27 Oct

Mittell’s article “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television” discusses the emergence of complicated storylines in TV shows from the past 20 years or so. While many shows make use of repetition and other devices to allow newer viewers to get into the show, other series assume a certain level of prior knowledge.

A very interesting narrative structure was used in the third season of Community. Similar to the Rashoman effect (repeating a story from different perspectives) that Mittell mentions (37), the episode “Remedial Chaos Theory” presents several possible timelines for the show to take, based on which character leaves the room at a certain moment. The “darkest timeline” features one of the characters dying, another losing an arm, one relapsing into alcoholism, etc. Though this is not the timeline that continues in the next episode, the darkest timeline does still exist. The real timeline is referred to as the “prime timeline,” possibly alluding to the fact that it is more appropriate for a primetime NBC show, where all of the characters have a nice happy resolution at the end of the episode.

However, one character named Abed seems to be vaguely aware of the darkest timeline. Later in the season, Evil Abed, from the darkest timeline, crosses over and attempts to make the prime timeline the darkest. This brings up the issue of which timeline is real, and whether the darkest timeline is all in Abed’s head. This is plausible since Abed has trouble understanding social situations and often uses TV and movies to help him. He constantly references TV series and films, and sometimes constructs events in his life to mimic their plots.

This episode uses a strange narrative device, especially since this plot arc brings Community into something like science fiction, which it does not generally explore. Weird episodes like this might not appeal to a wide audience, contributing to the show’s low ratings. Caldwell, in his discussion of televisuality, talks about “loss leaders,” which he describes as having “high prestige-claims but predictably low [ratings] numbers” (20). He writes about this in relation to style more than narrative complexity, but these often go hand in hand. Something like this occurs in shows like Arrested Development, which has many complex and overlapping narratives, as well as a distinctive style. During its run, it had very few viewers despite critical acclaim, though it has since gained many fans. But is that what is happening with Community?

Along with its weird plotlines and characters, Community requires a vast knowledge of TV and movies to be fully appreciated. While it is not as extremely self-referential as Arrested Development, it does assume a high level of outside knowledge. It is not too high-concept or narratively complex for viewers to understand or enjoy any given episode. When the show does use strange narrative structures, it is often an explicit reference to other TV series or movies (e.g. claymation Christmas episode), but the episode is funny even if you don’t get that one reference. Maybe it is Community’s constant engagement with itself as a TV show and the things it references that turns people off. Or it may have to do with Community’s weird brand of humor. Maybe it is something else.

When Caldwell mentions loss leaders and their tendency to be cancelled, he raises the following question: “Which type of series should be deemed more symptomatic of a period, the few with high ratings and prestige, or the greater number with high prestige-claims but predictably low numbers?” (20). With DVDs and Netflix, people may not feel as compelled to watch a highly praised series while it is on TV, since they can just watch it at some point in the future. Even better, they can wait until the show ends and then watch it all in 3 days, ensuring that they will catch every self-reference and follow all of the complex narratives throughout the series. Unfortunately, this viewing behavior can come at the expense of the series’ cancellation.

3 Responses to “#sixseasonsandamovie”

  1. leemac113 October 28, 2012 at 10:00 pm #

    I’m glad you brought this up since “Remedial Chaos Theory” is my favorite Community episode and Community is certainly a show which is often vastly under-appreciated. You alluded to the fact that Community isn’t all that narratively complex, at least not to the point where not understanding what’s going on in terms of long-term story lines would hinder your enjoyment of an episode (it is evident that Evil Abed is an alternate-universe-type Abed, even if you hadn’t seen the episode where he originated).

    The real reason I think Community is in such danger of getting cancelled is definitely more of a stylistic piece of Caldwell’s argument, but I think it’s a similar stylistic element to one in Arrested Development: the speed and type of joke delivery. The jokes come so much more quickly in these two shows than in most shows on television, and because the brand of their humor is very clever, viewers will often miss some of them. Additionally, and probably more specifically to Community, there are many inside jokes relating to popular culture (they are inside jokes since if you don’t know the reference you won’t get the joke, but if you do the joke is hilarious). Both of these elements often leave viewers with a feeling of having missed something, and that can be frustrating for some viewers. As a result, shows like these are often at high risk of getting cancelled.

  2. Alessio Franko October 29, 2012 at 12:02 am #

    It is worth noting that while Community seems to be a total anomaly, replete with “weird” storytelling and genre-bending, that part of the appeal of Community is that in in fact does follow rather rigid, tried and true plot structures. For example, lots of things happened in season 2, but the latter half contained a very well-planned out emotional journey for Pierce as he struggled to make himself an integral part of the study group. What’s funny about Abed being “meta,” talking about his life as if it were a TV show is that his life, in so far as it is the way it looks to him the way it looks to the viewers, IS indeed structured like a TV show.

    • Eric Thurm November 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

      I’m with Alessio that part of the appeal of Community is the predictability of its unpredictability. For pop culture junkies who can reference and understand homages to lots of different genres (Westerns, zombie movies, etc.) Community’s promise of relatively basic sitcom stories within the confines of a new structure every week is pretty remarkable. That extends to the meta-ness of the series, which reflect pop culture’s infinite tendency to comment on itself. I agree with Lee that this insider-ness is what makes Community so hard to get into/likely to be canceled – I can’t really imagine watching it without getting most of the references. But it also makes it a great niche show.

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