Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Community 4-08: Herstory of Dance

It's kind of hard to talk about any fourth-season episode of Community without placing it in comparison to the first three seasons, which have been reduced to a homogenous mass of quality, ignoring the ways in which Community has always varied greatly from season to season and even episode to episode. If we want to praise a fourth-season episode, we say that it could comfortably fit into the first or second season. Most of this discourse is the very boring discussion of quality and "jumping the shark" which takes up so much of TV criticism. A lot of it is also grounded in the figure of Dan Harmon as auteur, an idea which ignores not just the death of the author and all that jazz but the hundreds of other people that make Community what it is [1]. Another issue with the way people talk about this season of Community is that it papers over both the discontinuities within the Harmon-led seasons and the continuities between new and old.

Despite the undeniable changes, the fourth season of Community is engaging with the same question as the second and third (maybe not so much the first) were: in a cultural landscape cluttered with a century of pop-cultural referents and a thick layer of irony and media-savviness, how is it possible to create something as seemingly straightforward and sentimental as a sitcom? How can we get past our postmodern detachment and recognition of having seen this all before in order to reach some kind of genuine moment of catharsis, whether it be a big emotional Winger speech or simply a belly laugh?

"Herstory of Dance" attempts to grapple with this problem in several ways. Plot-wise, it's a very conventional sitcom episode. The A-plot is about a character telling a small lie, and piling increasingly ridiculous lies on top of it to avoid embarrassment, which is the basic formula for many if not most sitcom episodes. The B-plot is about a character going on two dates at once, which is openly lampshaded as a cliche. Every joke carries with it the weight of history; we cannot watch it without being aware that this, like any other sitcom episode, is a rehashing and recombination of long-established tropes.

Maybe that last bit isn't entirely true. There are sitcoms that occasionally have the power to surprise, and certainly plenty of sitcoms that do their best to make the viewer see their content in a straightforward way, not comparing it to comedies past.. But Community sees this all as misdirection. In its view, every TV show (and maybe every cultural product) is a rearticulation of what's come before, and that's wonderful. It celebrates the cultural literacy of itself and its viewers, and maintains a half-ironic, half-sentimental relationship to the hackiest of plotlines. This is true in not just the broader sweep of the plot but also small gags that work as tributes, like the line of tape between the two dances in this episode, reminiscent of every sitcom "feuding siblings split the house in two" plot. Abed has become the core of the show because he's simultaneously the most culturally literate and the least cynical. Unlike Jeff (the ostensible lead) who simply disdains the predictability of the world around him, Abed celebrates it and makes it work for him.

These ideas, and the ways in which "Herstory of Dance" communicates them to various degrees of success, are all circulating in the opening scene. This is one of Community's much-vaunted table scenes, where the characters interact with each other and make jokes at each others' expense without the pressure of an ongoing narrative. These moments are kind of utopian, just long enough for one to get a glimpse of the kind of camaraderie and free exchange that exists when the group is in stasis before the events of any given episode disrupt this status quo. They're usually the funniest part of the episode, and one often feels the desire for a whole episode of nothing but the study group sitting around the table chatting. Part of me thinks that such an episode would be the best thing Community has ever done, and its best episodes are usually ones that hew close to the study space but never entirely dissolve into plotlessness ("Competitive Calligraphy" and "Remedial Chaos Theory" com to mind). On the other hand, fully giving into the temptations of simply hanging out with the characters would probably result in disappointment. Maybe it's best if the study space hang-out is some glimmering place we can only ever see glimpses of.

We get especially few glimpses here, as the plot intrudes early. What back-and-forth there is centres around the Pierce-designed American version of Inspector Spacetime, a callback to a plotline in the generally (and somewhat unfairly) pilloried "Conventions of Space and Time". This is ultimately then not much of a table scene (although it was more of one in my memory of the episode), so the big paragraph above about the utopian space of the study-room table is conjured entirely by the presence of the study-room set. Which may just speak to my ability to be easily sidetracked, but I think it also demonstrates how sets can build up complex emotional associations over the course of a show, sitting right in the centre of series space. As a single-camera comedy, Community doesn't have a lot of sets that have this quality, but the study room definitely does.

The Inspector Spacetime jokes aren't funny, but they do serve an important purpose here. In its opening seconds "Herstory of Dance" draws the same dichotomy that fans and critics draw all the time -- between somewhat obscure but clever and complex cultural objects and popular but simple and stupid ones. The dichotomy between the British and American versions of, well, anything usually illustrate this [2]. Community aligns itself with the obscure and the outsider, befitting its status as a cult television show.

If we imagine TV shows as existing in a Bordieu-esque cultural field, Community has made a conscious move towards the sphere of autonomous art, although not necessarily the kind of avant-garde work that Bordieu meant by that term. Instead it gestures towards the status of the cult, which falls somewhere in the middle in terms of cultural prestige, esteemed by nerds and pop-culture aficionados (like Abed) but not necessarily by a higher cultural authority (although one wonders whether such authorities even exist in a significant form today). Community has made similar moves in the past by referencing cult texts ranging from Dungeons & Dragons to spaghetti westerns, but the connotations of these references are distinctly different. With the dismissal of Dan Harmon fans are more inclined to see new Community episodes as not autonomous works of genius but as a commercial production affected as much by studio whims as by artistic inspiration. So the kind of references and in-jokes that would once be seen as simply a natural expression of the show's cult aesthetic can now be read as an attempt to preserve that aesthetic and reassure fans that Community is still Community. The exact same joke or reference could take on radically different meanings depending on which season it occurred in. This is not to suggest that either of the previously-mentioned readings are incorrect or distorted, but rather that a text's meaning is always rooted in the historical conditions of its production and reception.

There's a much more natural and effective example of meta-humour that immediately follows this, which is the black-and-white Dean that comes in to invite the group to a "classic Greendale dance" (another reference to the show's past). This is a great visual gag that the costume commits utterly to, which makes it all the more jarring. The Dean's black-and-white image stands in contrast to the typically bright colours that Community uses, and he literally looks like a segment of film cut from an old film or TV show and transplanted inside the world of Community. The Dean is not dressed as anything natural, but as a mediated image. His jarring presence within the colour world of the study room also makes us see the seemingly natural world of the TV mise-en-scene as an artificial, mediated image as well. This defamiliarization, the act of making the audience aware that it is watching a TV show, is the result of much of the Community's meta-humour, but the Dean's costume defamiliarizes in a way that is new and hence much more productively jarring. And all of this without much in the way of explicit reference to or discussion of his costume.

So anyway, the Dean's announcement of the Sadie Hawkins dance leads to Britta calling out the fake feminism of that kind of event and proposing a counter-dance. Of course, she confuses Susan B. Anthony with 90s alt-folk singer Sophie B. Hopkins, and spends the rest of the episode scrambling to cover up this mistake. As in most of the plotlines that draw on her quasi-activist side, Britta is more or less right about the dance, which sort of makes me uncomfortable with how ridiculous the show makes her. Britta's a much stronger character when the writers get away from the trope of the flighty, superficial female activist, which is both reactionary and misogynist (see also: Bluth, Lindsay). Of course, this is a comedy and it has no obligation to play anything straight, but it's disappointing to see a generally intelligent program fall back on hoary stereotypes that ultimately make any kind of political engagement look ridiculous [3]. Abed's pop culture obsession, on the other hand, is the source of a lot of jokes while nevertheless being presented as valuable and worthwhile in a sincere way.

But politics aren't really the point of "Herstory of Dance", despite a title that references the long-mocked rhetoric of 1970s feminism. The A-plot quickly becomes about Britta's stubbornness and refusal to admit she's made a mistake. Again, this is a standard sitcom theme, and interestingly enough it's one that isn't openly identified within the episode. The usual story of this type would result in increasingly strained and ridiculous attempts to maintain the charade, with lies piling upon lies until the whole thing collapses, the lying character fesses up, and there's a moment of cathartic reconciliation. This is not what happens here.

Britta is mentored in duplicity by Pierce, who identifies with her desire to not give Jeff the satisfaction of his usual cooler-than-thou mockery. As others, this is a bit of a rehabilitative turn for Pierce, whose character has basically degenerated to a stock racist old coot since his central role in the second season. Even if he is motivated purely by spite, he is unusually supportive of Britta and ultimately responsible for the plot's happy ending. Chevy Chase's affect in this episode is even notably different from usual, less angry and more happy and open.

Moreover, through the scenes of Pierce sympathizing with and supporting Britta, "Herstory of Dance" introduces the idea that being the butt of a joke matters, and it's something that characters like Britta and Pierce are aware of and have to live with. Which is really one of the central ideas that "Herstory of Dance" and Community at large insist on: jokes, the ways we tell them, and the ways we remember them, matter. Using "Britta" as a synonym for "mess up" is funny, and Community lets us laugh at it, but it also reminds us that it's much less funny if you're Britta. A seemingly extraneous scene of Jeff berating Britta, right after the premise is established, helps to reinforce the stakes and produce Jeff's status as the cool jokester as a kind of hierarchical position. Jeff physically looms over Britta in the scene, which is in part simply due to the heights of Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs, but the framing of the camera specifically seems to emphasize the smallness of Britta. By contrast, in both the opening and scene Jeff and Britta are seated, in a position of equality and equilibrium, and in the conclusion Jeff sits down when he admits he has been bested.

This scene is repeated a couple times as Britta's pretense that she originally meant Sophie B. Hawkins balloons into a pretense that Hawkins herself will play the dance. We anticipate the usual payoff of confession, forgiveness, and reunion, but then Sophie B. actually shows up, summoned by some obscure Pierce magic. When Jeff asked if she did it, Britta says "If it's possible to make something happen by willing it, then yes". While there's a plot explanation for it, "Herstory of Dance" subtly suggests that yes, perhaps it is possible to make something happen by willing it -- or by proclaiming it forcefully enough. The lie becomes truth, and discourse becomes reality. Instead of Britta being punished for her deceit, her stubborn pride and insistence on a coherent narrative -- her "commitment to the bit", as Jeff puts it -- ultimately win the day.

An ending like this could only be found in a comedy as thoroughly postmodern as Community. Not only does the main plot of "Herstory of Dance" invert the usual sitcom moralism, it draws on the idea that our discourse and the stories we tell ultimately shape the reality we see around us. The struggle over the definition of "Britta" in this episode suggests the mutability of language and discourse. "Britta" was first simply a name signifying an individual, but it eventually came on to take on a second meaning of "screw up", which of course stemmed from and influenced the meaning of Britta the person. This suggests that rather than there being a simple one-way relationship between a word and its meaning (or its sign and its signifier, if you will) the two are part of a complicated web of ideas. Community celebrates this mutability of meaning and the free play of signifiers, most frequently in its rapidfire wordplay but also in larger plots such as this one.

The B-plot in "Herstory of Dance" also rests on distinctly postmodern grounds (which is to say grounds that are shaky, uncertain, and possibly entirely ficticious). Abed re-enacts a plot from countless sitcoms by trying to go on two dates at the same time. As is typical of Abed (and of Community) he does it not out of any interest in either of the women involved but out of a desire to fulfill a trope. "I'll get to wear two outfits, mix up their names, maybe hide under a table" he enthuses.

This is more than a simple lampshade hanging. Community emphasizes the performative aspect of comedy. The humour in Community does not arise from an unplanned and organic collision of characters but from people actively deciding to be comedic characters. In the background of this episode is Troy desperately trying to create a set of wacky hijinx, openly attempting to put together a comedic plot as a rival to Abed's. "Herstory of Dance" also suggests that, while Abed's enactment of these tropes may be artificial, so would any other choice. Prior to embarking on the two-dates scheme he was making a conscious effort to "display growth" -- that is, to perform an idea of character development that is just as artificial and referential as zany sitcom tropes[4].

But not all of Community's characters have equal access to irony and performativity. In this plotline Abed is the postmodern author, self-consciously regurgitating tropes and stories -- and four women are the passive characters in his scheme. Annie, Shirley and the girls they suggest Abed to are not allowed much if any meta-knowledge, and are left out of the play of tropes and texts. Unlike Abed, the women are motivated by straightforward, unironic emotion, and "Herstory of Dance" largely does not take these emotions seriously -- Abed's two dates vanish once their narrative purposes have been served, and Shirley and Annie are swept up in Abed's new romance. None of them seem to mind being passive objects in Abed's shenanigans, and Community has suggested in the past that this is the right attitude to take for those not blessed with metafictional magic (most notably in "Virtual Systems Analysis").

This gives the Abed plotline a distinct lack of stakes. In a straightforward rendition of this trope, the tension would consist of the protagonist trying to avoid having his plans exposed and being rejected and humiliated by both women. But for Abed said humiliation, rather than being legitimate emotional damage, would just be another part of the story -- he would be rather pleased that his shenanigans resolved as they always did on TV. Because of this there's little to no dramatic tension. While dramatic tension is certainly not necessary for a comedy plot, it's hard to centre ten minutes' worth of jokes on self-consciously repeating something everyone has seen before (as Community has discovered the hard way several times).

Enter Brie Larson's Rachel, the lowly coat check girl. Rachel proves herself a better love interest for Abed than either Shirley's churchgoer or Annie's "quirky girl"[5]. She immediately recognizes the appeal of Abed's play and is conversant in the same tropes and references that he is. Unlike the other women in this plotline, Rachel is fully fluent in Abed's meta-language of cultural references, and can partake in his narrative play as a full and willing participant. Notably, though, she still only takes on the role of helper, providing costume changes and distractions for Abed as he exercises his master plan.

Rather than becoming an equal participant in Abed's metafictional play, Rachel takes the role of a viewer substitute. She responds to Abed's antics just as an idealized Community viewer would, with a mixture of unquestioned enjoyment and savvy understanding. She figures out the tropes he's playing off without having to be told, loves them ("it's one of my favourite bits") and moreover loves Abed's re-enactment of them ("I think it's awesome"). Her reactions signal that the viewer should see Abed's ruse as entertaining and not sociopathic. I'm quite interested in this subject of viewer substitutes in TV, which occurs in everything from Homeland to Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and hope to do some Serious Academic Writing on it in the future.

But back to "Herstory of Dance". Abed is so caught up in his performance of the two-dates plot that he fails to realize the romance plot he is now involved in, and as a result alienates Rachel. As he says, "I was so caught up in one trope that I missed the trope that was right under my nose -- that the right girl was right under my nose". Of course, he deals with it by making a big public declaration of love, a trope that Rachel had previously identified as being one of her favourites [6]. She accepts it, and even the direction of the scene is straight out of any teen movie. (These movies aren't usually set at college, but Greendale is basically high school for adults, so there you go).

And so we have a romance plotline told entirely through metafictional play, moving from trope to trope like a high-wire act, without ever touching some kind of authenticity. Except Community isn't content to leave it at that. Before the proverbial cane pulls Abed and Rachel off stage, Rachel proposes that on their upcoming date they act out another sitcom plot. Abed is tempted, but ultimately wants to "do real". The suggestion is that Abed has "shown growth" by moving past his complex meta-jokes and embracing authentic and emotional human interaction. But "Herstory of Dance" has already established that this romance plotline is just another trope, and "doing real" would just be another kind of performance. If Abed and Rachel went out for a dinner and a movie, they wouldn't be doing so out of some kind of authentic prehistoric desire, but because a dinner and a movie are part of the cultural romance narrative. Community knows this, but it seems to want to forget it in favour of a traditional form of closure.

This is the central tension at work in much of Community. For all of its postmodern awareness, it also has a penchant for moments of straightforward sentimentality. When Jeff uses "Britta'd" positively, it may be a message delivered through postmodern wordplay, but it's also one that conveys an honest friendship, an emotion that the show takes seriously. When it comes to the relationships between its characters, Community is about as far away from cynicism and critical distance as you can be, often resulting in big emotional speeches and group hugs.

This is something that a lot of contemporary artists seem to be grappling with -- how to tell stories with genuine human emotion when we live in a postmodern culture that distrusts any such straightforward emotional displays. This is why former postmodern authors like Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon have drifted over to writing stoutly naturalist bourgeois family novels. Community has a more complex answer to this challenge. It suggests that real emotions and genuine desires are still in abundance, but the way we express them now is through reference and metahumour. Even Jeff's final text message in "Herstory of Dance" is narrated in a sarcastic voice (as Britta presumably reads sarcasm into the message at first). This is the postmodern condition, according to Community: sappy sentiment conveyed through cynical posturing.

What's striking is that it does this while often being line-for-line the funniest comedy on TV. (Less so in the fourth season, admittedly). Postmodern theorists often talk about the liberatory potential of linguistic play, but it's hard to find anything joyful and liberating in struggling through a volume of Derrida. (Although I'm sure old JD was having fun while writing it). Community actualizes the joy of postmodern play and makes it broadly accessible. The endless referentiality of Community's script may admittedly be a shallow idea of play that depends the objects of commercial mass culture, but if nothing else it provides an example of how metafictional play can happen in the broadest-aiming, most conservative cultural realm -- that of network television. And that's no small feat.

[1]Arguably the exodus of writers and directors from the show over the past couple of years has made much more of an impact than the departure of Harmon alone has.

[2]Of course, many British shows that are held up as obscure works of genius in North America are viewed in their home culture as broad entertainment, Doctor Who being the most prominent example. Anglophilia has more than a bit to do with this, but I would say that the difference mainly demonstrates how the public status of a work shapes our view of it.

[3]In this respect Britta forms a dyad with Shirley, whose devout Christianity is the source of most of the jokes surrounding her character, and is never really anything but a joke. Some would praise "going after both sides", but I think ultimately this suggests a "centrist" politics that views both political extremes with equal horror, which ultimately supports the status quo if not absolute apathy. (The linear political spectrum is also a heavily flawed idea). This ultimately obscures the radicalness of the current state of the world. Of course, Community isn't and doesn't have to be about the neoliberal world order -- it takes place in a comforting fantasy world in more ways than one. But invoking real-world politics as a source of jokes makes it easier to believe that we actually live in that fantasy world where everything will be all right by the end of the episode.

(I may have just Britta'd this review.)

[4]Just think of all the things that dramas (and increasingly comedies) do to flag to the viewer that they're developing characters and are hence Quality Television. Think of long philosophical monologues, revelations about a tragic childhood, or extended romance plotlines. Alternately, just think of every flashback plotline on Lost, and you should have a good idea of what I mean by performing character development.

[5]The "quirky girl" Kat is a pretty expert parody of the archetype that appears in countless movies and films, the one who is supposed to be a loveable free spirit but more closely resembles, as Troy puts it, "a toddler with a growing disease". Nathan Rabin famously dubbed this trope the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" and denounced it for the nice-guy misogyny it embodies. I can't really argue with Rabin, even if the term he coined has been overused, nor can I deny that Community gets a lot of good comedy out of Kat. However, it's interesting to contrast the portrayal of her and that of Abed, who suffers from a similar level of oddness and arrested development. Abed is self-consciously aware of his quirkiness and the tropes it embodies, and expresses his strangeness through approved American popular culture. By contrast Kat seems to be remarkably unaware of her strangeness and expresses her strange personality in a straightforward and honest manner. For this she is entirely a joke, someone that can be shrugged off without incident, whereas Community sympathizes heavily with Abed's eccentricities. Of course, not every character can have a complex internal life, but one wonders if Kat would be presented as more relateable if she made the occasional comment about how she totally resembles that girl from Garden State right now. There's a larger point to be made here about postmodern metahumour and social deviance, but this is already a bit of a tangent.

[6]Interestingly enough, when Kat makes this comment, Abed dismisses the public confession by say ing that it "takes something private and makes it a public performance". This is funny in a kind of subtle and ironic way, as Abed is clearly in the midst of making a public performance out of private romantic affairs. Whereas in a straightforward two-dates plotline the man (and it's always a man who attempts this) wants to keep his plans entirely secret and private and is doing the scheme because of internal motivations, Abed is performing for an audience -- himself, Troy, Rachel, and implicitly the TV viewers. Abed should know better. In Community, everything is always already a public performance. Maybe he just needs to read his Butler.

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