How many Community viewers experienced a brief moment of sensory disconnect when tuning in to their favorite ensemble comedy and seeing a mockumentary-style show in the visual formula of The Office and Modern Family? When I saw the sexy doctors, the hospital setting, and the mockumentary footage, my allegiance to Community was cemented. In one 22-minute episode, Community offers a particularly effective satire of modern network television, while still maintaining distinctive characters and a narrative style that correspond to this show alone.
My writer-instinct (it’s like a maternal instinct, except much more irascible and caffeinated) tells me that this is a hard thing to do. How do you satirize popular television within a popular television show, and without losing the quirky traits that caused fans to flock to the show in the first place?
One element that reappears throughout this episode and this season of Community suggests that a successful satire is dependent on the cooperation and participation of an audience. Community abides by the rule that you should never put one over on your viewers. Assume that they’re in on the joke, even if cultural references may occasionally pass them by, and reveal the structure of the show to them through comically-timed asides. Last night on Community, any astute television viewer could immediately grasp the satirical bent of this particular episode based on immediate visual cues, but in case any misunderstandings arise, Abed also takes the role of episode director as he explains the reasons for shooting in a mockumentary format. This additional exposition ensures that no one feels left out of the satirical aspect of the show, and as viewers, we can now concentrate on watching Community purely as an ensemble comedy. We get the angle, now let’s see what happens.
This simple but exceedingly important component of Community is mostly absent from other network shows. When it is used, albeit rarely, it will take the shape of name-dropping: characters on one television show will demonstrate their verisimilitude to real people by mentioning a current television show they watch, presumably a show that their viewers may know or watch. The only precise example I can think of at the moment comes from the now-defunct Ugly Betty, in which effeminate teenager Justin makes a remark about watching Grey’s Anatomy (I believe this device was also used on a recent episode of The Office, but I can’t recall the exact show that was mentioned). This name-dropping strategy presents a dual message from the fictional characters to the real-time viewers. The explicit message can be recorded as, “Look, we’re just like you! We’ve even seen the same ridiculous TV shows!” while the implicit message involves a vague attempt at satire: “We’re better than those other melodramatic television shows because we don’t live them; we watch them. When we reference those shows, it’s because we’re making fun of them, just like you.”
This lackluster attempt at satire is pretty pathetic in comparison to a show like Community or 30 Rock. Community always mocks popular cultural through its self-aware mimicry of it, but last night’s episode was extra satirical. My explanation for this mostly aligns with Abed’s; whereas Community usually derives humor from character interactions and dialogue, this episode adopted an entire distinctive visual style to make us laugh. Community uses the mockumentary form for this single episode so that we can see it in contrast to previous, more traditionally-styled episodes. This is a formal choice that highlights the ridiculousness and the ubiquity of the mockumentary style on current television shows.
And, as this episode of Community proves, and Abed says,
Will Pierce just grow up already? (jk, I love you, Chevy Chase!) Will Abed begin his own television series? (A girl can only dream!) Stay tuned!