Archive for the ‘richard nixon’ tag
Community has a well-earned reputation for mixing in lots of meta-humor into its character humor and one-off jokes. A lot of the humor comes from seeing how the writers play off sit-com clichés. When done properly, it adds a layer of sophistication to the show that I find very compelling. A show won’t survive long just doing that; it still needs characters we are interested in or stories we find compelling. In its first season, Community has done this remarkably well, incorporating nearly every kind of joke you could ever want in a sit-com.
We can appreciate those jokes about television (directed at itself, at other sit-coms, or recently at Glee), and it can lead to us thinking of Community as a smart show, one that it takes attention, background knowledge, and intelligence to watch. But I want to highlight a different way that Community‘s creators express and expect intelligence in their show. Here’s an exchange from last week’s “Modern Warfare,” an extended parody of action films.
The dialogue I want to draw your attention to is not the characters’ awareness of clichés and how they see themselves against those clichés. It’s the following.
Britta: “You’re right, you know. I am a phony. I try to act compassionate because I’m afraid that I’m not.”
Jeff: “Oh, please. I invented phony.You care about people. I accuse you of faking to convince myself that I’m not such a jerk.”
Britta: “Jeff, you help people more than I do and you don’t even want to. You’re not a jerk; you’re fine.”
There is a sophistication to this exchange that I really appreciate. Britta expresses a profound insight about herself: that what looks like compassion is actually rooted in a fear of being uncompassionate rather than a true benevolence. Jeff dismisses her worry because, as a phony, he recognizes what phoniness is and can see it in other people. Those are two really insightful observations for characters to make, and it takes an awareness by the writers of who these characters are and an ability to verbalize it without sounding pompous or distracting from the mood of the show. That is really smart writing.
But then it gets better. Britta recognizes a distinction between a person who has positive character traits (e.g., a compassionate person who wants to do go for others) and a person who produces positive consequences (e.g., a jerk who actually does good for others). Britta recognizes that the character traits, intentions, and desires that make a person a good person are not always correlated with actually doing good. On the other hand, there are people who are able to do a great deal of good that don’t have a great character. For example, Richard Nixon has done more good than most people who lived in the 20th century. It doesn’t follow that he had a morally praiseworthy character; he probably didn’t. It also doesn’t follow that he didn’t do a great deal bad, as well. He certainly did. Jeff, through elements of his personality and his position in the group, is able to do a lot more good for the study group (and the community college) than the person who is dedicating her life to doing good. That doesn’t make Jeff the better person, just the more powerful one.
One thing that Community has done a great job of this season is tracking Jeff’s reluctant immersion into the group. Positioning himself as an outsider who in the pilot claimed that he was a moral relativist who doesn’t care about other people to a group-member willing to make sacrifices (that he doesn’t fully understand) for the sake of others. This can only be achieved when you create really complex characters, and the writers have a really firm grasp on them and the intelligence to draw out of those characters compelling stories and sensible dialogue. What makes Community the smartest show on television isn’t (just) all the self-referential humor, it’s also the ability to articulate very finely the social interactions of these complex characters while exploiting the backdrop of a community college to draw out interesting ethical and socio-psychological insights.
And it’s funny.