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Film Theory, Television

Something Always Brings Me Back to You: Community’s Exercise in Interactive Television

If you’re not watching NBC’s Community, you’re missing something special. It will quickly become one of your favorite TV shows.

Or you might hate it. That seems to happen a lot, actually. Rarely does a show come along that is as polarizing as Community, and judging by its anemic ratings (anemic for a network TV series, at least), a sizable chunk of its potential audience seems to have tried the show and decided that it’s not for them. As of this moment, the show has been pulled from NBC’s mid-season schedule and its future is very much in doubt.

It’s all kind of understandable. For an American viewing public that has made the unwatchable Two and a Half Men the highest rated sitcom on TV, Community is a bit out there, in large part because of its most notable characteristic: it serves as an ongoing meta-commentary on various TV clichés, film genres of all kinds, and the sitcom form itself. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have great stories and characters of its own – it does, but the characters just happen to frequently find themselves taking part in all manner of wacky meta-adventures, like the episodes “Contemporary American Poultry” (a parody of Goodfellas and gangster movies in general), “Modern Warfare” (an action movie parody in which Community’s characters take part in an epic paintball fight), and “Remedial Chaos Theory” (in which Community creates for itself a Star Trek-style mirror universe, complete with evil-looking goatees).

 

 

For all of its hilarious and insightful parodies, it’s with the second season episode “Paradigms of Human Memory” that Community really distinguished itself. In a moment that would keep Henry Jenkins busy for years, Community took a gigantic leap forward towards truly interactive and self-reflexive television by incorporating elements of the audience’s reception of the show into the show itself.

Let me back up and get all academic here for a minute. In 1992, Henry Jenkins, a media theorist and professor at the University of Southern California, wrote an essay entitled “‘Get a Life!’: Fans, Poachers, Nomads” that serves as his manifesto in the study of fandom. In essence, Jenkins argues that viewers do not simply consume the pre-produced material that is fed to them but instead “manufacture their own fanzine stories and novels, art prints, songs, videos, performances, etc.” This “blurs the boundaries between producers and consumers,” and as a result fandom becomes “a participatory culture which transforms the experience of media consumption into the production of new texts.”

It’s these new texts that we’re talking about. Fans have been appropriating and recontextualizing film and TV material for decades; witness the truly absurd (or impressive, depending on your point of view) amount of Star Trek fan fiction (slash or otherwise) out there on the interwebs. My personal favorite example of fan-made fiction is Pink Five, a series of short, humorous films (created by Trey Stokes and starring Amy Earhart) that look at what life in the Star Wars universe would be like for a Valley Girl:

 

 

Community has elicited a similar fan response. The first fan video that truly captured the attention of Community fans online (not to mention the creator and stars of the show) was posted on YouTube in November of 2009, only two months after Community had debuted on NBC. The video, expertly put together by a fan who variously goes by Veritas724 (LiveJournal), VeritasProductions (YouTube) and TweetingKerry (Twitter), edits together various moments from the TV show so that there appears to be a budding romance between the characters of Jeff (Joel McHale) and Annie (Alison Brie, the future mother of my children *fingers crossed*), who up to that point in the series had only just begun to exhibit signs of romantic chemistry. Check it out:

 

 

Pretty awesome, right? The slow motion, the soft focus, the Sara Bareilles song, the dissolves, the freeze frame/zooms… it makes you think that something was really going on between Jeff and Annie.

And here’s the funny thing: Dan Harmon, the creator of Community, saw it. And he liked it. A lot. So much so that it changed the course of the TV show.

Awwww yeah…

Fast forward to Community’s first season finale, “Pascal’s Triangle Revisited.” There’s an end of year school dance at Greendale Community College, and Jeff is torn between two women who want him, neither of which is Annie. He hems and haws before he says ‘to hell with it’ and bails on the dance. Outside, he sees Annie, who is planning on moving away. The two of them have barely said a word to each other in several months’ worth of episodes. They chat and, before you know it, they kiss. Dan Harmon had seen the online reaction to the Jeff/Annie pairing and decided that he wanted to do something about it.

Here’s the thing about Dan Harmon: if there’s anyone in television that understands the power of fan reaction to a TV series, it’s him. He’s one of the creators of a web site/online film festival called Channel 101, the tag line for which is “You run the network. You pick the programming.” It gives creative types the opportunity to make five-minute pilots for online TV shows. After the shows air, the audience of the site votes on which ones they like the best, and the shows that get the fewest number of votes are immediately cancelled, with the others surviving for another season. It’s kill-or-be-killed internet TV. Instant fan reaction leading to instant creative results.

A shameless opportunity to post another picture of Alison Brie

And it doesn’t end there. Harmon is also one of the most active tweeters of any TV showrunner (which is the unofficial title given to the executive producer/head writer of a TV show), and he regularly interacts (and often argues) with Community fans (and detractors). (Here’s him creatively insulting some idiot who insulted Alison Brie.) Through this interaction, he gets an instant and sometimes brutal critique of his show, and even though he’s well aware of the fact that the Twitterverse only represents one segment of the viewing audience, there’s no question that it’s had an effect on Community as a whole.

So we now return to “Paradigms of Human Memory,” which aired about a year after “Pascal’s Triangle Revisited.” The premise of the show is both brilliant and vintage Harmon: it’s a clip show in the mold of classic TV sitcoms (which would sometimes do clip shows as a cost-saving measure), except for the fact that all of the clips in “Paradigms of Human Memory” are taken from episodes that never existed. They’re all brand new. So there they are, the characters from Community, reminiscing about the crazy St. Patrick’s Day adventure they had but that the audience has never seen.

It’s in this episode that Dan Harmon decides to once again address the Jeff/Annie relationship:

The slow motion, the soft focus, the Sara Bareilles song, the dissolves, the freeze frame/zooms… wait a second, haven’t I seen this before?

So Dan Harmon, inspired by the original fan video, mimics its style and incorporates it into the Community canon. He reappropriates an appropriation, and at the same time has a bit of fun by humorously pointing out the contrived nature of this kind of video (“Gimme a break! You could do the same thing with Pierce and Abed!”). He takes the point of view of the online Jeff/Annie ‘shippers — that the two of them are meant to be together — and imports it into the narrative, having Annie take on the role of the wistful romantic. And on top of that, Community’s second season music budget had already been maxed out, so Harmon paid for the rights to the song out of his own pocket! That kind of thing is not cheap, folks.

I’m guessing that only about 5% of the audience picked up on the reference when the episode first aired, but that’s the beauty of Community: it rewards viewers who invest something into the show. It might not be for everyone, but it sure as heck is for me.

—-

Here’s a link to an article in which Dan Harmon talks about the influence that fans have on the show.

Check out Veritas724’s LJ to see what life’s like on the front lines of fandom, see the interaction between her and Dan Harmon on Twitter on the night “Paradigms…” aired, and visit her YouTube channel to see all of her other amazing fan videos.

And check out Henry Jenkins’ personal blog here.

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About A.J. Simpson

Creator and moderator of I Wonder if You Wonder.

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