“You understand television and real life are different, right?” : ‘Community’, Abed, and Meta-Fiction

A promotional image from NBC's sit-com 'Community'. A group of 8 individuals sit inside a college library.   Left to Right: Abed (Danny Pudi) a 20-something Palestinian-Polish man wearing a striped cardigan looks shocked towards Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) an African American 40 year old woman wearing bright floral prints. In the background Senor Chang (Ken Jeong), a 30-something year old Koren-American looks towards Shirley in shock. Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) can be seen also in the background. He is a 20-something African American man wearing a Varsity jacket. Troy is looking towards, Jeff (Joel McHale) a 30 something man and central character of this image. Jeff is standing up with his hands raised giving a grand speech. His love interest Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is sitting below him. She has blonde hair and is paying Jeff no attention, instead looking towards Shirley. Off to the right hand side of the image we see Annie (Alison Brie), a 20-something women with long dark hair and a yellow cardigan. She is raising an eyebrow towards the final character, Pierce (Chevy Chase), a much older gentleman with grey, balding hair and dark glasses. He is wearing a waistcoat and holding a mobile phone, clearly irritating Shirley who is the recipient of his conversation.
NBC

Community is a sitcom that ran for six seasons and focuses on a study group’s adventures in the second rate community college ‘Greendale’ under the supervision of the chaotic Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) and teacher Senor Chang (Ken Jeong). Community is part of a recent trend of sitcoms that aim to deviate from the norm. Classic sitcoms such as Cheers and Taxi that show creator Dan Harmon grew up on, abide to a multi-camera, laugh-track driven formula, and Community gravitates away from this, as noted by scholars Barnett and Kooyman. Episodes alternate between being set in the expected setting of Greendale, although notably they are still inflected with meta-fictional tones and fourth wall breaks, to more outlandish episodes that strive to break the sitcom formula. These include episodes that are set in a video game, multiple animated episodes and recurring paintball episodes that evoke the Western genre. The focus of this essay will be on Community’s Abed (Danny Pudi), whose fascination with pop culture leads him to treat his everyday life as if he is on television, thus giving the show its meta-fictional tone and many of its forth wall breaks.

Barnett and Kooyman argue that Community’s obsession with pop culture and its intertwining of reality and fantasy makes the show both a work of fandom and about fandom. Abed repeats the mantra “six seasons and a movie!” throughout due to his obsession with TV shows that always seem as if they are about to be cancelled; like the very show he is in. Community −perhaps due to its subversive nature− was constantly faced with low viewing figures and therefore the threat of cancellation. For instance, Harmon left during season four, a season so uneven in tone the show’s characters refer to it as the “year of the gas leak” in later seasons. Despite Community’s cancellation and its rebirth in its sixth season as a Yahoo Original (a platform which then went bust) its audience share Abed’s commitment to fandom. Although Community has been off the air since 2016, excitement for the movie promised alongside the ‘six seasons’ was drummed up after the cast recently reunited for a lockdown table read.

Troy (Donald Glover), a 20-something African American man wearing a purple jumper, sits in a library with Abed (Danny Pudi), a 20-something Polish-Palestinian man wearing a white dinosaur t-shirt and burgundy cardigan. Troy is avidly explaining something to somebody out of shot, as Abed looks towards Troy.
NBC

Medhurst and Tuck argue in Television Times: The Reader (1996) chapter ‘Situation Comedy and Stereotyping’ that the sitcom “cannot function without stereotypes” and that its situations are usually just as predictable as the characters. To them, the sit-com revolves around the resolution of conflicts by resorting to folk wisdom and proverbialism. Barnett and Kooyman see Community parodying this formula throughout with the character Jeff as the problem solver. Abed, due to his awareness of the sitcom genre, constantly calls this trope out, nodding to the audience and questioning if it is time for Jeff to ‘step in’ and give one of his grand speeches.

Abed is an important character as he is a conduit for the audiences’ own self awareness, and many episodes are influenced by his worldview, from the homage episodes to classical genres, his obsession with the British show ‘Inspector Space-Time’ (a Doctor Who parody), and his constant referential nods to pop culture and the idea of fiction itself. Fascinated with how his study group’s meetings are like an ‘opening scene of a sitcom’ (as that’s how the show opens), Abed states “of course, the illusion only lasts until someone says something they’d never say on TV, like how much their life is like TV. There, it’s gone,” as a wink to the audience. The repeated break of the fourth wall makes Community meta-fictional; that is to say, it is aware of the genre it is a part of, and by reminding its audience it exists as a work of fiction, it is elevated from the formulaic sitcom into being a work of parody. In a bittersweet Christmas episode, Abed suffers a delusion that the world is stop motion animated, and his study group endeavour to break him out of it.

NBC

Pop culture and its various mediums for Abed is an escape. As Community has been identified to be a homage to fandom or ‘nerd culture’, it isn’t much of a stretch to say its audience will be familiar with this form of escapism. Abed is often identified as having Aspergers, a form of autism, something which enables him to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture. Unlike shows which use a similar idea to create humour, such The Big Bang Theory and its lead character Sheldon, Abed’s autism —although it is remarked upon by his peers— is shown positively as it allows him to learn and create at a level above anyone else. When Abed first is enrolled in film class, he pieces together a short piece to help him “be understood” by his father, who he has previously been unable to connect to. This forms a commentary on television and how it can be used to give voice to those who struggle to express themselves. Thus, Community as a show is enriched by its ability to portray Abed as someone who is not to be laughed at due to his disability (as Sheldon often is in The Big Bang Theory) but is to be ultimately celebrated for his unique worldview and be accepted by his peers.

NBC

The form of meta-fiction arguably belongs to the post-modern. Postmodernism is a movement of the late 20th century and sought to use and change past forms of art to be better suited to the modern world and its complexities. Therefore Community, with its twist on the sitcom genre, could be said to be post-modern. Social theorist Baudrillard, in the work Simulation and Simulacra, posed the concept of ‘hyper-reality’, where reality has been eclipsed by the increasingly artificial mass of media we are surrounded within the modern world. “It is no longer a question of imitation […] it is a question of substituting signs of the real for the real,”. Therefore, representations of reality, such as the sitcom, can inform a person’s worldview to the point where their view of reality is informed by it. So Abed, and how he understands life, love, and friendship through television, can be said to be living in a ‘hyper-reality’. Abed’s worldview being altered by the images he ingests through television is a running theme. The idea of hyper-reality is not one Harmon is unfamiliar with, as he plays with this in his later endeavour Rick and Morty in which characters are often in layers of simulation and lead character Rick constantly breaks the fourth wall. Hyper-reality as an idea can be seen in the concept of Plato’s cave and The Matrix, in which people are fed false images of life and struggle to let them go. Arguably, however, Abed’s vision of the world, artificial as it may be, is not pessimistic. His ‘Dreamatorium’ —a room he goes in to imagine a different world (often that of Inspector Space-Time)— enables him to process real-life events, such as his struggles when best-friend Troy leaves. Again, pop culture is seen as a form of escapism.

The show works due to the friendship of study group Jeff, Britta, Annie, Shirley, Pierce, Abed, and Troy. Although many of its plots revolve around tension, as noted repeatedly by problem solver Jeff, this only serves to bring the group closer together. Overall, Community shows how a passion for television can be used to enrich life, as an awareness of its history and tropes elevates it above the norm of the genre. Abed’s obsession gives the show its variety and flavour. Community is a hymn to the concept of fiction and TV fandom. Fandom itself is tied up with constructing fantasises that enable fans to re-imagine themselves, to experiment with the possibilities and limits of their interests and desires. Pop culture is the vocabulary that Abed and Community use to communicate to their audience.

Community is currently available to stream on Netflix UK

by Dandy Glover

Dandy is a soon-to-be film studies graduate from Merseyside, UK. She is especially interested in maverick and experimental directors such as David Lynch, John Waters and Lars von Trier. In the future she hopes to continue her film criticism and continue to educate herself about the medium. You can more from her in the form of essays and reviews on her blog, DandyReviews and more informal pieces on her Letterboxd @dandyig. You can follow her on Twitter @__ungezieferr__

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