Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Community Community: Post-modernism, Hypermediacy, and How Twitter Could Save a TV Show

So, being a film major at [Rich, White Hipster College], I get to take awesome classes and write papers on awesome topics.  How awesome? you ask.  Well, let's just say that I wrote my final paper for my TV History and Criticism class on Community.  Yeah, the brilliant and hilarious NBC show.
Since most of my friends are also huge Community fans, I posted my paper on Facebook and one of my friends suggested that I show this paper to Dan Harmon because "he would appreciate it in these trying times." While I didn't want to post it in my real blog I did agree that putting this paper out there would be nice in the wake of this stupid hiatus thing.
One thing I'd like to point out is that I was in the middle of writing this when the last episode, "Regional Holiday Music" a.k.a. "Ripping Glee a New One," aired and never went back to change things like "[Abed's autism] is only ever specifically addressed in the pilot episode" so don't crucify me for statements like that.
Anyway, here it is:

   When John Hughes wrote and directed The Breakfast Club in 1985, a “motley crew” meant five white teenagers with varying socio-economic backgrounds from different rungs on the social ladder.  We have grown slightly more inclusive with our narratives since then, something the NBC comedy Community, a show which (appropriately) dedicates its pilot episode to The Breakfast Club, exemplifies.  Community follows the relationship of seven strangers at Greendale Community College when they form a study group to improve their Spanish.  Though the principle character of the show is still a straight, white male from a middle-class background, the show promotes diversity by making the six other members of the group complex, 3-dimensional characters who are equally important.  For years, people from minority groups have been demanding more media representation and, slowly but surely, it is becoming a reality.  In an age where the average viewer actually has platforms such as YouTube and Twitter from which to speak, it is much easier for the producers of media content to give them what they want and it seems fitting that this is the very thing that might save the show from being cancelled forever.  The relationship between Community and its fanbase is a great illustration of how the line between producer and consumer is blurred in the post-modern world.
   Post-modernism is a term that can only be understood through the explanation of modernism, since the former is a direct reaction to the latter.  According to Jim Collins, those who are opposed to modernism tend to see it as “a period of profound elitism, in which case postmodernism signals a move away from the self-enclosed world of the avant-garde back into the realm of day-to-day life.” (“Television and Postmodernism,” pg. 328)  Essentially, modernism endorses concepts like “the artist as genius” wherein art is created by a single auteur and will not necessarily be understood by the masses.  In fact, the ideal is actually to be incomprehensible to most people, as the goal is to appeal only to the highest in high culture.  Post-modernism, on the other hand, aims to make art more accessible, which is one of the main reasons Collins argues that television is an inherently post-modern medium.  Because television shows are episodic, they are affected by audience response; they need to find people who will consume their product in order to have a product.
   Another aspect about TV which makes it post-modern is the collaborative effort that goes into making a television show.  Unlike modernism where one artist is heralded for their work, post-modernism embraces the idea that it takes a community and the Community community is made up of more than just the cast and crew, since fan reaction on the web contributes as well.  The public displays of affection for Community are comparable to that of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, when you consider that the internet has replaced the physical gathering in this definition of “public.”  The main difference is that Rocky Horror is a movie which has a set script and was filmed long ago.  Even the call backs and live performances which supplement or act in place of the film are running through the same script.  Audience participation merely creates atmosphere.  Community, on the other hand, is a running television show.  More importantly, it is a running television show in the internet age where the voice of the viewer is more easily heard by the producers.
   One major example of how audience response has a hand in molding the outcome of the content is found in the love lives of the characters.  Because television shows are not wrapped up in a neat two-hour package like films are, the stories become more complicated- especially the love stories.  In the pilot episode of Community, we are made blatantly aware of Jeff’s attraction to Britta.  The entirety of the show hinges on his desire to have sex with her; he organizes the study group as a way to get in her pants.  He does not get her at the end of the pilot episode because then there would be nowhere to go from that point and the show would be over before it began.  The audience needs delayed satisfaction where sexual chemistry is concerned and romantic cliffhangers are the only way to build support for the “ship.”  Jeff continues to fail at seducing Britta for the next few episodes, but two very important things happen to affect the pairing as season one progresses: Britta’s popularity with audiences suffers and little throwaway moments throughout the season plant the seeds of a Jeff/Annie pairing.
   In the audio commentary for the episode “Science of Illusion,” creator Dan Harmon reveals the reason behind Britta’s character evolution into “the one we all love to hate.”  He explains that an audience resists when they are told to like a character but when you make that character the one everybody picks on, the audience begins to warm up to them.  Having all the other members of the study group make fun of Britta and establishing the recurring line “You’re the worst” which haunts her through all three seasons are ways of putting audience sympathy in the bank so that in the season finale, when she confesses to Jeff that she loves him in front of the entire school and his ex-girlfriend, there is something real to draw from.  Any good storyteller would agree that the audience will not be entertained unless they are invested in the plot.  In fact, many writers work very hard to make their characters likeable so that the audience will approve of them and care about their actions.  On Community, the main challenge was Britta since she was introduced as the love (or at least lust) interest, so it is important for us to see her in that vein.  And, although he is the main character, it is not as difficult to make Jeff likeable because his charm stems almost exclusively from the fact that he is a slick bastard.  His appeal is based on his unlikeability which, in itself, as quite post-modern since the show calls attention to its own deviation from the television show convention of providing a likeable main character.  Britta, on the other hand, depends on the audience’s reaction so viewers need to understand why Jeff is not only initially but continuously drawn to her.
   This is not the only way in which the audience has contributed to the course of a storyline on Community.  Treatment of the Jeff/Annie ship has been directly influenced by the audience, as evidenced in the season two episode, “Paradigms of Human Memory.”  Subtle hints of the relationship began to spring up throughout the first season of the show, erupting in a season finale, cliffhanger kiss. This relationship is diffused in the first episode of season two but there is more tension to play with as the season plays out and the relationship is brought up again, and even ridiculed, in this “Human Memory” episode.  This particular episode is a “clip show” which incorporates a multitude of flashbacks.  The flashback sequence meant to support Annie’s claim that she and Jeff have had a “general atmosphere of ‘would they? might they?’” all year plays in slow motion and is set to the song “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles.
   The significance of the song relates back to fan reactions to the show.   Harmon credits his discovery of the song to a Jeff/Annie fanvideo he found on YouTube.  Making a fanvideo (a fan-made tribute to a previously created worked, often a montage of pictures and/or clips set to music) is just one of the many things that one can do on the internet to feel as though they are part of the narrative process.  The audiovisual variation on the standard written fanfiction is an outlet for fans to express their feelings, which ultimately blends the roles of consumer and producer- just as YouTube intended.  It was when Harmon saw this video set to “Gravity” that he realized how much audiences care about the show and he went beyond the show’s budget by going into his own pocket to pay the copyright for use of the song as a tribute to the tribute.  This is an extremely Meta example of Community giving back to the community, but then, this show is no stranger to the self-referential.  In fact, not since the opening credits of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (“If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts/just repeat to yourself ‘it’s just a show, I should really just relax’”) has a television show been as eager to point out its own “showness” as Community is when it takes a step back and evaluates itself in front of the audience.
   Another noteworthy example of how self-referential this particular sequence is is the way Annie describes the chemistry that she and Jeff are supposed to share.  By saying that their tension is of the “will they? might they?” variety, she assumes the attitude and vocabulary of a fan reacting to the show in a way you would not expect from an actual character on the show.  This level of self-awareness is part of Community’s foundation but it is the kind of thing we expect more from Abed.  Jeff occasionally launches clever attacks on the fourth wall but Abed is usually the one responsible for its ultimate destruction.  Abed’s autism (something which is only ever specifically addressed in the pilot episode- curiously intended as an insult- but which is consistently hinted at throughout the later episodes) allows him to make the observations and comments that make us hyper-aware of what we are watching.  And when a character on the show is doing it, the show itself is really doing it.
   This self-awareness violates the idea of immediacy; an attempt to present such a flawlessly structured fantasy that it lulls the audience into forgetting that what they are watching is not real.  Whenever costume designers spend millions of dollars dressing the actors in period-appropriate clothes or set decorators fuss over how real the snow looks, they are doing it on behalf of immediacy, something that Bolter and Grusin address in Remediation.  One of their more elaborate examples comes in their exploration of Vertigo when they illustrate how Hitchcock’s use of “a peculiar camera technique to represent the sensation” (pg. 150) of Scottie’s vertigo is a case of immediacy and, its complement, hypermediacy.  When the camera assumes Scottie’s perspective and distorts the image for our benefit, the intention is to put us even deeper into the movie than mere spectators.  However, the moment we notice that the camera is doing something unusual, “we suddenly become aware of the film as medium in precisely the way that the Hollywood style tries to prevent.” (pg. 150)  They go on to explain how, because hypermediacy is so unusual, it needs to be justified in the diegesis.
In Vertigo, as in other Hollywood films such as Spellbound (1945), hypermediacy is equated with dreams, mental disorder, or insanity.  When characters are in mental balance, the camera is a transparent lens on the world; when something is wrong (when they are drunk or physically or mentally ill) the subjective camera offers a distorted view that makes us aware of the film as medium and often incorporates or refers to other media.  Even today we can find films that follow the same practice (in which transparency is mental balance, while hypermediacy is mental dysfunction), although with less assurance and consistency than was possible in the 1950s.[1]
 [1] Bolter and Grusin. Remediation. pg. 152
I would argue that, because autism is often seen as a mental illness, most of the hypermediacy is acceptable when Abed is the character who brings it to the table, albeit in a less technical way.
   The examples I cite do not present themselves in the manner in which the show is filmed but, rather, in the actual content.  The dialogue lends itself to hypermediacy and, occasionally, the plot of an entire episode does as well.  For example, the season one episode “Contemporary American Poultry” is a Mafia movie spoof which serves a dual purpose: they get to do a Mafia movie spoof for fun while exploring the depths of Abed’s disability.  The study group embarks on a Goodfellas-inspired journey when they control the cafeteria’s supply of chicken fingers placing Abed in the role of our narrator.  His obsession with pop culture justifies the spoof in the eyes of the audience, but Community does not let itself off the hook that easily.  We have learned something about Abed and the difficulties he has connecting to people in this episode, so now we need to peel back a layer and acknowledge that this episode has been spoofing something, which Jeff does when he says “Abed, the mafia movie is over.”  Yet another layer is peeled back, though, when Abed recognizes the implications of highlighting his disability and focusing on how he uses movies to connect with people, he turns to Jeff and says “Please don’t do a special episode about me.”  By saying this, he reminds the audience that we are getting dangerously close to making this a corny, sentimental episode with an after-school-special type of message.
   The writers of Community know that audience responds favourably to the show’s Meta humour and in season two, they upped the ante when they legitimately shifted mediums to present their entirely stop motion Christmas episode, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”  This episode has little to do with Abed’s autism but it is the plainest example of how mental instability can affect the medium and excuse the hypermediacy at the same time.  In this episode, Abed suffers from an emotionally traumatic experience before the plot begins and, as a coping mechanism, imagines that everyone is a stop motion version of themselves.  The audience sees the entire episode in stop motion too.  When we are introduced to this episode’s extraordinary new format, there is no explanation for the stop motion animation and a full minute of the episode passes before Abed calls attention to it.  He tells them that they have “clearly entered a whole new medium” and proceeds to analyze the new medium, suggesting that the rest of the study group move around more because there is “not much point to being animated if you don’t.”  After the initial exchange about the stop motion, Abed insists that everyone commit to the regular format, “starting with a song.”  He is, of course, referring to the show’s theme song (“At Least It Was Here” by The 88’s) which starts playing moments later.  He sings a holiday-themed parody of the song while dancing and frolicking around campus as Jeff and Britta stare on in amazement.
   Perhaps the most obvious thing to point out here is that, by virtue of Abed being a character within the show, he should not know about the show being a show.  He should not acknowledge or even be aware of the show’s format and he certainly should not know about the theme song.  This is simply unheard of!  There have been shows that feature the cast breaking the fourth wall and dancing for the audience while looking into the camera- The Cosby Show is the best example of this- but rare is the occasion when they will break into song for this.  On The Cosby Show, the dance segment is pre-recorded and the same credit sequence is played for the entire season.  It is also important to note that the characters never address this opening credit sequence at all during the show itself.  This disrupts the distinction between the characters and the actors; we cannot tell who is dancing for us but we do not have to think about it very much.  In this episode of Community, Abed announces that he will do this and then jumps right into the song and dance while the others watch, concerned.
   Though the stop motion animation is eventually explained in the story (and therefore excused) it is something that only Abed and the audience experience.  This is not unusual.  Abed is the bridge between the diegesis and the audience because his autism distances him from the characters he interacts with making him more like the audience anyway.  For instance, the moment Shirley and Annie decide to become campus security in “Science of Illusion,” Abed considers what their dynamic would be like in a “buddy cop movie.”  By stating that one of them would be by-the-book and the other one would be the badass, he creates a competition between them, as they both want to be the badass.  He continues to follow them throughout the episode, mincing no words about his role as the audience.  When asked what he is doing he explains that his cable has gone out and, because he accepts this storyline as entertainment, we not only become hyper-aware that we are watching a television show, we become hyper-aware of the potential television show within that television show.  He goes out of his way to play the role of their audience by bringing refreshments and asking a random passerby to hold his spot for him while he goes to the bathroom.  In real life, people joke about bringing popcorn to actual events because it describes the amusement of the drama that unfolds before their eyes; Abed actually does it.
   While it would be enough of a twist for him to remain an audience member throughout the rest of the episode, Community is notorious for taking things a step or two further than anyone anticipates.  He takes a picture of the girls and declares it their buddy cop movie’s poster and proceeds to direct their shenanigans so they will stick closer to a cop movie formula, even intervening by pretending to be a character in the buddy cop movie.  He is constantly reminding us that what we are watching is not real by remaining critical and unaffected at all times.  Even in the stop motion episode, when we have reached the most fantastical layer (i.e. Abed’s imagination) the fa├žade is a very flimsy one because doors are constantly being opened by Professor Duncan who walks in and out of the fantasy at will, revealing the normal setting of the study room in the background.
   At this point the remediation is piled on at least three layers thick.  We have a television show, which is a remediation of what is performed with real people, forming the first layer.  This is not counting the original medium, the written word.  The next remediation of this is the stop motion animation.  It is a different medium from the usual live action television show, making it a remediation of the original format.  Yet another remediation occurs when the characters enter the admittedly Willy Wonka-esque fantasy world within Abed’s imagination called Winter Wonderland.  The imagination is a remediation because Abed is conveying the story as he sees it through oral story-telling, which is a medium as well.  In other words, we are viewing the remediation of a television show through the remediation of stop motion animation through the remediation of Abed’s imagination as described through spoken word.
   The peculiarity of operating within Abed’s mind is accentuated by Abed’s creative flourishes.  He reimagines his friends as “Christmas versions” of themselves, such as a teddy bear and a toy soldier, in order to enrich his fantasy and to take full advantage of the medium.  The Christmas characters are reflections on the regular characters we are used to and offer a commentary on their personalities.  Abed’s tendency to analyze and evaluate the other members of the study group has been a motif throughout the show’s three seasons.  Because he studies both people and plot conventions, he is great at predicting the course of action his friends will take and how things will eventually turn out.  His analyses of other characters often make their way into his dialogue- for example, he describes Jeff as “10% Dick van Dyke, 20% Sam Malone, 30% Zach Braff on Scrubs, 40% Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry” (“Physical Education”) or in “Social Psychology” when he tells Annie that their relationship resembles that of Chandler and Phoebe on Friends.  However, since nothing is safe on Community- not even Community itself- it does not take long for other characters (namely Jeff) to view Abed’s critical lens through a critical lens.
   In the first episode of the second season, Jeff confronts him about his “gimmick” by calling it “a little season one,” which is both an attack on the Abed character (in his own area of expertise) and a very Meta comment on Community as a show.  The same thing happens again in “Paradigms of Human Memory” when Jeff says “Abed, stop being Meta!  Why do you always have to take whatever happens to us and shove it up its own ass?”  This is clearly a comment that can be made about Community but when the comment comes from within the walls of Greendale, it is most effective when directed at Abed.  Abed is Community, for all intents and purposes.  He is multiple layers of Meta, self-aware, hyper-critical, makes pop culture references a mile a minute, and, perhaps the most important similarity, he is too big for his current medium.
   In the third episode of the first season, “Introduction to Film,” we learn that Abed has trouble expressing himself in real life and requires a different medium to do it in.  Just as Abed finds his niche in the world of film, Community comes to full bloom on the internet as opposed to on television.  This show was created for the internet generation, by the internet generation, about the internet age- its success on the internet was inevitable.  The trouble with TV in the internet age, though, is that people no longer need a television to consume media and actually rely on it very rarely.  Episodes are up on and YouTube the next day and, while that is great for the consumer who finds this more compatible with their schedule, it has a negative effect on the ratings.  The system is outdated and the network has no way to interpret data beyond the realm of who watches the show when it airs.
   NBC’s failure to comprehend that Community is an extremely successful show is largely dependent on the fact that most of the Community community does not tune in at 8pm on Thursdays.  If the network took the internet into account at all, it would realize that all the fanfiction, tribute videos, animated gifs, Twitter trends, and internet memes that can be traced back to some of the show’s one-liners (i.e. “I have the weirdest boner right now.”) show that people want this show to continue.  Its lack of both ratings and awards is a poor indication of how people really feel; Community thrives on the web, and the people behind the show know it.  They cater to their massive fanbase by creating Twitter accounts for the Community characters (which are updated whenever the characters tweet on the show) so it makes sense that they would turn to Twitter to rally up support in the face of permanent cancellation.  The general idea is that if there is enough online support, if enough of the Community community comes out to prove that the show is just fine the way it is, the network will reconsider cutting it from the line-up.  Community is the Abed of television programming, and if the people at NBC just took some time to re-evaluate it, they would find that there is nothing wrong with its social interaction; there is merely a problem with the system, and if ever there was a time when audience persuasion could make a network take notice, now is it.