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Community Offers a Real World Education

on Mon, 08/20/2012 - 00:00

At the beginning of the second season of the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory, next door neighbor Penny is distressed about the possibility of dating the genius-level physicist Leonard Hofstadter. “Leonard has no business being involved with a waitress-slash-actress who felt so insecure that she lied to him about finishing community college,” she tells Leonard’s roommate Sheldon Cooper. When asked why she would lie about such a thing, she replies, “I didn’t want him to think I was stupid.” Sheldon simply looks at her and rhetorically asks, “You thought the opposite of stupid loser was community college graduate?”

The NBC comedy Community follows a small group of misfits and outcasts as they make their way to a four-year degree at Greendale Community College, and at first glance, the phrase “stupid loser” does indeed appear to be a fitting epitaph. Former lawyer Jeff Winger, for instance, is forced to attend Greendale in order to reclaim his past life after it is revealed that he falsified he college degree in order to attend law school. The meek Annie Edison was expelled from high school due to drug addiction and her former classmate Troy Barnes is a dimwitted former football star. Shirley Bennett, meanwhile, is an African-American mother whose husband left her for a stripper, Britta Perry is a self-proclaimed feminist and “world traveler,” wannabe filmmaker Abed Nadir is being groomed by his father to take over the family falafel business and Pierce Hawthorne is a sixty-something, politically-incorrect, seven-time divorcee loner. With such a diverse cross-section as a focus group, Sheldon Cooper’s sarcastic remark about community college appears to be right on target.

The formal education that this band of misfits experiences at Greendale likewise gives credence to the comment. Their freshman year Spanish teacher is of Chinese descent and goes by the name Señor Chang (Ken Jeong). It later turns out that his academic background is just as falsified as Jeff Winger’s (Joel McHale), putting the entire class in jeopardy of losing credit for the course. “In high school, I was in a band,” Chang confides to Winger. “We could have been huge, but the world wasn’t ready for an Asian man on keytar. The next thing you know, I’m thirty-two and I’m bagging groceries for five bucks an hour plus tips. So I did want anyone would do—faked my way into a job as a Spanish teacher at a community college, relying on phrases from Sesame Street.”

The group’s sophomore anthropology class isn’t much better. After the initial course instructor June Bauer—guest star Betty White—is placed on a paid leave of absence for attempting to strangle Winger with a homemade weapon, resident psychologist Ian Duncan (John Oliver) takes over, even though he has no clue about the subject. Then there’s accounting professor Eustice Whitman (John Michael Higgins), who has apparently seen the film Dead Poet’s Society one too many times as he continually encourages his class to “seize the day” rather than instruct them on the actual art of bookkeeping.

Community isn’t about formal education, however, but the type of real-world education that one needs to ultimately make their way through life. The small group of students that the series follows has come together in the form of a makeshift family, and each of them brings their own set of personal inhibitions with them to Greendale Community College. “I can tell life from TV,” the pop-culture obsessed Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) says to Jeff Winger. “TV makes sense. It has structure, logic, rules and likeable leading men. In life we have this.” His viewpoints concerning the world-at-large extend to his fellow classmates as well. “I just have more experience being worthless,” Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) explains when caught cheating on a Spanish exam. “I think I left that crib sheet on the floor because I wanted to get caught. I’m so used to screwing everything up, I just wanted to get it over with.”

Although Jeff Winger is the personification of the egotistical, self-centered pretty boy who considers his time at Greendale as a mere footnote in his life—a side journey that needs to be made in order to return to his successful life as an attorney—he reluctantly becomes the group’s surrogate father and finds himself filled with concern and compassion for the others despite his superficial persona. “I appreciate you guys caring but you have to understand, I don’t,” he tells the group at a party held by his former law firm. “Caring is lethal around here. It’s a disease. You guys have it, I don’t.” In another episode, however, Winger asks the obnoxious Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), “Who did you call last week after you farted on Vaughn? And who did Abed call after that squirrel stole his hot dog? That’s sharing your life. If you have friends, you have family.”

Community is also filled with a plethora of pop-culture references, and many episodes serve as spoofs of everything from Apollo 13, Casino, The Color of Money and Good Will Hunting to such television shows as M*A*S*H, Friends and The Walking Dead. “Jeff and Britta is no Ross and Rachel,” Abed Nadir states in one episode. “Your sexual tension and lack of chemistry are putting us all on edge, which is why ironically, and hear this on every level, you’re keeping us from being friends.” In another installment, Abed works through a bucket-list of things to do during a first year at college that has been constructed from similarly-themed movies of the past, and ends with a food fight in the cafeteria that resembles the classic scene from Animal House. While such narratives may appear to be satire in nature, in actuality they tap into society’s shared cultural upbringing, making the lessons contained within more effective than any college-level book or study guide.

More importantly, however, each episode of the series features a real-world issue that is analyzed in the unique comedy-stylings of Community. Religion, race, gender and sexuality are all explored alongside the meaning of family and friends, as well as trust, individuality and adulthood. In the final episode of the first season, for instance, Britta Perry announces her love for Jeff Winger at a school dance, which suddenly makes her the most popular girl at Greendale at the start of the second. “In the eyes of the public, Britta put herself out there and you walked away, making her the underdog, the jiltee, the Aniston,” Abed Nadir explains. Winger in turns publically professes his own love for Perry—which quickly leads to a marriage proposal—as the two engage in a form of one-upmanship. When the full extent of this unspoken competition is later revealed, a long list of additional dirty laundry that the group has been harboring likewise sees the light of day.

“It was a trick question,” Jeff Winger tells his anthropology class the following morning in regards to a homework assignment. “The tool most important to humanity’s survival wasn’t any of the nine in the box. The most important tool is respect. And the reason I know respect is a tool is because it is clearly not a natural thing and we forget to use it all the time, and then we start competing with each other. And exploiting each other and humiliating each other and controlling each other. And we lose each other. And without each other, we’ll go extinct.”

While the rest of the group agrees with Winger’s assessment, however, the person in charge of grading the assignment has a different opinion. “Well, that’s one answer,” class instructor June Bauer responds. “Here’s the one I had in mind. Combining all nine tools, you get this—a deadlier weapon than any one item in the box. So, I’m going to use this to attack you, and you use respect to defend yourself.” The resulting encounter leads to the aforementioned strangulation of Jeff Winger and suspension of Bauer.

“What is community college?” Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash) asks in the pilot episode of Community. “Well, you’ve heard all kinds of things. You’ve heard it’s ‘loser college’ for remedial teens, twentysomething drop-outs, middle-aged divorcees and old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity.” Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory offers a similar assessment when he sarcastically asks next-door-neighbor Penny, “You thought the opposite of stupid loser was community college graduate?” Although the small group on Community is not at the intellectual level of Sheldon Cooper and his roommate Leonard Hofstadter, however, they still struggle with the same issues of friendship, family and everyday life that their network sitcom brothers face on a weekly basis. And while both The Big Bang Theory and Community are contemporary comedy classics in their own right, it is indeed ironic that a group of loser misfits offers the same level of real-world life lessons as a group of genius scientists.

For fans of television comedies, meanwhile, one thing is clear—the best well-balanced education can ultimately be found at Greendale Community College.

Anthony Letizia (August 20, 2012)

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