The Cult of Community

This essay was originally written as a paper for a course on cult cinema. There have been minor edits. It was originally published at Clara and Elyse Talk About Movies to accompany this post, about the sixth season of Community on Yahoo! Screen.

When Community first hit the air in 2009, it was difficult to anticipate what it would eventually become. Appearing to be a fairly standard sitcom, Community featured a diverse ensemble cast, with archetypal characters like the Jock, the Nerd, the Cool Guy, and the Overachiever. The show chronicled the misadventures of a group of students trying to plan the next stage of their lives and figure themselves out while attending Greendale, their local, less-than-reputable community college. The plots of the first season were simple, designed to introduce the audience to the main characters and establish the relationships they had with one another, but even from the beginning, the show’s writing demonstrated a remarkable pop culture awareness and willingness to engage the audience with fourth wall breaking meta-humor. Community’s hyper-awareness of its place within the broader history of television as well as its genre-busting narratives would eventually convince viewers that it was not simply the average sitcom. The show also courted cult fans from the start, by immediately making comparisons to established cult classics and inviting the audience to play along with the “who’s who” game of pop culture references constantly in rotation.

Through the character of Abed, played by Danny Pudi, who obsessively categorizes life experiences into established film and television tropes, Community’s pilot episode is compared to John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985), with Abed even reciting some of Judd Nelson’s lines about his family life when the group breaks down into arguments. AsCommunity progressed, this playful relationship with pop culture became more and more transparent, eventually using entire episodes to pay tribute to other films and television shows in format and style. Starting in season one with “Contemporary American Poultry,” which paid homage to mafia movies like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas(1990) and “Modern Warfare,” which used elements from a variety of post-apocalyptic action blockbusters, Community cemented itself as a show made by and for media superfans, the sort of spectator-artists that Greg Taylor describes in his book Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism. As Community developed, it came to represent the contemporary television “cult”: hyper media-literate, deeply engaged with its fanbase, and constantly struggling to prove itself and avoid cancellation despite hiccups in production, changing leadership, and scheduling issues with parent networks. Now that the show has been officially canceled by NBC, Community’s trajectory as a cult object may be more easily mapped, and perhaps its ending will only add to the cult mystique that surrounds the show.

As previously mentioned, Community’s intimate relationship with pop culture is well-established. There are numerous nods to other television shows or films in nearly every episode. Many of the jokes Abed makes in Community’s pilot rely on audience familiarity with The Breakfast Club, and much of his knowledge about interpersonal relationships has been gleaned from watching popular sitcoms. In addition to this, there are multiple “themed” episodes which change the entire format of the show to mimic others, such as Rankin-Bass’ stop-motion animated holiday specials (“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”),Law & Order (“Basic Lupine Urology,” the episode name itself being a tongue-in-cheek nod to Law & Order’s creator Dick Wolf), Ken Burns’ PBS documentary The Civil War(“Pillows and Blankets”), and 8-bit video games (“Digital Estate Planning”). Not only do these episodes highlight Community’s place in pop culture by illuminating its relationship to other television shows and films, they validate the spectator-artists who engage with their favorite shows by writing fanfiction and drawing fanart by essentially doing the same thing on a larger scale. At their core, episodes like “Basic Lupine Urology” are “alternate universe” fanfictions, love letters to the original works tweaked to suitCommunity’s setting and characters. In this way, Community offers itself as a safe space for cult fans, those who seek out narratives that operate on multiple levels and desire to see their efforts rewarded (or at least acknowledged) by creators. However, this level of commitment to pop culture in the show’s structure can often be a double-edged sword.

As Henry Jenkins discusses in his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, the trend of transmedia storytelling has opened up possibilities to tell stories across various media, utilizing influences from video games, print media, and the internet. But as countless failed franchises have proven, finding the proper balance of content to please both hardcore fans and casual viewers is easier said than done. As former Electronic Arts executive Neil Young said of the additional narrative material supplied by the video game Enter the Matrix, “The more layers you put on something, the smaller the market. You are requiring people to intentionally invest more time in what it is you are trying to tell them and that’s one of the challenges of transmedia storytelling.” (Jenkins, 130) Community may not advertise itself as an experiment in transmedia storytelling, and its plots might not rely on additional information from other properties (as was the case with the Matrix family of movies and games) but its meta-humor does rely on a viewer at least being familiar with a range of other television shows and films and could certainly alienate the less nerdy members of the audience. Much of the humor of episodes like “Basic Lupine Urology” and “Pillows and Blankets” would be lost on an audience that does not watch shows like Law & Order or PBS documentaries. In other words, as Community developed creatively and further indulged its growing cult following, it abandoned fans of the classic sitcom and lost its more mainstream appeal. While the show championed for the spectator-artists in the audience and delighted hardcore media junkies, it also struggled for ratings, leading to a mid-season hiatus in its third season in 2011 that led to a widespread social media campaign to keep the show on air, organized by fans and stars alike.

The campaign to keep Community on the air demonstrates how crucial the cult sensibility of its fans has been to the show’s success. When Community was threatened with cancellation in its third season, fans were inspired by the show’s cast and crew to use hashtags like #SaveCommunity and #SixSeasonsAndAMovie on Twitter and Facebook to publicly show their support and bring more attention to the show. “#SixSeasonsAndAMovie” in particular became the rallying cry of the show’s fans, a phrase which originated in the second season’s tribute to the well-known sitcom “clip show,” “Paradigms of Human Memory.” In this episode, Abed expresses interest in a new NBC superhero show, The Cape. When classmate Jeff (played by The Soup host Joel McHale) disdainfully claims the show will only last three weeks, Abed defiantly replies “Six seasons and a movie!” The phrase also appeared as a hashtag on screen at the end of the third season finale, which at the time was thought to be the series’ final episode. The show’s cast encouraged fans to continue tuning in, preferably on televisions outfitted with Nielsen rating boxes. They also used social media to increase awareness of the show and encourage fans to do the same. Fans took up the banner and rallied toCommunity’s defense, creating numerous “Save Community” Facebook pages and flooding Twitter with the #sixseasonsandamovie hashtag in order to get it to trend. In addition to social media campaigns, Community’s dedicated fanbase organized flash mobs, art shows, and even a Kickstarter-funded fan convention, to show their support for the show. Perhaps as a result of the show’s increased visibility, Community was renewed by NBC in May of 2012. Though it was only renewed for a 13-episode season and creator Dan Harmon was replaced by David Guarascio and Moses Port as showrunner for the fourth season, it is clear that fan participation, as well as the show’s creators and stars’ willingness to engage with the fan community on a personal level, was an essential factor in keeping the show on the air. At least in this case, the spectator-artist fans of Community were not using social media simply to make meaning for themselves and expand the established universe of Community (as has traditionally been the case with fan creations), but actually shaping the future of their beloved show.

The ability of viewers to band together and directly impact the trajectory of their favorite show via social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter is a method of participation that is really only available to contemporary cult television fans. Unlike a film, where the entire product is contained to a 90-120 minute (usually) communal experience, television shows run on a weekly basis, can be altered as viewers respond to them, and have much greater potential for long-term character and plot development. Additionally, older television shows like Star Trek may have had equally enthusiastic fans in their heyday, but without the ease of access the internet provides, these fans were largely only able to interact with showrunners and others like them through live conventions, fan magazines, and clubs. Older cult fans certainly had their own communities to discuss their favorite shows and characters, but these were often limited to local participation or a “letters to the editor” section of a hobby magazine. Modern cult fans have the luxury of not only being able to watch shows like Community on television as well as online, but they can immediately afterward engage their fellow fans, as well as the show’s creators and stars, in an online public forum like Twitter.

Many critics attribute the spirit of Community to its creator, Dan Harmon. A writer and sketch comedian, Harmon created Community from his own personal experience making unlikely friends with a study group he joined while attending Glendale Community College. When Harmon was fired as Community’s showrunner at the end of its third season, many viewers thought the show would not survive without his unique guidance. Even now that the show has been canceled, retrospective reviews of the series nearly unanimously name the fourth season as its weakest, blaming the absence of Harmon for an unsatisfying lack of laughs and deep pop culture knowledge that Community had become known for. In a piece for the blog Film School Rejects, managing editor Scott Beggs notes that “Harmon’s greatest strength in crafting his pop culture-fueled world was a genuine passion for pop culture. Everything about [“Conventions of Space and Time”] was too obvious, the studio version of what sci-fi/fantasy fandom is supposed to look and feel like. While Harmon could make a study room feel geeky, the new showrunners sent everyone to a geek convention and still couldn’t manage the same levels.” (“R.I.P. ‘Community,’ A Show Too Aware of Its Own Cancellation”) Without the guiding hand of Harmon, Community again failed to balance its content, this time leaning too far to the mainstream and alienating its more hardcore fans. When Harmon returned to the show in its fifth and final season, fans welcomed him back with open arms, and cheered the return of the “old” Community. These hiccups in Community’sproduction lend it further credibility as a contemporary cult object, with Dan Harmon serving as its eccentric auteur á la Ed Wood, an ingredient as essential to his show’s success as its style and fanbase.

However, Harmon is not the only person on the production side of Community to contribute to its cult success, a large amount of credit goes to its stars. Joel McHale, Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, Yvette Nicole Brown, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Jim Rash and Ken Jeong, aside from being an incredible ensemble cast, have all utilized social media to promote Community and interact with fans, and they have all participated in live events like panels at major conventions like Comic-Con in San Diego and PaleyFest in Los Angeles. Throughout the show’s hiatus and in the face of scheduling issues with NBC, the cast was Community’s first line of promotion, with stars Joel McHale and Yvette Nicole Brown tweeting things like, “Who ever tweets the best pic from #SaveCommunity #OccupyNBC at 30 Rock today wins a Community TimelineMap sweatshirt” and “Hey #Community Fans! Thank you from the cast and crew! This is for YOU! […] #HappyOctober19th #SixSeasonsAndAMovie.” Upon hearing of the show’s scheduled return to air and eventual renewal, other castmembers would take to social media to express their gratitude to fans and fellow crew. Jim Rash, who plays Greendale’s eccentric Dean Pelton, tweeted in January 2012, “Thanks 2 my #Community family. Their love & support is immeasurable. 2nite they proved that even more. #sixseasonsandamovie” And not only was Community’s cast using social media for general promotion, many tweets were replies to individual fans, thanking them for watching the show or for complimenting their individual performances. Community’screators and stars have always embraced new media as a means to interface with their fans and maintain the show’s connection to current pop culture trends.

As a cult television show, Community is in the company of science fiction giants likeDoctor Who, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica, as well as celebratory send-ups of old B-movie horror like The X-Files, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and Twin Peaks. Community is neither a science fiction show nor a midnight movie-style spookfest, but it is saturated with an awareness of these and other cult classics. Where other shows may gain cult status by exploring a subversive genre, Community largely found its cult status in appealing to cult fans. Besides its themed episodes that directly engage with established programs like Law & Order, Community constantly references the existence of cult fans and television through the character of Abed. In the world of Community, Doctor Who, perhaps the most famous cult television show worldwide, is represented as Inspector Spacetime, a show of which Abed becomes a huge fan. Abed also regularly references classic television shows and discusses the shows he is currently watching, like the previously mentioned superhero drama The Cape, or ABC sitcom Cougar Town (a show which offers its own nods to Community in return, such as having Danny Pudi appear in the background of one of their episodes). What is especially important about Abed from a viewer’s perspective is that he is a fan of all different types of genres, he is the ultimate media junkie, the king of the hardcore cult fans. He serves as the perfect stand-in for the dedicated fan of Community, his understanding of television and film tropes acting as a wink and a nod to the audience, the spectator-artists who take pleasure in being as aware of pop culture as Abed, with his encyclopedic media knowledge.

Community is a show that caters to cult sensibilities and engages with its fans in a very personal way, essentially treating every episode like a midnight screening with friends. The show’s narratives provide enough conflict to move the plots along, but what drawsCommunity’s fans to the show and inspires them to attend live panels, create flash mobs, and dress up as their favorite characters is the eagerness with which the show embraces fellow cult fans and geeks. Many critics and scholars agree, part of the social value of “cult” is its ability to unite and uplift marginalized groups, to subvert mainstream aesthetics and values in favor of those less represented. Over five seasons, Communityhas proved itself to be the champion of the misfit and the underdog. Not only through its characters (who range in age, ethnicity, religious persuasion, and emotional maturity) and story, which delights in exposing the flaws of the “Greendale Seven” over and over again, but through its own production history as well. Constantly fighting against cancellation and meeting with resistance from the network at seemingly every turn,Community the show is as much an underdog as the characters it presents and the fans it loves, and that too lends it a kind of cult authenticity that further endears the show to its audience.

Community’s tumultuous saga has come to an end with the recent announcement of its cancellation, but this unceremonious conclusion may very well add to the show’s cult status. There is nearly an entire subgenre of cult television that is mourned for having been canceled only after a few seasons, such as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Joss Whedon’sFirefly, and Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development. Fans still hold out hope that “Six Seasons And A Movie” will live on, if Community is picked up by another producer like Netflix or Hulu. Such comebacks are not without precedent, as in the case of Arrested Development, which was revived seven years after its initial cancellation after being picked up by Netflix and premiered a new fourth season with the original creators and cast. Many fans of Joss Whedon’s short-lived sci-fi/Western Firefly hold out similar hopes, even years after the show was canceled and a film was released to give closure to its story. Whether or not Community gets such a revival, the fervor of its fans will likely lead to it being remembered among these “gone too soon” favorites. As has also been discussed by cult critics, part of the lingering cult appeal of shows with a limited run is the self-contained time capsule they represent. The five seasons of Community that exist today will always be imbued with a kind of cult magic because they are tangible testaments to the media landscape of the late 2000s and early 2010s and they were created in spite of adversity on all sides. Community sits comfortably on lists of the “best cult TV shows” because so often it has existed on the fringe, and now that its story has come to an end it will certainly live on in the memories of its fans as a modern cult classic.


***

Works Cited

Beggs, Scott. “R.I.P. ‘Community,’ A Show Too Aware of Its Own Cancellation.” Film School Rejects. Reject Media LLC, 14 May 2014. Web.

Brown, Yvette Nicole, (YNB). “Hey #Community Fans! Thank you from the cast and crew! This is for YOU! http://youtu.be/7LV7M_WeGX8 #HappyOctober19th #SixSeasonsAndAMovie” 19 Oct 2012, 10:00 a.m. Tweet.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide: Updated and with a New Afterword. New York: New York UP, 2008. Print.

McHale, Joel (joelmchale). “Who ever tweets the best pic from #SaveCommunity#OccupyNBC at 30 Rock today wins a Community TimelineMap sweatshirt pic.twitter.com/vLjXgnPk” 22 Dec 2011, 9:57 a.m. Tweet.

Rash, Jim (RashisTVUgly). “Thanks 2 my #Community family. Their love & support is immeasurable. 2nite they proved that even more. #sixseasonsandamovie” 12 Jan 2012, 10:02 p.m. Tweet.

Taylor, Greg. Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.

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