Most stories about college are about characters reinventing themselves, breaking free from the castes to which they once felt beholden and becoming the people they’ve always wanted to be, about individualism and the triumph of free will. Community, however, isn’t about any of that. Community is instead about people trying to become the people they’ve always wanted to be, but failing miserably. And Community is about being better off for it, because actually the people we’ve always wanted to be kind of suck, and individualism and free will are overrated anyway. Because all those things we think we want pale in comparison to a makeshift family formed around a Spanish 101 study group.
If that sounds sentimental, it is, but in an odd sort of way, which is how the show gets away with it. Community gets to claim its edgy bona fides for a whole bunch of stylistic reasons, but it’s also edgy for rejecting that traditional college narrative. Really, though, it’s just trading one type of sentimentality for another: it ditches the traditional college narrative in favor of an even more universal family narrative.
This is one of the show’s dominant themes, showing up in some incarnation almost every episode. The more rickety than usual “Early 21st Century Romanticism” of a couple weeks ago was almost entirely about this. That episode sees Britta hanging out with a girl she thinks is a lesbian, not because she likes her, but because she just likes to think of herself as the sort person who hangs out with lesbians. Jeff, meanwhile, snubs his friends at the Valentine’s Day dance to watch some football (the European kind) with John Oliver’s Professor Duncan, while Troy and Abed compete–literally–for the affections of a hot librarian. In each case, it turns out that what the characters think they want is less than what they already have. Britta’s lesbian isn’t even a lesbian, and was in fact only hanging out with Britta because the fake lesbian thought Britta was a lesbian; the kiss they end up sharing is even more awkward than this sentence. Jeff’s quality time with Professor Duncan gets crashed by Senor Chang and kind of sucks even before Chang shows up. And when the hot librarian lets Troy know that she thinks Abed is a little weird, Troy can no longer find her attractive. In the end, Britta winds up back with Annie, Jeff winds up at the party (with Chang asleep on his couch) and Troy winds up with Abed, and they’re all better off for it.
In “Intro to Political Science,” it’s Annie who gets to go through this cycle when she decides to run for President of the soon-to-be newly reformed Greendale Student Government. This all comes about when Dean Pelton receives correspondence informing him that Joe Biden will be paying Greendale a visit as part of some sort of education initiative, during which the student president is to shake Biden’s hand. The only problem is that Greendale has no student government. The Dean addresses this issue by holding impromptu primaries to select some presidential candidates based on an applause-o-meter that is actually just the dean’s arm. (I’m pretty sure this is how the national primaries work, too.) The Greendale mob is easy to please, and votes in just about everyone who steps on to the stage, even poor Garrett, who was just looking for some ice cream. Also nominated are Vicki, who never gets to actually finish a sentence; Pierce, who’s only running because he has a vendetta against Vicki; Leonard, the hipster; and Magnitude!, who can only be described as the greatest politician this country has ever known. The only candidate rejected by the crowd is Britta, whose calls for anarchy perhaps come off as a little desperate or maybe just crazy. Annie and Jeff round out the field, for reasons that are mirrored in the Pierce-Vicki originally one-sided feud.
Annie’s running because she’s young and idealistic and believes she can make a difference. Jeff’s running because he’s old and cynical and thinks all that stuff’s stupid; he just wants to prove Annie wrong. Annie starts off her campaign as the only candidate of substance, vowing to free the school from the horrible tyranny of the Asscrack Bandit, clean up the black mold growing in the hallways and eliminate administrative redundancies (to which Dean Pelton replies that he’s sitting right there.) Jeff counters with empty, but crowd-pleasing platitudes, like:
I’m no politician. I’m just a fella. I think beer should be cold and boots should be dusty. I think 9/11 was bad. And freedom, well, I think that’s just a little bit better.
In the face of stuff like that, Annie’s rhetoric grows less and less substantive, eventually morphing into little more than an easily chantable catchphrase: “No matter what you’re told, we have to clean the mold!” But even this is no match for Jeff’s faux-folksy nonsense. So Annie finally abandons policy altogether and goes negative, digging up an old copy Jeff’s 1997 audition tape to The Real World: Seattle, which is just as gloriously embarrassing as it sounds. Apparently dressing up as George Michael and singing “You’ve got to have Jeff, Jeff, Jeff” is not a winning strategy for breaking into reality television, though it sure seems like it would work. Jeff, mortified at having his insufferable bubble of detached coolness popped in the cruelest imaginable way, runs off, leaving Annie seemingly victorious.
On a show genuinely uninterested in sentimentality–say, a Chuck Lorre joint–this is where the episode would end. At this point, Annie has achieved the traditional college narrative of transformation, but the transformation has been bad. The show has skewered that narrative with biting political satire. In this way, Community really is edgy in the way that edgy shows are edgy: it takes familiar, sentimental tropes and renders them unsentimental. It does this all the time. The difference is that it never just stops there.
After Jeff runs off the stage, Annie realizes that she’s gone too far. She goes and finds him moping in the supply closet, and lets him know that she’s dropped out of the race:
I withdrew my candidacy. Nobody who treats a friend the way I did is fit to represent the student body … I was just another jerk trying to win a contest. You were right the whole time. I just couldn’t admit it until I saw you running away crying.
Or in other words, that the person she thought she wanted to be was in fact kind of terrible, and she’d rather just keep what she has. It’s a sweet scene. And it illustrates what makes Community so good: it’s not just edgy, and it’s not just sentimental. It’s consistently both edgy and sentimental at the same time.
- After Annie and Jeff drop out, the only two candidates left are Leonard and Magnitude!, who go head-to-head in a battle of meaningless catchphrases: the increasingly funny “Pop-pop!” on Magnitude’s part, countered by an Archie Bunker-esque raspberry on Leonard’s part.
- Comedy Central’s South Park ends up winning the election, garnering seven out eleven votes. This is why Greendale can’t have nice things.
- I somehow went through that whole thing without mentioning Dean Pelton’s amazing Uncle Sam costume (or, ahem, his “sister’s” Uncle Sam costume).
- The only thing that really kept this episode from being an all-time great was the lack of Shirley and the relative lack of Britta.
- Despite not being an all-time great episode, it was nonetheless very funny. I laughed frequently. Granted, I enjoy political humor, but my wife generally does not, and she laughed frequently as well.
- The debate plot really dominated the proceedings here, but Abed’s B-story romance was delightful, if not especially hilarious.
- Relatedly, I am at least a little in love with Eliza Coupe, and I don’t really understand why she’s not a huge TV star yet.
- American political coverage would be better if Troy and Abed provided commentary for all national elections. They put Wolf Blitzer to shame.
- “That guy’s just a mess. It’s like God spilled a person.”
- “According to our polls, the campus is almost evenly divided. Now keep in mind, the margin of error on this thing like 98%.”
- “Before this election stops being about the issues, I have a question for my opponents. What’s your favorite color? Mine’s a three-way tie. Red, white and blue.”