he typically identifies more with the younger group members than the older ones).

In certain cases, the conflicts that arise within the story world of Greendale Community College are based on the age differences between the characters and how those age differences lead to distinct, clashing beliefs. More often than not, the characters of Community find themselves on opposing ends of an argument because they do not understand one another’s background, interests, etc., and in the end of the episode, those in conflict come together and recognize that it is difficult for everyone to express themselves in the same ways.

Of course, because this is a comedic series, a number of the issues the characters have are absurd or heightened in hopes of making the audience at home laugh, but Community still seems primarily interested in exploring how individuals relate to one another. Although you could make that argument about almost any television series, Community’s concerns are specifically entrenched in the impact of fragmentation, isolation and over-reliance on popular culture and technology, all of which are particularly pertinent to our era.

Before getting to textual analysis of specific episodes that represent why Community is an example of the cultural forum idea, it is important to discuss how the series accomplishes those goals. Like many television series, Community functions as an obvious example of a post-modern text. Many scholars have emphasized the interconnected relationship between television and the concepts driving post-modernism. Jim Collins notes that “Television is frequently referred to as the quintessence of postmodern culture and postmodernism is just as frequently written off as mere ‘television culture.’”[18] The relationship between television and post-modernism has led to the proliferation of a number of terms that describe how series purportedly approach storytelling. It would be frivolous to discuss each of these approaches in detail, but in hopes of laying some groundwork for the rest of the essay and making distinctions between terms that are often conflated with one another, it seems useful to describe these concepts in short order.

Community is a fairly complex series, so it uses a number of storytelling techniques in attempt to create humorous situations. The series often employs intertextuality, which is theorized by John Fiske as “any one text [that] is necessarily read in relationship to others… [which] exploit television’s polysemy.”[19] Moreover, Community’s use of intertextuality help the series reach a certain level of hyperconsciousness; as Collins argues, “Intertextual references are emblematic of the hyperconsciousness of postmodern popular culture: a hyperawareness on the part of the text itself of its cultural status, function and history, as well as the conditions of its circulation and reception.”[20] With these two approaches, the series’ features a great deal of reference and meta humor that allows it to continuously recall other television series, films, books, etc. and also acknowledge that it is aware of its own place as a television sitcom.

Moreover, Community also deploys instances of parody and satire, two terms often given multiple definitions or conflated with one another. M.D. Fletcher argues that satire is “verbal aggression in which some aspect of historical reality is exposed to ridicule,”[21] and Jonathan Gray, Jeffery Jones and Ethan Thompson similarly suggest that verbal aggression still has to be based in “playful and entertaining ways” for it to be useful.[22] Stephen Neale and Frank Kutnik argue that parody attacks aesthetic conventions, compared to satire’s attack on social conventions.[23]

Community employs these two approaches as a way to comment on the television sitcom, television as a whole and a number of other popular culture touchstones such as the zombie, space travel and action genres. On a basic level, episodes of the series that follow that template would fall in line with parody, as critiques lack a specific kind of political ideology that would raise it to satirical levels. However, the series is also doing more than simply poking fun at popular genres or tropes, as a number of Community’s episodes do include a social commentary of sorts, even if that commentary lacks an overt political message. Thus, the series’ parodic and slightly satirical situations assist in establishing its place as an example of the cultural forum.

Furthermore, Community’s place as a post-modernist televisual text corresponds with a number of the broader issues the series actually comments on in its place as a cultural forum. In their introductory discussion of post-modernism media, Paul Marris and Sue Thornham summarize Jean Baudrillard’s arguments[24] about television and post-modernism as

“In the endless proliferation and circulation of signs characteristic of ‘television culture,’ the domination of ‘screen and network’ is seen to collapse old distinctions between public and private space, and between representation and the real. Instead, there is ‘the ecstasy of communication’ and the ‘obscenity’ of a culture in which all is image, surface and transparency.”[25]

This argument is perhaps more critical of television than I intend to be throughout this essay, but Baudrillard’s discussion of the post-modern era recalls some of the criticisms of the internet- and technology-driven 21st century that have been mentioned above. Arguments against fragmentation caused by the new forms of media consumption suggest that technologies have broken down the barriers between the public and private space. The concerns about isolation and individuals’ inability to share their feelings with “real” people suggest a breaking down of the differences between representation and the real.

Moreover, other scholars’ writings about television and post-modernism closely mirror the criticisms of Millennials and the internet era. Collins suggests that television has apparently been “instrumental in the devaluation of meaning and the reduction of all meaningful activity to mere ‘non-sense,’ to a limitless televisual universe that has taken the place of the real,”[26] while Linda Hutcheon argues that post-modernist texts like television are distinguished by “their ambivalent relationship to the antecedent text, a recognition of the power of certain texts to capture the imagination, but at the same time a recognition of their ideological or stylistic limitations.”[27]

These comments suggest that in a post-modern world, reality is not as easily determined as it was before and because of the proliferation and use of technology, both texts and audiences no longer care about the values of the past. In an extreme argument, they no longer care about anything. Statements like these could also apply to Millennials and young people who have apparently been desensitized and isolated by the media and would supposedly rather spend time online or playing video games than socializing “for real” in person or doing “real” work.

While I do not think Community intends to be a complete devaluation of meanings or that the series is written without reverence to the past, it does reflect and comment on both certain ideals of post-modernist media texts and also the world in which these texts exist. An argument can made that Community is a post-modern television text commenting on a post-modern view of the world that so many Millennials and 21st century individuals believe in or are at least presumed to believe in. It is my belief that part of that worldview involves strong ties to popular culture, both as an interest and as a topic that helps ease the tensions that arise when interacting with diverse and different individuals from all types of cultural and social backgrounds.

The prototypical Millennial: Abed

Community functions as an example of Newcomb and Hirsch’s television as a cultural forum framework because it displays a snapshot of a 21st century, wherein diverse individuals, most of whom have been raised on contemporary media and the internet, attempt to relate to one another, if even they are from distinct backgrounds. The series follows seven individuals as they start their lives at Greendale Community College in Colorado: Jeff Winger, a thirty-something former lawyer who was disbarred after it was revealed he never had an undergraduate degree; Britta Perry, a former Peace Corps member in her late twenties; Abed Nadir, an early twenties trilingual (English, Arabic and Polish) Palestinian-American who is obsessed with pop culture to an extreme extent, even if it chafes against his Muslim background; Troy Barnes, an African-American Jehovah’s Witness who recently completed high school as the star quarterback and prom king; Annie Edison, a former Adderall addict who was in Troy’s graduating class; Shirley Bennett, a middle-aged African-American divorcee and mother of two who is a stringent Christian; and finally, Pierce Hawthorne, a former business tycoon in his mid-sixties.

The series’ episodes suggest that this vastly different group of people was formed with very specific intent by the writers of Community, who often use how the audience thinks people like Shirley or people like Britta might act and turns those assumptions on their heads as a way to poke fun at stereotypes. The series also features episodes with conflicts that stem from the group members’ different beliefs, some of which are entrenched in their cultural or religious backgrounds while others are entrenched in age differences. Oftentimes, the group’s problem is presented through the filter of pop culture and in many cases, the solution is entrenched in popular culture as well.

While the group’s conflicts and resolutions are ingrained in pop culture, one character in particular drives that connection: Abed. From the very beginning of the series, Abed makes it well-known that he is a pop culture junkie who was more or less raised by television and film. He is even taking film courses at Greendale because he wants to become a famous director.[28] He references film and television so much that the other members of the group are not sure Abed can always tell the difference between reality and fiction.

Abed’s different way of understanding is so obvious to the other characters that in the pilot episode[29] Jeff accuses him of having Asperger’s syndrome.[30] As a young man from a broken and very traditional Palestinian home who does not want to be defined by his parents or their lifestyle choices, but instead enjoys pop culture, Abed is very much a prototypical Millennial. Although the other group members often find themselves in conflict with one another based on their various differences, it is often Abed who exacerbates or solves the problems based on his pop culture knowledge. Because Abed often serves as the driving force in the stories, it seems important to start with how and why Abed is a prime example of the 21st century Millennial trying to find his way in the world.

In the series’ third episode, “Introduction to Film,” Abed’s personal issues are brought to the forefront for the first time. Jeff tries to get the group to take a supposed blow-off course for an easy credit, but Abed notes that he is not permitted to take any classes that do not lead toward a business degree, a degree that will allow him to run his father’s falafel business – even though he wants to be a film director. After his statement, the rest of the study group looks at Abed with obvious sympathy, but he continues to twirl a piece of paper on a pencil and does not recognize that what he is saying is depressing. As Britta and Abed’s father argue about how Abed should be raised, he films the whole thing with his new camera (the scene is framed through Abed’s mediated point-of-view) and refuses to answer their personal questions. Britta and Abed’s father push him further, leading to this exchange:

Abed: “I’m not really into this scene.”

Abed’s father: “It was hard to talk to him before, and now we have this [camera] between us.” [Abed’s father walks off]

Abed: “Jeff, I think you should play the role of my father.”

Jeff: “I don’t want to be your father.”

Abed: “Good, you already know your lines.”[31]

This sequence suggests that Abed does not want to deal with his personal issues in the way that we expect individuals to, or perhaps he actually has no idea how to deal with his issues in that way. Instead, he would rather hide behind the camera because that is the kind of world he understands. In that sense, Abed’s behavior suggests that he is a prime example of the supposed negative effects of the proliferation of technology, because he has been so isolated and caught up in media consumption that he never learned how to socialize in the way that we are “supposed to.”

Later in the episode, Britta continues to push Abed to explain his behavior, but instead he continues to look at her blankly with a slightly cocked head, as if straining to understand her emotional reaction. He then says “This is the scene where you leave,” which of course, Britta does. Abed then turns the camera to Jeff and says “What do you think, dad?” to which Jeff replies, “I think you are really weird Abed and I think the wrong person just left.” In the episode’s climax, Jeff brings Britta and Abed’s father back together to hash out their problems, but Abed interrupts the argument with his finished film, which he has titled Six Candles as a reference to Sixteen Candles.

In it he depicts the aforementioned conversations with Jeff and Britta, only Abed’s real parents’ heads are super-imposed on their bodies. The film emphasizes Jeff’s “wrong person just left” line and shows Abed’s father in bed alone at home and it becomes apparent that Abed is still upset over the fact that his mother left years earlier. As his father cries while watching, Abed again cocks his head to the side as if to try to understand what his father is doing or where that emotion is coming from.

These sequences emphasize that Abed cannot outwardly tell his father – or anyone for that matter – about the hurt he feels in reference to his mother leaving, and instead must make a film about it to depict that message. The only way he can apparently communicate is through mediated messages and fictionalized stories. Even when it seems obvious that his father recognizes what the film is really about, Abed still strains to understand why the film or its meaning makes his father cry.

For Abed, making a media product that suggests a version of reality is easier than talking about the reality itself. Though Abed’s story in “Introduction to Film” is not the most obvious example of the techniques often seen in post-modern television comedies I discussed above, Abed still operates inside the framework of post-modernist ideals. First, Abed’s desire to express his feelings through the mediated space of a short film exists as post-modern example of the cultural forum. Newcomb and Hirsch note that “contemporary cultures examine themselves through the arts,” and that idea can be applied to Abed on an individual level.[32]

In this episode, Abed is examining himself and his relationship with his father through this short film, which makes the film serve as something of a forum. And because the episode itself is presenting an interesting relationship of a 21st century family, “Introduction to Film” serves as a cultural forum that features an example of the cultural forum within it.

Moreover, Baudrillard notes that the “simulation threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary,’” and it is apparent that Abed lives his life through a very post-modern lens that does not keep up the boundaries between “real” and “unreal.”[33] Because of the generational divides in society that are aggravated by technological use and media consumption, the lack of communication between Abed and his father could personify a real problem that occurs in the 21st century.

Abed’s father notes that he can never talk to him and the implication is that he cannot do this not only because of Abed’s apparent communication issues, but also because Abed spends so much time watching television series and films and presumably, browsing the web to learn even more about the things he is watching. Although Abed’s circumstances are heightened for entertainment purposes, the conflicts he has with his father do show struggles that could occur today’s society.

Community regularly puts Abed’s communication issues at the crux of its most interesting stories. A later season one episode, “Contemporary American Poultry,” moves away from his interactions with family and into how he treats the other members of the study group. The first few minutes of the episode set up the fact that Abed is not very good at censoring himself for the emotional betterment of his friends. Shirley finds herself crushing on a younger man with dreadlocks and on two different occasions brings said crush up around Abed. Annie tells Shirley that the dreadlocked guy asked about her, to whom Abed nods to and replies, “When Annie brought you up, he specifically said, ‘Who is that?’” As Shirley looks crestfallen, Annie and Britta chastise Abed for not being sensitive and he tilts his head in confusion. Later, Shirley’s crush walks by and ignores her, which leads to the following exchange:

Abed: “His dreadlocks remind me of the Predator, which is weird because you’re doing the actual hunting and you seem invisible to him.” [Shirley, Annie and Britta are obviously upset]

Britta: “Abed, you know what I do, before I talk, I ask myself ‘What am I about to say? And how might it affect each person listening?’”

Abed: “I’m really glad you mention that Britta. The way you compulsively filter yourself makes your lack of flavor kind of a flavor.”[34]

Even if Abed does not want to upset Shirley or offend the other women trying to support her, he ends up doing so anyway because he does not quite understand that sometimes it is better not to be truthful, particularly if it is going to hurt your friends’ feelings. The scene also gives the other group members and the audience a view inside Abed’s brain in some ways. Abed – and by extension, the series – has to use a bit of intertextual referencing, in this case, the reference to the late ‘80s action film Predator, to truly comprehend what is going on between Shirley and the man with dreadlocks.

The series intends for Abed’s reference to a widely popular film and his use of it as an anchor for his understanding to be funny to the audience, but the reference also shows how Abed’s mind works in that he has to filter real situations in front of him through his vast knowledge of popular culture situations and templates in hopes of comprehending what is really going on. In his discussion of intertextuality and irony, Collins notes that those approaches are “often written off as mere ‘camp’ recycling, but such a view fails to account for the diversity of possible strategies of rearticulation,” and Abed’s ability to use intertextual references in his own head as a comprehending mechanism is a nice example of rearticulating Predator.[35]

These scenes again portray Abed as a possible illustration of what happens to someone when they are raised by the media and spend all their time consuming popular culture. But again, at the same time, it also suggests that even in a situation where Abed does the wrong thing (at least in terms of normal social etiquette), thinking back to popular culture and using a specific popular culture text helps him understand how the world around him works. Thus, the series seems to not be fully committing to the use of popular culture in interpersonal relations as a wholly positive or negative approach, just one that exists.

The rest of “Contemporary American Poultry” is an ambitious parody of the 1990 Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas, where the Greendale group becomes a mini-mafia that controls the production of the well-demanded cafeteria chicken fingers. Jeff appoints Abed as man inside the cafeteria kitchen and Abed only agrees because Jeff (jokingly) acknowledges that this plan “is just like a mafia movie.”

The episode transitions into the parody, which is told from Abed’s point of view and begins with him saying, “For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be in a mafia movie.” Abed quickly becomes to the most powerful guy in school because he learns to make deals with various members of the student body in exchange for chicken fingers (i.e. test grade increases, free stuff for the rest of the group). But once the group becomes too drunk on Abed’s power, Jeff steps in and tries to stop it all:

Jeff: “The mafia movie is over.”

Abed: “I’m not doing a mafia movie. In fact, I don’t need to use movies or TV shows to talk to people anymore. Before I only needed them because the day-to-day world made no sense to me, but now everyone is speaking the same language: chicken. I finally understand people and they understand me.”[36]

But when the group starts acting out more, Abed tilts his head once more and is apparently confused as to why his fantasy of understanding everyone is over. He and Jeff meet one more time in the cafeteria kitchen, where Abed is trying new fried foods to keep everyone in line, noting that he is “close”:

Jeff: “You were close? What were you close to? To the group?  To people?”

Abed: “Please don’t do a special episode about me…Everyone else needs my help. That’s what people don’t get, they need to get me. I just need to connect to people like you can, then I make everyone happy again.”

Jeff: “Don’t you see what happened? I manipulated the group into getting you the fry cook job so I could have some chicken, and you turned into a way to make everyone like you. That made me ashamed of myself, made me jealous.”

Abed: “Maybe this is a special episode; that’s pretty alarming behavior Jeff.”

Jeff: “In the meantime, let’s make a deal. I’ll help you connect with people and you help me do a better job with them.”

Abed: “Like Knight Rider.”

Jeff: “Exactly.  Like Knight Rider.”[37]

As the parodic voiceover ends, Abed notes that he’s “back to being the weirdo, back to being on the outside” as the episode cuts to him sitting at the study group’s table with his head tilted, observing everyone else talking.

These two conversations with Jeff and final voiceover moment crystallize the main point of Abed’s struggles to relate with other people at Greendale. When he no longer required pop culture cliff-notes to interact with people, he felt normal, if just for a moment. But as soon as the group started betraying him, he again realized that trying to figure out why people do the things they do is a difficult task. And when confronted by Jeff and forced to deal with the realities of a clearly emotional situation, Abed again returns to the popular culture references as a form of deflection, labeling the emotional conversation a “special episode” and noting that his relationship with Jeff is like Knight Rider.

Therefore, although Jeff notes that when Abed can relate to people he does a great job of it, it does not matter to Abed because he finds trying to relate to be an almost insurmountable barrier. Of course, the series intends for the 18-minute Goodfellas parody to be played for comedic effect, but in the end, this post-modern approach to storytelling actually serves the character of Abed well and presumably helps the viewers at home understand why he acts the way that he does in the rest of the series.

Again, though Abed’s circumstances are heightened (particularly in this case), the fear of trying to figure out how to relate to your peers is one that anyone can understand. Because of the fragmented society that now exists, people like Abed could spend most of their time interacting with media texts or perhaps online interacting people who like similar texts, so when they then have to maneuver their way through the real world, the language and topics of conversation might not be the same.

Even when Jeff seems to acknowledge Abed’s pop culture references, he does so in a sarcastic manner as if to say that Abed’s way of looking at the world is flawed, or at least funny. However, the fact that Abed and Jeff can have a conversation, especially one of such an emotional manner, built around popular culture references suggests that Abed’s way of understanding the world is not so bad after all. And yet again, this is an example of the series presenting a complicated view of what can happen when a person relies too heavily on popular culture. However, there is still no absolute judgment being made and instead “Contemporary American Poultry” presents conflicting ideals into a forum of discussion.

Group-wide tensions in Community

Though he functions as the most obvious example for my argument, Community does not only focus on Abed when it uses its stories as a platform to comment on how people interact with one another in the 21st century. He is certainly not the only person in the group who struggles with relating to others. The writers of Community like to have characters use humorous intertextual references as a way to alleviate the tensions and uncomfortable feelings that come along with someone discussing an intensely personal subject.

In the aforementioned scene from “Introduction to Film,” where Abed discusses why he cannot take film classes and the rest of the group is sad and slightly uncomfortable, Troy blurts out that Abed should tell his father to watch the Disney movie Aladdin because “Ja’far is a bad-ass.”[38] Of course, Troy’s statement is widely off-base, offensive and meant to be funny, but in his mind bringing up a film with a Middle Eastern character to Abed seems like a good idea, not only because it is something Abed can identify with but also because it cuts through the apparent tension in the room. No one is really sure how to deal with Abed and his issues, especially considering this occurs during the series’ third episode where the members of the study group barely know one another, so popular culture is an effective way of alleviating that tension.

When the group meets for the first time after summer vacation in the season two premiere, “Anthropology 101,” Britta’s notable absence makes everyone worried to the point that Troy starts to cry. But then someone mentions Toy Story 3, and everyone’s dispositions switch to glee as they discuss the 2010 Pixar film as if Britta’s possible departure no longer matters.[39]

Yet again, this emphasizes that even in a group of people who consider themselves a family, dealing with the possible loss of one of their members – in this case to some undetermined fate – is just too awkward and uncomfortable, so they would rather just talk about a super-popular film instead and hope that Britta will show up eventually (which she does). While this is meant to be a funny moment of intertextuality, it points out that in a moment of panic a room of diverse people can still make things comfortable again by mentioning a popular culture text.

The series also sees Abed avoid emotional topics with random outbursts of his own, even when other members of the group are okay with that kind of discussion or prickly feelings that come with it. This happens in “Contemporary American Poultry” when Britta is crying about her sick diabetic cat and everyone is trying to partially listen while watching the rest of the school rush to lunch for chicken fingers until Abed randomly yells “CHCKEN RUN!” and they all follow him out of the study room.[40]

A similar event occurs in season two’s “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” when Shirley derails the Anthropology class’s YouTube viewing by sadly noting that her church has low attendance, until Abed directs them back to their YouTube perusing with “AUTO TUNE GOD OF FARTS!”[41] These examples again reinforce Abed’s particularly unique view of the world, but also position him as an extreme version of how people might act when they are unsure of what to say. However, the examples still drive home that people like to avoid uncomfortable conversations, even when around their own friends.

On a broader level, putting seven individuals from very different backgrounds allows the series to explore not only how people relate to one another, but how they become friends. “Anthropology 101” deals with the group’s relationship by focusing on the aftermath of Britta’s proclamation of love to Jeff, his subsequent kissing of the much younger Annie and how those misguided choices could possibly alter the equilibrium of the group moving forward. When Jeff asks Abed to explain why Britta has newfound popularity, he explains that her proclamation (which in itself was a very “television-y” move) makes her the underdog, the “Aniston” of the school. But Abed quickly turns his attention away from Britta and onto Jeff:

Abed: “Do you have any hillbilly cousins? A wealthy uncle? An old drinking buddy that may or may not have had a sex change?”

Jeff: “Why are you mining my life for classic sitcom scenarios?”

Abed: “I guess I’m just excited about the new year, looking for ways to improve things. I’m hoping we can move away from the soapy relationship stuff and into bigger, faster, self-contained escapades.”[42]

Later, Abed continues to voice his frustrations with this relationship drama to Shirley:

Abed: “Shirley, would you consider spinning off with me? Just riffing, but we could open a hair salon together.”

Shirley: “I don’t understand, is this you being meta?”

Abed: “I wanted to come out of the gate having adventures, like paintball. This is boring.”

Shirley: “I think that’s selfish Abed, if you were a friend to Jeff and Britta you’d be happy and see their relationship as an adventure.”[43]

These scenes are attempting to accomplish a few different things. First of all, they depict what happens when group friendship dynamics are shifted and fractured, While Jeff and Britta becoming a “couple” does not officially change anything about the study group as a whole, it does separate them a bit and noticeably frustrate Abed just as much as it excites the love-struck Shirley.

Secondly, Abed’s dialogue in both scenes serve as obvious meta commentary in response to some fan criticisms that  season one’s last episode focused too much on the romantic entanglements of the characters instead of on the high-concept gimmick episodes like “Contemporary American Poultry” or the widely-acclaimed paintball-centric “Modern Warfare.”[44] His words also function as an opening response to the criticisms that the series’ writers believe are sure to come because the first episode of season two also focuses on the romantic entanglements of the characters.

>In his discussion of self-reflexivity, Collins notes that approaches like that focus “on the ways television programs circulate and are given meaning by viewers, and on the nature of televisual popularity.”[45] In this situation, the Community writers are commenting on the ways in which their fans interact with their series and, more importantly, what kind of meanings the fans get out of that interaction. Finally, the dialogue reaches a complicated level of meta awareness and almost extends into the realm of hyper-reality because it is an example of Community acknowledging that it is a television series while taking it a step further by actually admitting that it is also trying to be meta. But as usual with Community, the references and pop culture gags are there to exemplify character feelings, and in this case, they serve as Abed’s voice of frustration with how his friends are acting.

Spurred by Shirley’s advice, Abed eventually challenges Jeff and Britta to get married in a television-like way (cheesy singers, George Clooney as the best man), but when the group’s multiple issues boil over and stop the discussion of the “wedding,” Abed gets uncomfortable again and decides to leave:

Abed: “By the power invested in me, I now pronounce you…canceled.”

Jeff: “Oh good, yeah, cancel us Abed. And while you’re at it why don’t you take your cutesy ‘I can’t tell life from TV’ gimmick with you. You know, it’s very ‘season one.’”

Abed: “I can tell life from TV, Jeff. TV makes sense; it has structure, logic, rules and likable leading men. We have this. We have you.”[46]

After this sequence, the group is noticeably fractured and no one sits near each other in class, emphasizing the fact that they do not know how to react when all these secrets have been kept and subsequently let out. But in the end, Jeff makes an impassioned speech about respect and the group eventually reconciles. Abed’s undressing of Jeff and his subsequent speech illustrate how Abed, and by extension popular culture, can solve the problems of the group and bring them together.

As the de-facto leader of the group, Jeff’s willingness to engage in a creepy competition with Britta, toy with young Annie’s heart and verbally attack Abed totally fractured the group; however, because of Abed’s retort, Jeff apparently realized the error of his ways. In that sense Abed’s view of the world, as off-center and odd as it may be, actually helped someone other than himself make sense of how things work, which again highlights the series’ desire to show the ways pop culture can actually assist in solving problems of communication and interaction. And yet again, this is an example of the series using a difficult brand of meta-commentary, as Abed acknowledges a number of the tropes of “event” sitcom storytelling, but the line delivery, actor reactions and lack of upbeat music help underscore that the purpose of the meta-commentary is to further develop the relations between the characters.

Topical tensions: Age differences

As a series that exemplifies the cultural forum ideas, Community also seems to be interested in exploring the tensions that occur between different age demographics in the 21st century, particularly in the higher education environment. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2007 that the enrollment for people aged 25 and older increased 13 percent between 1995 and 2006 and proposed that enrollment in the same age demographic would increase an additional 19 percent between 2006 and 2017, a projection larger than the forecasted enrollment bump for those under 25 years of age.[47] That information coupled with the all-time highs in enrollment for community college suggests that a large amount of the student body at real schools with similar makeups as the fictitious Greendale are older, some even old enough to be outside the Millennial demographic bracket.[48]

In the world of Community, Pierce and Shirley fall outside of Millennial bracket and the series is not afraid to create tension between those two and the rest of the group based on their age differences (though this happens much more often with pushing-70 Pierce than it does with the middle-aged Shirley).

For example, a short scene in “Introduction to Film” features Pierce trying to get the voice commands to work on his Blackberry to no avail, which leads the rest of the group, especially Britta, to stare at him with rage-filled eyes. Britta eventually flips out and slams the desk out of frustration because she cannot even stand to listen to Pierce try to work with gadgets.[49] This scene lasts less than 20 seconds, but it is an effective example of the kinds of things that are reportedly happening around the workplace in the United States today. The media has regularly painted the Millennials as impatient with older co-workers and unwilling to accept criticism,[50] and more recent coverage has suggested that Boomers and Generation Y’ers are finally becoming more responsive to technology[51] and social media applications, particularly in the workplace.[52]

A similar situation arises in “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” when the Anthropology class is watching YouTube videos and everyone is having a good time doing so except for a confused Pierce and Shirley. They both seem to know what YouTube is – though Pierce later wrongly refers to it as YouTune – but do not find the same value in it as everyone else in the class, almost all of whom appear to be fairly young.[53] The scene is entrenched in some intertextual reference humor with the acknowledgement of YouTube and a thinly-veiled reference to the video portal’s most recent sensation, Antoine Dodson, but again this also functions as a way to depict how the age differences create cultural or social differences when a somewhat private activity (watching videos online) becomes totally public.[54] This case serves as a more overtly negative example of how pop culture can divide people, particularly across age demographics, but it still shows us a world where individuals are at least trying to use technology to relate with one another.

The more apparent commentary on the age-based tensions that arise at community college occurs during “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples.” Pierce is the oldest member of the study group, and his general wackiness and vast age difference makes the rest of the group think they have to watch him at all times. This assignment is especially given to Jeff and Britta, who function as the appointed “parents” of the group, so when Pierce does not get any vegetables at lunch Britta has to check in on him and make certain he eats his greens and knows where everyone else is sitting.

But when Pierce starts hanging out with an older recurring character Leonard and his posse, two things happen. First, Pierce finds himself a part of a new, more age appropriate group and second, the whole plotline turns into a parodic riff on a classic sitcom story: the rebellious child hanging with the wrong crowd. Pierce’s behavior is brought up at the study table, and Jeff, who has been sitting at the opposite end with his feet propped up reading a newspaper like Ward Cleaver, begins to lecture Pierce. Jeff quickly recognizes what he is doing and notes that he is not Pierce’s father, which is something of a self-aware meta-reference in that the episode is acknowledging that it is doing an episode about Jeff and Britta being Pierce’s provisional parents.

After Pierce and his elderly brethren, known as the Hipsters, steal and wreck the dean’s car, they are “detained” in the office and Jeff is called in because he is Pierce’s emergency contact. Jeff again acknowledges the stupidity of the whole situation, then sees Pierce’s sad face and agrees to take responsibility for him – but not before yelling at him to “Go to the car!” like an angry, disappointed father would.[55]

This story is short and a small part of the episode, but it serves as an intriguing commentary on how the older people have to adapt to the 21st century world. Because he is often disrespected, Pierce feels the need to hang out with people his own age in this specific instance because they will not cut him down or take advantage of him due to age differences. Despite his apparent inability to see when he is being made fun of in other episodes, Pierce is self-aware enough to know that when Britta asks if he has taken his pills, it is more of a jab than a question of concern.

Furthermore, because of his confusion about the title of YouTube, which, again, he calls “YouTune,” it is possible to view Abed and Pierce as opposite ends of a spectrum that covers the use of pop culture to relate to other people. Abed totally relies on modern popular culture in his attempts to relate and understand others, and Pierce’s inability to correctly understand pop culture references pushes him to frustration and in this case, to separate himself from the study group that uses them. In that sense, Abed relies on pop culture too much and Pierce does not rely on it enough.

Either way, both gentlemen find themselves on the outside looking in. Again, these two characters present both the positive and negative effects of what popular culture references can do to interpersonal relationships, but the series still does not make a value judgment about Abed and Pierce’s respective opinions toward popular culture. Finally, though this story is an instance of the series doing a parodic meta commentary of a classic story template and includes a goofy riff on the hipster subculture (instead of being young and snobbish, here they are old and confused), it does hit on the tensions that could arise between people of different generational backgrounds in real-life community colleges across the country and thus serves as something of a forum for these tensions to be presented.

Topical tensions: Religion

One of the most explosive topics in popular culture is religion, but Community is willing to tackle the issue head-on. A 2007 Pew study found that at the least, the religious makeup of the United States could be broken down to more than a dozen “major traditions” that could then be divided into “hundreds” of religious groups, sects, etc., which is an obvious confirmation of the fact that in the 21st century, the United States is a very diverse place when it comes to religious beliefs and backgrounds.[56] The same survey suggested that most people who do not want to discuss or affiliate with religion are young: 71 percent of those surveyed who did not identify themselves with any religious group or tradition were under the age of 50.[57]

This suggests that not only is religion a diverse and difficult topic to bring up in the 21st century, Millennials care far less about religion than their elders. Yet, religious beliefs have come up on multiple occasions in Community’s short time on the air, most notably in season one’s “Comparative Religion” and season two’s “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples.” These episodes handle the topic in different ways, but both demonstrate the series’ ability to tackle the issue with a popular culture slant.

“Comparative Religion” introduces each of the group’s religious affiliations: Shirley is Christian, Annie is Jewish, Abed is Muslim, Troy is a Jehovah’s Witness, Pierce thinks he is a Reformed Buddhist (even though he is trapped in a cult), Britta is an atheist and Jeff is agnostic. The episode sees the group try to maneuver around their divergent beliefs about what should be celebrated at the end of December, but focuses mostly on Shirley, who is the most overtly religious and also most overtly prejudiced against those who do not believe as she does.

When she invites them to her Christmas party, they all have to explain their differences; in response, Shirley concludes that “The lord is testing me” before inviting them all to bring “trinkets and doo-dads from your philosophy.” Shirley also gives the group members WWBJD (What Would Baby Jesus Do?) bracelets, and stuffs Annie’s Menorah deep in the Christmas tree, signifying that she cannot really handle the opinions of others as well as her bubbly personality suggests.[58]

More importantly, the various group members’ reactions to Shirley and the topic of religion stress how difficult a topic it is to cover. Twice in the episode someone notes that different faiths are “weird” and “a subject that breeds conflict” and the younger people seem more visibly upset to be talking about the topic at all, or particularly, wearing the bracelets. The ambivalent or uncomfortable reactions of the younger characters ties in well with the Pew research that notes young people feel similarly on a larger scale as well. It also again points out the age differences between Shirley and most of the rest of the group and emphasizes that older people tend to believe in religion more than younger people in the real world. For better or for worse, Millennials would rather not get involved in issues that seem to create substantial conflict.

And this being Community, the episode has Jeff sum up the Millennial opinion on the issue with a popular culture tint:

Shirley: “Why do you hate me and Jesus? You hate religion?”

Jeff: “No, for me, religion is like Paul Rudd. I see the appeal and I would never take it away from anyone, but I would also never stand in line for it.”[59]

This is yet another instance of a character using pop culture to express their feelings to another individual, proposing that even with a subject as contentious as religion, employing bits of popular culture helps to smooth things over. It also emphasizes that younger generations would rather just avoid discussing religion all together. But at the same time, Jeff’s statement could be read as sacrilegious by someone more offended than Shirley, which furthers Collins’ idea that television is “instrumental in the value of meanings.”[60]

In this instance, Jeff’s post-modern stance towards the topic is certainly devaluing religion and, to some extent, its followers. However, because the episode continuously puts the characters in a position where they have to talk about their religion, it presents a controversial topic to television audiences without being overly critical of any one specific belief.

“Comparative Religion” also serves as a commentary on the increasingly politically correct world that started in earnest in the late 1990s and has arguably become even more important in the 21st century.[61] Political correctness comes into play with religion especially around the holidays, when there has been a rise of greetings like on “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas” as a way to not disregard any individual or group belief.

Greendale’s Dean Pelton always tries to include everyone, going as far as naming the school’s mascot the Human Being and giving him a racially unidentifiable skin tone, and his actions in “Comparative Religion” follow that same logic. In the episode, he has signed off on decorations that say “Merry Happy” and makes a morning announcement about the tip-toeing of the “Secular boots on the roof” of “Non-denominational Mr. Winter.” As the most overtly religious person, Shirley notes that she is sick of the dean “shoving his PC-ness” down her throat.[62]

Again, these few scenes comment on and satirize how 21st century culture is one of political correctness. One could argue that the trend toward political correctness corresponds with the aging of the Millennials, and if we think back to the younger characters’ unwillingness to discuss religion and the older Shirley’s obvious desire to both talk about it and celebrate in the way she wants to (i.e. with specific terminology) the series seems to be presenting circumstances where those claims about political correctness’ relationship with age might be true.

“Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” is a much more abstract examination of religion and how it affects people in the 21st century, and actually functions as a more positive view of religion than “Comparative Religion.” In the episode, Shirley is upset about the lack of religious viral videos on YouTube, so she asks Abed to make a film about the topic. Though he is initially hesitant (“I’m a storyteller, not a preacher”), he agrees after reading the New Testament in quick fashion and relating it to popular culture (he refers to Jesus as a mix of E.T., Edward Scissorhands and Marty McFly). Of course, Abed sees more in the possibility of making a movie about Jesus:

Abed: “We need a Jesus movie for the post-post-modern world. I want to tell the story of Jesus from the perspective of a filmmaker doing a film about the life of Jesus…The filmmaker realizes that he’s Jesus, being filmed by the camera of God and then it goes around like a mirror in a mirror because all of the filmmakers are Jesus and all of the cameras are God.”[63]

When Shirley derides Abed’s abstract idea and says there is no movie, Abed is pushed even further into the post-modern, as he takes “There is no movie” to mean “This [meaning everything] is the movie” while looking directly into the camera at the audience. From there, Abed’s film production overtakes the Greendale campus. He dresses up like a pop culture version of Jesus with long wavy hear and tight pants and begins to talk in the most post-modern and abstract way possible: “There are no takes, there is no viewer. The film is the story, we are the story, we are the film.” As the production of Abed continues, the students become dedicated, almost religious-like followers of Abed.

This approach is certainly one of the series’ most abstract and post-modern, as the episode again goes as far as mentioning that it is “post-post-modern” and “meta,” but again this is done with intent. The storyline is not only commentary on how and why religious people believe what they believe, but also how 21st century popular culture views religious people.

In so many popular culture texts, religion is used either as a tool for conflict or portrayed as an extremist kind of belief. This episode provides two views on the ways in which religious people are often portrayed in the media. On one hand, an argument could be made that the student body’s willingness to follow Abed’s experiment with blind dedication reinforces the idea that people who believe in something “larger” than themselves are dolts who do not or cannot think for themselves.

But on the other hand, an argument could be made for the idea that the episode is actually criticizing that media representation of “believers” by satirically taking religious devotion to a goofy, heightened extent. This second option is especially underscored by the episode’s conclusion, which sees Abed recognize his misguided attempts to understand Jesus while Shirley is the hero who helps him destroy the footage of the film. In the end, Abed tells Shirley that she humbles him and ends up making her goofy YouTube video starring Troy as rapping Jesus.

In that respect, the episode seems to be saying that people who have true faith and really understand what they believe in (like Shirley) are to be respected more than they are given credit for, even if religion is a topic we do not like to discuss in the 21st century. Furthermore, the episode also suggests that while popular culture can help ease the tensions between people with different beliefs, it does not solve all the problems; in the end, Abed cannot just refer to The Matrix and Superman Returns as films about Jesus or Jesus-like figures, he actually has to recognize that those references and beliefs hurt real people like Shirley. Therefore, this episode and storyline are less supportive of Abed’s reliance on popular culture.

However, “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” still describes the ways in which people attempt to use popular culture to solve problems or relate to one another, whether they are successful in that attempt or not, and presents its importance in a wide-ranging discussion about a topic that people apparently like to avoid.

Limitations to Community as an example of the cultural forum

Thus far, I have argued that Community serves as an example for the ways in which television texts can present real issues to the audience at home. However, this argument is not without its limitations that I feel it pertinent to address. While the specific episodes and cases I presented here do seem to correspond with the ideas about television’s ability to highlight tensions that exist in the real world, these five episodes are only a sampling of Community’s output, which is of course still in progress at the time of this writing.

In other episodes, there are surely character moments and plot developments that display slightly different representations that perhaps undercut the arguments I have made here. This is particularly true for Abed. In most cases he still relies on pop culture to understand the world, but there are instances where he does not seem as socially disconnected as he does in “Introduction to Film” or “Contemporary American Poultry.”

Although I have primarily discussed Community as a space for cultural discussion and commentary, my selection of issues is an obviously narrow one for the purposes of this assignment. The episodes I chose for this essay do represent the series as a space for social discourse, but it is hard to make an argument that the same is true for high-concept episodes based on the space travel (“Basic Rocket Science”) and action hero genres (“Modern Warfare”).

And though I believe that Community presents a number of social issues or problems in episodes not discussed here, there are certainly topics the series has yet to cover with the same kind of vigor that it has in reference to things like media effects and religion. In the midst of one of our nation’s most problematic economic climates, Community has thus far not been interested in exploring how those circumstances affect Greendale students.

Though it presents one supporting character with an apparent alternative sexuality in Dean Pelton, every character in the main cast is heterosexual (though Abed may be asexual).

And while the series represents a diverse snapshot of how real community colleges fill out their class rosters, Community lacks any characters of Latin or Hispanic origin, groups that are driving the all-time enrollment records discussed earlier.[64] Thus, while the series’ ability to represent the ideas of the cultural forum is even more wide-ranging than I present it to be here, Community still avoids certain issues of today.

Moreover, a final consideration needs to be made for the ways in which Community presents itself as a cultural forum. Because the primary focus of this essay was to explain some of the ways the series is willing to discuss specific issues of our time, less attention was paid to the comedy, which is obviously an important element of Community’s formula. I do not feel as if I avoided the issue entirely in my discussion of the series’ approach to storytelling, but Community’s place as a sitcom on American broadcast television means that it is most certainly a comedy first and a cultural forum second.

In that respect, while there it is my argument that the series intentionally tackles major issues like religion as a way to comment on current discourses, it is very possible that Community’s writers want Abed dressed up as Jesus to serve as a nice sight gag more than a sharp commentary on pop culture’s representation of Jesus. I think Community wants to accomplish both goals with a number of its episodes, but admittedly more attention was paid to the series as a place for commentary than as a place for humorous sequences.

And finally, because Community uses such a specific type of humor than relies on meta references, satire and more, it is perhaps impossible to tell if the writers want the series to serve as a place for cultural discourse or serve as a commentary on television series trying to serve as a place for discourse. Again, my argument here leans more the former designation, but further research and analysis would be needed to determine how the series’ place as a sitcom affects its ability to serve as a cultural forum or vice versa.

Conclusions: Cultural forum and comedy, but how do we view it as both?

Community is one of the most post-modern live-action comedies of all time, one that deploys a wide variety of storytelling techniques and approaches that most scholars refer to as post-modernist. However, although the series is a clear example of post-modern ideals, there is an additional layer to its stories and storytelling approach that indicates something more is going on.

In general, the series seems very willing to tackle some of the struggles facing individuals in the 21st century, particularly when they move out of their pattern of media consumption and into real-life group situations. Community certainly represents characters and issues of the 21st century, a time defined by increased technology use and media consumption, but also defined by claims of isolation, fragmentation and social deficiency. Even though it tackles matters of cultural, social, age and religious differences while trying to figure out how diverse individuals maneuver their way through group dynamics in a comedic and often parodic and satirical way, Community still has a value to society because it exemplifies the argument that television can function as a cultural forum (albeit one with some limitations, as discussed above).

Amid the gags, pop culture references and meta-commentaries on the sitcom form, the series regularly points out how diverse individuals relate to one another in the 21st century; most importantly, the series makes a compelling argument as to how popular culture touchstones propel or disrupt those relations. And in the cases where Community does not provide an overwhelmingly positive view of using pop culture as a social lubricant, the series still makes an effort to suggest that it plays some role in 21st century interpersonal relations.

But because the series is more well-known for the pop culture references, high-concept episodes and in general, for just being a “comedy,” there is question as to how much value anyone at home puts into Community’s ability to present fairly complex issues amid said references and high-concept affairs. If the viewers are simply laughing at Abed’s obvious eccentricities and not thinking about how those eccentricities suggest something larger, is the series’ ability to serve as an example of the cultural forum idea fully undercut? Partially undercut?

Not laughing at an episode typically opens it up for a more critical viewing, but what happens when we continuously laugh? These questions also open up discourse about different levels of active viewership and taste, but they remain pertinent nonetheless, particularly if we are to find out Community’s overall value to popular culture and society.


[1] “Contemporary American Poultry,” Community, NBC, 22 Apr. 2010.

[2] Breeanna Hare, “For NBC, One Bad Decision after Another, Analysts Say,” CNN.com, 08 Jan. 2010, Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-08/entertainment/nbc.leno.show_1_jay-leno-show-rebecca-marks-conan-o-brien?_s=PM:SHOWBIZ&gt;.

[3] Josef Adalian, “Community Creator Dan Harmon Explains the Genesis of Every Reference on Last Night’s Episode,” New York Magazine’s Vulture, 24 Sept. 2010, Web, 01 Dec. 2010.

[4] Maureen, Ryan, “Good Cliches vs Bad Cliches: From ‘Human Target’ to ‘The Office’ to ‘The Pacific’” The Watcher, 04 Mar. 2010, Web, 01 Dec. 2010. <http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/entertainment_tv/2010/03/office-delivery-nbc-human-target-fox-burn-notice-usa.html&gt;.

[5] “World Internet Usage Statistics,” Internet Usage World Stats.com, 31 June 2010, Web, 01 Dec. 2010.

<http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm&gt;.

[6] Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes, “Television News and the Nation: The End?” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 625 (2009): 183.

[7] Shankar Vedantam, “Social Isolation Growing in U.S., Study Says,” Washington Post.com, 23 June 2006, Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/22/AR2006062201763.html&gt;.

[8] Robin M. Henig, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” New York Times 22 Aug. 2010, Sunday Magazine ed.: MM28. NYTimes.com, 22 Aug. 2010, Web, 1 Dec. 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22Adulthood-t.html?_r=2&ref=magazine&pagewanted=all&gt;.

[9] Pew Social Trends Staff, “Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change,” Pew Social and Demographic Trends.org, 24 Feb. 2010, Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://pewsocialtrends.org/2010/02/24/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change/&gt;.

[10] Pew Research, “Teen and Young Adult Internet Use,” Pew Research Center.com, Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://pewresearch.org/millennials/teen-internet-use-graphic.php&gt;.

[11] Richard Fry, “College Enrollment Hits All-Time High, Fueled by Community College Surge,” PewSocialTrends.org, 29 Oct. 2009, Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://pewsocialtrends.org/2009/10/29/college-enrollment-hits-all-time-high-fueled-by-community-college-surge/&gt;.

[12] Pew Research, “Social Isolation and New Technology: How the Internet and Mobile Phones Impact Americans’ Social Networks,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, 4 Nov. 2009. Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1398/internet-mobile-phones-impact-american-social-networks&gt;.

[13] Pew Research, “Well Known: Twitter; Little Known: John Roberts,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (People-Press.org), 15 July 2010, Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://people-press.org/report/635/&gt;.

[14] Nick Couldry, “Does ‘The Media’ Have a Future?” European Journal of Communication 24.4 (2009): 437-38, Print.

[15] Brian Stetler, “Water-Cooler Effect: Internet Can Be TV’s Friend,” New York Times 24 Feb. 2010, New York ed., A1 sec, NYTimes.com, 24 Feb. 2010, Web, 1 Dec. 2010, <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/24/business/media/24cooler.html?_r=2&gt;.

[16] Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch, “Television as a Cultural Forum: Implications for Research,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 8.3 (1983): 48-49, Print. 

[17] Newcomb and Hirsch, 49.

[18] Jim Collins, “Television and Postmodernism,” Channels of Discourse, Reassembled, Ed. Robert C. Allen, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992, 327, Print.

[19] John Fiske, “Intertextuality,” Popular Culture: Production and Consumption, Eds. C. Lee Harrington and Denise D. Bielby, Malden: Blackwell, 2001, 219, Print.

[20] Collins, 335.

[21] Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones and Ethan Thompson, “The State of Satire, the Satire of State,” Satire TV, Ed. Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones and Ethan Thompson, New York: NYU Press, 2009, 12. Print.

[22] Gray, Jones and Thompson, 12.

[23] Gray, Jones and Thompson, 13.

[24] Jean Baudrillard, “The Ecstasy of Communication,” Postmodern Culture, Ed. H. Foster, London: Pluto Press, 1985, 126, Print.

[25] Paul Marris and Sue Thornham, “Postmodernism Media Introduction” Media Studies: A Reader, Ed. Paul Marris and Sue Thornham, New York: NYU Press, 2000, 371, Print.

[26] Collins, 331.

[27] Collins, 333 summarizing from Linda Hutcheon, “The Politics of Postmodernism, Parody, and History,” Cultural Critique 5 (Winter 1986-87): 180-182, Print.

[28] “Introduction to Film,” Community, NBC, 1 Oct. 2009.

[29] “Pilot,” Community, NBC, 17 Sept. 2009.

[30] This discussion about Asperger’s syndrome could be an example of the series serving as a space for cultural discourse, as a 2009 CDC report noted that Autism Spectrum Disorders like Asperger’s are now an “urgent” public health concern. See: Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, “Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 Dec. 2009, Web, 06 Dec. 2010, <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5810a1.htm&gt;.

[31] “Introduction to Film,” Community, NBC, 1 Oct. 2009.

[32] Newcomb and Hirsch, 48.

[33] Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, Ed. John Storey, Harlow: Pearson, 2009, 410, Print.

[34] “Contemporary American Poultry,” Community, NBC, 22 Apr. 2010.

[35] Collins, 333.

[36] “Contemporary American Poultry,” Community, NBC, 22 Apr. 2010.

[37] “Contemporary American Poultry,” Community, NBC, 22 Apr. 2010.

[38] “Introduction to Film,” Community, NBC, 1 Oct. 2009.

[39] “Anthropology 101,” Community, NBC, 23 Sept. 2010.

[40] “Contemporary American Poultry,” Community, NBC, 22 Apr. 2010.

[41] “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” Community, NBC, 21 Oct. 2010.

[42] “Anthropology 101,” Community, NBC, 23 Sept. 2010.

[43] “Anthropology 101,” Community, NBC, 23 Sept. 2010.

[44] Todd VanDerWerff, “”Pascal’s Triangle Revisited” Review (Comments Section),” The A.V. Club’s TV Club, 21 May 2010, Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://www.avclub.com/articles/pascals-triangle-revisited,41397/&gt;.

[45] Collins, 335.

[46] “Anthropology 101,” Community, NBC, 23 Sept. 2010.

[47] U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Science, “National Center For Education Statistics Fast Facts,” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98&gt;.

[48] Richard Fry, “College Enrollment Hits All-Time High, Fueled by Community College Surge,” PewSocialTrends.org, 29 Oct. 2009, Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://pewsocialtrends.org/2009/10/29/college-enrollment-hits-all-time-high-fueled-by-community-college-surge/&gt;.

[49] “Introduction to Film,” Community, NBC, 1 Oct. 2009.

[50]David Stillman, and Lynne Lancaster, “Generational Tension Can Millennials Handle Criticism?” BusinessWeek.com, 02 July 2008, Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://www.businessweek.com/business_at_work/generation_gap/archives/2008/07/can_millennials.html&gt;.

[51] Citrix Research, “Gen X Driving Social Networking at Work – Not Gen Y,” BusinessWire.com, 19 Oct. 2010, Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20101019005800/en/Gen-Driving-Social-Networking-Work-%E2%80%93-Gen&gt;.

[52] WorldOne Research, “Lexis Nexis Technology Gap Survey,” LexisNexis.com, Apr. 2009. Web. 1 Dec. 2010. <http://www.lexisnexis.com/media/pdfs/LexisNexis-Technology-Gap-Survey-4-09.pdf&gt;.

[53] “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” Community, NBC, 21 Oct. 2010.

[54] NPR Staff, “Antoine Dodson: Riding YouTube Out Of The ‘Hood,’” NPR.org, 23 Aug. 2010, Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129381037&gt;.

[55] “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” Community, NBC, 21 Oct. 2010.

[56] Pew Research, “Statistics on Religion in America – Report,” Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Feb. 2008, Web. 01 Dec. 2010. <http://religions.pewforum.org/reports&gt;.

[57] Pew Research, “Statistics on Religion in America – Report,” Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Feb. 2008, Web, 01 Dec. 2010, <http://religions.pewforum.org/reports&gt;.

[58] “Comparative Religion,” Community, NBC, 10 Dec. 2009.

[59] “Comparative Religion,” Community, NBC, 10 Dec. 2009.

[60] Collins, 331.

[61] Roger Kimball, “Political Correctness or The Perils of Benevolence,” National Interest, 74 (Winter 2003/2004): 158-165, Print.

[62] “Comparative Religion,” Community, NBC, 10 Dec. 2009.

[63] “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” Community, NBC, 21 Oct. 2010.

[64] Tony Cox, “Minorities Leading Rise In College Enrollment,” Tell Me More, National Public Radio, 25 June 2010, NPR.org, 25 June 2010, Web, 06 Dec. 2010, <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128107185&gt;.


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10 Responses to ““Hey, did you guys see Toy Story 3?” — Exploring pop culture as a catalyst for 21st century interpersonal relationships in NBC’s Community”
  1. senor chang says:

    Wow….this is just phenomenal. Do you mind if I post this to the Community Livejournal? It was a very interesting read.

  2. ihops says:

    Not sure if it is too late to make this point (I presume this was submitted already), but there’s an inaccuracy that you rely on a lot herein regarding Shirley’s age. As she states in the bottle episode (“Cooperative Calligraphy”), Shirley is “around Jeff’s age.” Given that she abandoned her education earlier in life to get married, and based on the ages of her kids (as well as how easily she got pregnant from a one-night stand), Shirley is likely no older than 35 — an “early Millennial”, perhaps, but if you’re arguing strictly on the basis of age than she and Jeff are very much in the same cohort.

    (I’m not arguing against your broader point with Shirley, but merely pointing out that your proposed cause — her age — isn’t supported by the text. The contrast between Shirley and Jeff, given their close ages, speaks volumes about the roles of race, class, and gender in forming demographic in-groups and out-groups even amongst matched-age cohorts, and although it’s not something the show has ever engaged with directly the subtext of that idea does seem to inform “Community”‘s presentation of Jeff’s aging-hipster-cool patina as a desperate grasping for firmly defined identity equal to Shirley’s intolerant religiosity. Incorporating those other demographic factors is also more interesting than arguing strictly from age — even though I found much of your analysis trenchant and interesting, applying age as the only demographic marker, particularly in Shirley’s case, just seems reductive, although I grant that may have been necessary to keep this paper to a manageable length and scope…)

    • Cory Barker says:

      All good points and ones that would/will be addressed should this essay continue to be developed in the future. A good deal of it was written before “Calligraphy” aired and that more specific detailing about Shirley came to light. Your points about various demographics is a massively important one, but you more or less answered your own question at the very end. I think my essay was ALREADY double the required length and at a certain point I had to stop, but those other concerns were/are part of my notes for future work. Thanks for the comment.

  3. elena says:

    Oh, I wish you had seen the season 2 Christmas episode before writing this. It would have been perfect! All in all, a solid effort. I love the ways that you illustrate the group’s tensions and focus on Abed, who most likely represents the audience’s perspective in watching Community. Yay! I do think that someone needs to write about Troy becoming the heart of the group, and being a better leader than Jeff. I think I’m going to go write that paper…cheers!

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