So, at this time last year, I was writing an essay on Community, I still think it’s one of my better efforts. My marks agree, and sometimes people ask to see it.
Cultural theorists such as Jameson, Corrigan and Baudrillard have argued that the emphasis on spectacles, intertextuality and serialisation in contemporary entertainment places the “meaning” and coherence provided by closed, classic narratives under threat. Do you agree? In your response, you may want to consider Jim Collins’ alternate argument regarding ‘negotiation of the array’
Community 101: How to Make Neo-Baroque Sense in and of a Postmodern World
For Jameson, Corrigan and Baudrillard, the infiltration of postmodernism into popular culture might as well have signalled the rapture. In casting dire predictions and critiques of the movies and television which mark contemporary culture, they not only make the presumption that meaning and coherence are exclusively related to closed, classical narratives, but that this form of meaning is both inherently superior and under threat. Community (NBC, 2009) embodies the challenges which can be raised against this argument, in regard to the “threats” serialisation, intertextuality and spectacle. Notably, it is the successful melding of these three categories which ensure the programme’s success.
The idea espoused by Corrigan, et al., that contemporary entertainment is incoherent, is very relevant to situational comedy. Community occupies an interesting space in contemporary popular culture, being exemplary of the hybridisation of serial drama and traditional sitcom, which has occurred in the past decade. Mills has suggested the sitcom is ‘often perceived to be of less worth, or less invention and of less social value than many more “serious” forms of programming’ (2005, 5). Like 30 Rock (NBC, 2009), Community uses a single camera and no laugh track, film with cinematic realist aesthetics, to counter this traditional notion. These production values are key to the programme’s industrial context as ‘the cultural capital associated with certain kinds of comedy far outreach those of others for certain demographics and such audiences are the ones the broadcasters are often keen to attract’ (136). Aesthetically, Community ‘doesn’t need to be filmed in this way’ (128), but it wishes to attract a cinephilic audience. This audience is necessary, as Community makes little sense outside the immense number of texts it references, and it is the entanglement of serialisation, intertextuality and spectacle which give the programme meaning to its audience.
More of a challenge to Community’s coherency is its limited ability to negotiate the array of its structural form. Collins argues ‘the conditions of the narrative’s eventual circulation’ can no longer ‘be considered somehow “outside” the text’ (1991, 180). Community regularly references its episodic structure, as when the Dean’s announcement which opens the second episode is followed by this exchange:
Troy: That dude makes a lot of announcements.
Abed: I like it. It makes every ten minutes feel like the beginning of a scene of a TV show.
(1.02 – “Spanish 101”)
The programme also spends an entire episode parodying the mockumentary form of other quality sitcoms, such as The Office (BBC, 2001). ‘I’m excited about the narrative facility of the documentary format. It’s easier to tell a complex story when you can just cut to people explaining things to the camera,’ Abed explains in one such address (2.12 – “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”). Despite this, Community has not, in two seasons, made any reference to its own quality sitcom form. As the programme is still running, however, we do not know that it will not do this in the future. As such, it is more difficult to make meaning out of Corrigan’s argument, asserting meaning only applies to closed texts, than it is the programme itself.
Meaning is conceived differently by Corrigan, et al. and Jim Collins, with Collins suggesting ‘within this politics of diversity and difference, “value” is not abandoned – only absolute “truth” values’ (1997, 200). Community’s meaning is confined to the audience it targets. The programme does not perceive every potential recipient of the text in the same way, and is much more interested in attaining a meaningful connection with those who do see why it makes sense.
Community raises an interesting question of just what is meant by Corrigan, Jameson and Baudrillard by meaning. In the presumption that this is exclusively offered by closed, classic narratives, the theorists suggest that coherency must be bound within a single text, and that this text is giving meaning to a unified audience, extraneous to the world around it. Considering that in relation to this exchange on Community shows it to be a fallacy.
[Jeff is in the cafeteria, Britta has just walked off. A matronly female stands near him]
Jeff: Shouldn’t be too hard to fake a study group, should it?
Jeff: Oh, jeez, I’m sorry, I was raised on TV and I was conditioned to believe that every black woman over fifty is a cosmic mentor.
(1.01 – “Pilot”)
The idea of independent meaning jars heavily with postmodern theory. Jim Collins suggests meaning and coherence are ‘complicated … by the co-presence of previous representations persisting through mass media’ (1989, 134). In this sense, representational activity can only have meaning in today’s media landscape by consciously acknowledging its cultural past, as the exchange above suggests. Community’s strategy of citing generic conventions to destabilise an audience’s expectations of that genre, gives it meaning in this intertextual sphere.
Another instance of this occurs even earlier in the first episode. Downward mobility is evident in almost all of the characters—from disbarred lawyer, Jeff; to former jock, Troy, who lost his scholarship in a keg flip. When these characteristics are espoused by the Dean in more general terms in the first scene of Community, while the camera scans over the characters we’re yet to meet, it is established both as ‘loser television’ (Kellner 1997, 187), and as a study of how loser television is created. In both instances, meaning and coherence is created by knowledge; on the part of the character, in the first example; and audience in the latter, of how generic texts make meaning.
In this sense, Community extends what Umberto Eco opined in “Casablanca: Cult movies and Intertextual Collage” (1997). It is now not only the semiotician and audience negotiating the array of cultural signs in a text (Collins 1991, 170), but the characters themselves. Joel McHale, who plays Jeff, articulated why this is a savvy strategy in an interview:
In my life and growing up, my friends and I, we make pop-culture references constantly because it was constantly in our faces,” McHale says. ”When Community came out, some people said, ‘Oh, it’s just pop-culture reference humour’, and I thought, ‘Yes, but that’s how I spoke with my friends’. (Idato 2011)
Community suggests that a sitcom today which did not notice how many tropes of a sitcom it was fulfilling, would be incoherent. This is because the characters, to establish verisimilitude, would have seen sitcoms and be aware of those tropes. As Linda Hutcheon suggests, ‘there is no directly and naturally accessible past “real” for us today: we can only know – and construct – the past through its traces, its representations’ (1997, 39). Intertextuality is not a choice in imbuing contemporary entertainment with meaning, but a necessity. Community presents a ‘critical vision of the current generation of youth raised primarily on media culture’ (2997, 183), the characters of Community have negotiated through the array so that ‘initial disorientation [with this absorption of culture is] quickly made manageable’ (Collins 1997, 194).
The negotiation of the array is also a means through which Community involves its audience in the characters’ psychology, which Corrigan feels is missing from contemporary entertainment (1991, 170). Because the characters, especially Abed, are constantly negotiating the same array as the audience, we establish empathy with them, as in his awareness of the TV ‘feel’ of the Dean’s announcements above. Because they, and we, are still shown to have meaning and coherence in our lives, we see coherence is not a practice limited to closed narratives.
In this sense, the array may be absorbed into what Angela Ndalianis calls the ‘neo-baroque’, rather than postmodern, as texts extend beyond the frame, creating structure and meaning, which she believes we are ‘obsessed with’ (2011b). Where once people might have cited Job from The Bible, one of the grand narratives to which Lyotard, an influence of Corrogin, refers in The Postmodern Condition (Brooker 1997, 3), now it is more resonant for Abed to cite Goldie Hawn in Overboard, as he does in “Home Economics” (1.08). Likewise, where we might once have called something ‘sky blue’, more meaning is attained for the audience to have their colour chart range from ‘Seal to Seal’s teeth’ (1.06 – “Football, Feminism and You”). In doing so, Community embodies the qualities of the postmodern which Linda Hutcheon defines in ‘Postmodern film?’ as ‘awareness of cultural continuity and a need to adapt to changing formal demands and social conditions though an ironic contesting of the authority of that same continuity’ (1997, 36), by way of those neo-baroque means. Overboard as a discreet text may not offer the same depth of narrative as The Bible, but it belongs to a broader culture which taken as a whole, offer more meaning to contemporary life as we negotiate the array.
The serialisation inherent in quality sitcoms (Hammond and Mazden 2005, 76 and Mills 2009, 131) and evident in Community allows it to deploy intertextual spectacles without endangering its own narrative cohesion, as Corrigan et al. suggest is the faculty of all of these features of postmodern entertainment. Parodies occur so frequently in Community, as episode-long features that the frequent occurrence of spectacular events is written into the narrative world of the series. By “Rocket Science” (2.04), the characters are comfortable spending minutes walking in slow motion toward a space simulator, as the filmic intertexts they have already experienced do not make this parody of films like Apollo 13 (Howard, 1995) fracture their own stories. Thus, rather than interrupting the diegesis, the repetition of intertextual spectacles becomes integral to the way characters see the world. It is because of the serialisation that spectacles do not become citational pastiches. By hybridising with the serial form and not offering neat resolutions to the character elements of its plots, Community ‘refuses to be complicitous in the perpetuation of the myth-tradition’ (Henry 2004, 269), wherein everything can be solved by an episode’s end. Without watching from one episode to the next, we may attain much less meaning from such parodies, but this lack of coherence occurs on the level of reception, not production, and is subject to only some recipients.
This cohesion is strengthened by the ongoing relationships between characters and their individual developments, also a product of serialisation, as ‘the episode fragment and the series whole coexist and interact’ (Ndalianis 2005, 96). The gradual establishment of characters over the course of years is potentially more meaningful than Corrigan’s version of how Bogart and Bacall anchor the loose threads of closed narratives (170). This is because their status as authentic subjects can be questioned by a multitude of potentially fracturing spectacles. Abed’s documentary might serve as mockumentary spectacle to the audience, but it is used to advance several storylines, including Pierce’s reliance on pain killers and Britta’s selfish/selfless inner turmoil. It is serialisation which has given weight to these stories, and these stories then transcend the spectacles they are immersed in.
With the negotiation of the array acting as character motivation, rather than suspending and neutralising it, as Corrigan suggests (1991, 173), Community offers meaning and coherence not only to its own narrative, but those it refers to through parody. In “Introduction to Statistics” (1.07), Abed dresses as Batman for Halloween. Specifically, Christopher Nolan’s Batman, as portrayed by Christian Bale in Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005) and The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008). We know it is that Batman, because Abed resolutely imitates Bale’s voice as part of the parody. This parody keeps with Abed’s character progression, as he is established as deeply committed to popular culture, and our culture is one which engages in mockery of Bale’s Batman voice; showing how both character and audience negotiate the array while creating, rather than destroying meaning for the text. The parody does significantly more than this, however. At its climax, Abed-Batman facilitates a slow motion rescue of his peers which uses a non-diegetic score similar to that of Nolan’s films, while a table fort collapses around them. After launching in to the parody, this exchange turns into a monologue typical of Nolan.
Jeff: Are you staying for the party?
Abed-Batman: If I stay, there can be no party. I must be out there in the night, staying vigilant. Wherever a party needs to be saved, I’m there. Wherever there are masks, wherever there is tomfoolery and joy, I’m there. But sometimes I’m not, ‘cause I’m out in the night, staying vigilant, watching, lurking, running. jumping hurdling, sleeping. No, I can’t sleep. You sleep, I’m awake. I don’t sleep, I don’t blink. Am I a bird? No. I’m a bat. I’m Batman. Or am I? Yes, I am Batman.
The monologue becomes voiceover as we turn to see Abed-Batman standing on a building with a wide, high-angle shot turning to reveal his full body, before in a seamless movement switching to a low angle which tightens to his high-key, underlit face. The first function of the scene is the use of the mini-spectacle to reveal the technical elements which go into creating Nolan’s seriousness, undermining them through a voiceover which deliberately fails at establishing the right degree of urgency crafted in the films. The second function actually offers meaning which may have been lost while watching Nolan’s films. When Abed-Batman refuses to stay at the party, he employs the same dialogue which keeps those films open to the serialisation which Collins outlines in “Batman: the Movies, Narrative: the Hyperconscious” (1991). While Corrigan et al. believe this is one of the features which erodes narrative meaning, Abed’s inclination to believe he should be out of the streets to be true to the character, reveals a closed narrative would have no coherence for a character such as Batman. It would betray Batman’s character psychology and thus destroy the meaning and coherence in Batman texts, to diminish their serial potential, as the character would not believe that once a battle is won, society returns to normal. Community’s combination of intertextual spectacle and serialisation is then capable of offering meaning and coherence not only to its own narrative but those to which it refers.
In this instance, intertextual parody works to create meaning through the subversion of generic tropes. Finally, on other occasions, references are summoned by characters to remove the audience’s novelty of noticing them. This means the narrative is able to run its course without a sense of betrayal on the part of the audience, for the programme failing to notice its conventions. In these cases, while the story may run its traditional course, an audience is able to see why that narrative has had enough dramatic clout to be worth repeating. Jameson deplores this strategy of postmodern entertainment, regarding it as ‘cultural “schizophrenia”’ (Storey 2001, 159), however Community paints a different picture of the strategy. In “Modern Warfare” (1.23), Jeff and Britta are compared to Ross and Rachel, from Friends (NBS, 2004), due to their drawn out sexual tension. The inevitability of their romantic entanglement is stated matter-of-factly by their peers, as it will have been noticed by the audience. This shows the way we can not divorce ourselves from culture in general while watching a specific text, as Ndalianis states: ‘the very structure of the intertextual movements … have a great deal to tell us about how meaning is disseminated, assimilated and consumed within our society’ (2011). For the audience, it is recognising, as McHale found, that cultural citation is as much a part of our lives as the characters; while for the characters it allows more complex genericity and character development. This in turn counters the argument that meaning and intertextuality do not coexist, posited by Corrigan.
For Corrigan, Community would be a thorough waste of time, as it does nothing but ‘waste’ narrative time (1991, 166), by intermingling the qualities of serialisation, intertextuality and spectacle which critics of postmodernism feel have destroyed meaning in entertainment. For a contemporary audience, however, it is that very awareness of what has come before and empathy built on a shared cultural history between character and viewer, which gives Community narrative coherence in 2011. Pastiche becomes a redundant term, as the inevitability of ways characters will react to scenarios incontrovertibly alters generic plots, even when they are not notably transgressed. Community is in an irreconcilable double-bind with these critics; without its seriality, it would be even more confined to its intertextual spectacles, and though narrative closure would be achieved, this would come at the expense of caring for character psychology. Through acknowledgment that meaning is not exclusive to closed classical narratives; and that it is subjective rather than all-encompassing, a much brighter picture of the array of contemporary entertainment can be achieved.
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 This was the way they were bundled in the book, rather than an inconsistency on my part.