Community: Reconsidering the Sitcom as Science Fiction

On the tenth anniversary of its premiere in 2009, NBC and Yahoo! Screen’s Community remains a beloved cult classic, that is both critically-acclaimed and fondly remembered for testing the outer limits of what a traditional sitcom could be. The show broke so many boundaries that one could argue it wasn’t a sitcom at all – no, Community was straight-up science fiction.

Created by showrunner Dan Harmon (Rick and Morty) and inspired by his own experiences as an adult student at a community college, Community started fairly traditionally, following the misadventures of a Spanish study group at the fictional Greendale Community College. The group – comprised of Jeff (Joel McHale), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Abed (Danny Pudi), Troy (Donald Glover), Pierce (Chevy Chase), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and Annie (Alison Brie) – found themselves navigating life, love, and laughs, set to a soundtrack of Sony Music’s greatest hits.

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But the show rapidly became something more – the music and romantic triangles disappeared, and, by the end of the very first season, Community was spoofing every action movie under the sun in “Modern Warfare,” the infamous paintball episode, directed by none other than Justin Lin (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift).

Keeping everything that happened tied into the world it had created, the episode loaded up a realistic – if at times out-of-hand – game of paintball assassin with a million quotes and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scenes lifted from big-name movies, running the gamut from Predator to Die Hard. By the second season, homage episodes were all but expected, with Harmon et al. crafting elaborate parodies of Apollo 11 around a Kentucky Fried Chicken-branded space simulator, or Goodfellas, but with chicken fingers.

Here’s the thing, though: as much as Community tried to keep those homages and influences grounded in reality, the sitcom regularly crossed that line, injecting moments of utter fantasy and unreality into the otherwise normal lives of its students, to the point that, by the end of its sixth season, it just as well might have been a sci-fi show.

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Let’s run down the list, shall we?

Season 1’s “Introduction to Statistics” finds Abed dressed as Batman for a Halloween/Dia de los Muertos party. During the climax, with his friends Jeff and Pierce in actual (minor) peril, the skinny young man drags away two full-sized adult men, as if it was nothing. Almost as if he truly was the Caped Crusader.

Speaking of Halloween, let’s jump to the second season’s “Epidemiology,” the episode where the college campus was overrun by genuine zombies. This wasn’t simply a metaphor or an “it was all a dream” episode; it’s made clear that there was a real “rabies-related pathogen” causing “hyper-aggression” at Greendale, one that warranted a visit by a cloak-and-dagger government group ready to kill everyone to keep its secret.

Season 3, meanwhile, debuted Greendale’s Air Conditioner Repair School. Ostensibly a trade school annex to the main college, the group is soon revealed to be a clandestine organization stretching back to the days of ancient Egypt, holding an Illuminati-like secret power in the world. The finale includes an air conditioner repair deathmatch that results in Troy being deemed the school’s messiah – again, not a metaphor.

The following season – well, OK, we don't actually talk about Season 4, the entire thing was written off in-show as a "gas leak" – but the next good season, Season 5, tap-danced across the corpse of the very notion of a traditional sitcom.

“Geothermal Escapism” found the entire school taking a game of The Floor is Lava too seriously and creating a religion with actual gods. “App Development and Condiments” saw Greendale creating a functioning dystopian society, while that season’s finale, “Basic Sandwich,” involved a secret underground lair, a mad scientist and Jeff saving the day by connecting to a computer powered by love.

Season 6 dialed things back a tad bit but still had time bring up a guerrilla-marketing cult and another secret society, this one of janitors, complete with a Museum of Custodial Arts.

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And none of the above even considers the moments that toed the line between real and hallucination, like the multiple timelines introduced in “Remedial Chaos Theory,” or the Dreamatorium, a Danger Room-like apparatus that runs on “imagination.”

While, both concepts are, ostensibly, entirely in the head of Abed, the waters of what was real and what wasn’t were significantly muddied – especially when it came to the Dreamatorium. The Season 3 episode “Virtual Systems Analysis” is set almost entirely in the room, with normally level-headed Annie buying wholly into the “simulation” and even injuring herself by running into a wall. Yes, maybe she simply got super into playing pretend with Abed, but when was the last time you got so invested in imagining something that you didn’t remember where a door was? As an unreasonably rational adult?

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“Virtual Systems Analysis” was, in many ways, a microcosm for the show as a whole. Even the craziest, most obviously fanciful moments were worked into the reality of the college and played large parts in the character’s emotional arcs. Nothing was a one-off or forgotten about. Abed fell too hard into playing Batman again in Season 3’s “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism.” The fact that the government erased the memories of everyone at the end of “Epidemiology” was a plot point in later episodes of the second season.

All of which proves that the students of Greendale Community College lived in a heightened reality, one different from our own in many fundamental ways. For all its claims to be grounded, Community might as well have been set on Alderaan or Earth-TRN414.

I mean, there were palm trees in Colorado, for crying out loud. How unbelievable is that?

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All six seasons of Community, starring Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Donald Glover, Chevy Chase, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alison Brie, Ken Jeong and Jim Rash, are currently streaming on Hulu.

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