The NBC sitcom Community, which ran from 2009-2015 (its last season actually running on Yahoo Screen) was once one of my most beloved TV series. Blissfully unaware of my later revelation that “fandom ruins everything,” I had an intense fandom for this show.
But reading Atlanta creator/star and current Lando Calrissian Donald Glover discuss his experiences on Community, I am reminded once again what a clusterfuck that series was & why it was ultimately doomed.
In particular, Glover recounts to The New Yorker racist comments co-star Chevy Chase allegedly hounded him with:
Chevy Chase, one of Glover’s co-stars, often tried to disrupt his scenes and made racial cracks between takes. (“People think you’re funnier because you’re black.”) Harmon said, “Chevy was the first to realize how immensely gifted Donald was, and the way he expressed his jealousy was to try to throw Donald off. I remember apologizing to Donald after a particularly rough night of Chevy’s non-P.C. verbiage, and Donald said, ‘I don’t even worry about it.’ ” Glover told me, “I just saw Chevy as fighting time—a true artist has to be O.K. with his reign being over. I can’t help him if he’s thrashing in the water.
According to Glover, Chase essentially provided an unhealthy working environment on the set. But instead of establishing hard and fast ground rules to stop/prevent this situation, the producers of Community literally wrote Chase’s own alleged racism into the plots of the show; reveling in the glorious metatextuality of it all. Instead of providing a respectful set and preventing a young actor from having to deal with this shit, Community kept it all in, worked it into the show, and received the applause for being “innovative” and clever.
It’s all also a reminder of the larger toxic environment the Community set must have been, with the titanic egos of Chase and series creator Dan Harmon running rampant.
For all the good that Community stood for—diversity, empathy, understanding, creativity—it also championed the idea of The Brilliant Asshole. Chase had a long-time rep as a “brilliant asshole”—highly talented, but also allegedly somewhat of a dick—all the way from his Saturday Night Live years in the 1970s. Harmon also had a reputation of being a brilliant showrunner but also difficult to work with.
The figure of the Brilliant Asshole has its analogue on Community with the handsome and roguish Jeff Winger. In fact, Winger is the hero and central character of the show; the series a tribute to the Brilliant Asshole. The Brilliant Asshole (often white and male) gets the sorts of second and third and fourth chances mere mortals don’t.
For example, Brilliant Assholes can come off as assholes in interviews and it’s all OK—it only shows off their inherent genius. Whereas a Donald Glover, who bared all in no uncertain terms in his New Yorker interview, received some criticism for coming off as “difficult” and “weird.” What was the difference between Glover and the Brilliant Asshole? What made Glover “difficult” and the Brilliant Asshole “brilliant?” Chase apparently “explained” that to him years ago.
Harmon was booted from Community at the end of season 3; especially towards the end of that season, one certainly gets the impression through the plotlines that he could see this coming. Many of the episodes focused on the corrupt and incompetent school administration trying to take over/shut down Greendale Community College; a thinly disguised analogue for Harmon’s increasing friction with his bosses.
Season 4 was Chase’s last. Glover filmed a few episodes of season 5 but left to pursue other career options. Harmon had returned by season 5…but by that time, the magic felt “lost”—at least to me.
Season 6 of Community ran exclusively on Yahoo. It had become such a shell of what it once was that I couldn’t even watch the old seasons I liked anymore.
I didn’t need to read about the behind-the-scenes strife to make the assessment that what made Community special—that energy—had passed. I could feel it in those last two seasons. A certain disillusionment had set in.
And yet, while the quality of the show seemed to decrease…the “fandom” element only increased. The show had become completely “commodified” in a fan sense…it was intensely self-aware of its own status as a fan phenomenon.
As the fandom element accelerated…that original organic “lightning in a bottle” energy of the series declined. Soon, the show sort of just became the fandom conception of it—the tropes, the callbacks, the quotes, the shticks.
By that point, Harmon’s attention started turning to his next project: an animated show called Rick and Morty. As Community died, Rick and Morty was born.
And, as with Community, Rick and Morty—a highly inventive and intelligent critically-acclaimed show—started to slowly acknowledge its fandom. Rick and Morty began to become self-aware of its own fandom, and, even more crucially—its ability to proactively create elements of the show they knew they could “market” to the fans (and I wrote about this concerning the “Pickle Rick” episode).
Perhaps this is just the “circle of life” in Hollywood. A decline in a beloved show seems inevitable. Perhaps it was just more noticeable with Community because it burned a little brighter and more intensely—it felt like it had so much more potential.
From “death” comes life. Community died, freeing up more time for Rick and Morty to be developed. Glover jumped ship on Community early—and has enjoyed a prosperous career in further TV exploits, movies, and music.
And Chase…got involved in some type of a road rage incident recently and allegedly was kicked to the ground after fighting with a driver who he thought had scratched his car. Which was *so* Chevy Chase.
In a bit of ironic casting, former Community co-star Joel McHale recently appeared as a young Chase in the Netflix movie A Futile And Stupid Gesture. Such self-aware “stunt casting” integrated, in a deep subconscious sense, the mythos of Community into what was on the surface just a bio of National Lampoon; it created a matrix of self-referentiality. It is 5D- or 6D- or 30D-level fandom logic squared.
Community is dead; it can also—having become self-aware, having integrated itself into the giant pop-cultural geek matrix in which the Brilliant Asshole still holds on to its social currency with its cold, almost dead hands—never die.