A few years ago I was listening to a radio interview with an author who said ‘I write because it’s cheaper than therapy’. At the time I laughed knowingly without giving any thought to what the statement actually meant. My feeling then was it spoke to the idea that we’re all sexy tormented artists grappling with the weight of the world. The truth is way more mundane than that. My personal theory is that writers write to try and make sense of things. Whether it’s a novel, a short story, a review or an article, just about all writing is a response to something experienced or witnessed, refracting reality through a worldview, narrative and sensibility that makes it all just a little more palatable.
To explore this a little further, I’m going to talk about Community.
I first got into the show in around 2012, because it was a cult favourite that a lot of my friends were watching. I followed suit and predictably loved the tribute/concept episodes and the dark humour, but there was plenty I didn’t appreciate. Like the occasional episodes that went dark and sad instead of funny. Or the fact that the show spoke endlessly about the importance of the central group’s connection without, for my money, actually doing the work to build that connection. I found the more conceptual third season a pretentious mess of half-baked ideas and I started to get frustrated at the ongoing media narrative suggesting Community was an underappreciated modern classic. So much so that I wrote a lengthy blog post about the fact. I think it might have been like, the second thing I posted here.
Reading that post again makes one thing abundantly clear; I really, really did not get Community. And I don’t think I could have, at the time. To explain what’s changed, let’s get personal.
I’ve spoken before about 2015 as a bit of a low point for me. There are several reasons for this, but I think the key one is that it was the first year where I started to realise I wasn’t the person I wanted to be. I’ve always gone through bouts of insecurity and uncertainty, but 2015 was something else because almost overnight my life changed in intangible ways that it took me a long time to wrap my head around. For a couple of years prior, I’d lived a carefree life of casual work, partying and writing. I had good friends all around me, a fun party house that was always full of life and collaborators helping me get my work on stage. Then things changed. I moved into a cramped, dingy apartment that had a constant sense of wrongness about it (I found out later somebody had been murdered there), the kind of place people didn’t really want to visit. My housemates weren’t around often, understandably preferring to spend time with their respective girlfriends. I started working a dull job in a distant, dodgy suburb that was a two hour commute each way, leaving me barely any time for anything other than work.
The newfound distance from everyone who had previously been such major figures in my life just underlined a growing sense of worthless isolation. Somewhere along the line I had taken a wrong turn and couldn’t seem to find my way back to the previously promising road I had been on. I was stuck somewhere between adolescent and adult, living a sad facsimile of my previous life all the while preoccupied by a sense that I needed to grow up but with no idea of how. I had reached the end of my Masters of Screenwriting with no clear path forward and started to realise that my hard-drinking lifestyle was no longer the norm. Excess is a lot less fun when you’re the only one indulging in it. In fact, up against the seemingly sudden maturation of those around you, your own behaviour can be cast in a new light that shakes your sense of self to the core and leaves you wondering what’s wrong with you.
I lost confidence in my writing. I lost confidence in myself. And through all this, during my lowest ebb, the sixth season of Community was coming out.
Now, the sixth season is nobody’s favourite. Half the main cast have been replaced, the sharpness of the writing isn’t the same and there’s a sense of sadness to the whole thing that makes it feel dreary compared to the crackling wit of earlier years (ignoring, obviously, the Dan Harmon-less fourth one). And yet the more I watched the more I found myself developing a new perspective on Community and, in particular, on protagonist Jeff Winger.
I can’t imagine anyone is reading this without at least a basic knowledge of Community, but for context the series starts with Jeff losing his job as a lawyer when it is discovered that he never went to law school. In order to be reinstated as quickly and easily as possible he enrols at the highly dodgy Greendale Community College, to him a humiliating step down. He quickly gets drawn into the lives of a gang of misfits with whom he forms a study group and welcome to the plot of our sitcom.
What is unique about Community – apart from everything – is Jeff’s development. Naturally, his arc early on is the growth of genuine caring for his newfound community (geddit?). But as the series continues something kind of interesting happens. The show starts to call him to task, even outright suggesting in approximate series midpoint Remedial Chaos Theory that Jeff is holding the entire study group back from actual development. This subtext becomes text in season six when, necessitated by the many departures of main cast members, the show starts to centre on Jeff’s growing anxiety that he will be the last one left at Greendale – a fate his season one self would have seen as worse than death. The final season mines genuine (but still funny) pathos from his growing desperation to hold his found family together as the last remaining younger members start to look beyond college to what the next stage of their lives might look like, right as Jeff starts to realise that the next stage of his life is this.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why 2015 me might have found the sixth season of Community so affecting. But honestly, at the time I just assumed that its new dour sensibilities suited my mood and didn’t examine the correlation any further. Understand, the moments were rare in which I could admit even to myself that my real anxiety was that I had been left behind by everyone I cared about.
Of course, insofar as stories in real life have endings my 2015 had a happy one – I got out of the murder apartment, won a screenwriting award that changed my life, reconnected with my friends and entered a period of renewed artistic passion that included a handful of genuine successes. But I still found myself thinking about Community’s ending, even divorced from the mindset that drew me to it.
As somebody who has always been obsessed with stories, I used to be troubled by the gap between the appealingly flawed but ultimately great lives and personalities of characters on screen and my own. I think I lived in fiction to such a degree that the messiness and ugly sides of my own nature became genuinely challenging to me, a kind of signifier that I was wrong somehow. Maybe that’s partly the reason that Mad Men always spoke to me so much; after all, the characters on that show are largely trying to come to terms with the fact that the perfect life they propagate is so vastly different to their realities.
In Community, every character is dealing with that divide. Jeff just takes the longest to realise it. Every single member of the study group has either let themselves down in some way, is not capable of dealing with the real world or both. The fact that Jeff and Britta are the last of the original study group remaining by the end might have been due to the increasingly difficult schedules of core cast members, but it also makes perfect sense that the two most initially self-assured characters were the two most deluded about who they really were.
The sadness of Community, then, was not unique to season six. On rewatch it slowly became clear to me that it had been there all along, that the through-line to the wacky adventures of the study group was a fundamental sense of failure that they all struggled to contend with. The reason they clung so desperately to each other (in increasingly pathological ways) was because they didn’t think anyone else would accept them. Other sitcoms might poke fun at their characters’ co-dependency, but would never ultimately explore the dark why of the fact. Community did, and that’s one of the reasons it was so bold and subversive. For all the kooky sitcom trappings, it reflected real life in a distinctly ugly way without losing sight of the bruised humanity at the heart of its characters.
This is why Community is, for all its flaws, so much better than Scrubs or How I Met Your Mother or any of the other sitcoms I spent my teens and twenties watching. It doesn’t stop at what’s easy or digestible. It pushes into the gaping chasm that exists in all of us between who we are and who we think we should be, and in that place finds something hopeful.
The best writing is a kind of therapy, but not just for the writer. The best writing reaches through the screen or page and tells the audience ‘I’ve been there too, and you’ll be okay’. And when you really need to hear that, there’s little as powerful.
Writing words about writing words.