Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Religious "Community"

Anyone who is even casually acquainted with me in meat-life will be aware of two facts: (1) Community returned this week, and (2) I was very, very, very, very happy about this.

Community is straight-up my favorite show on TV. Its midseason disappearance from NBC's schedule was devastating to me, and the announcement of its return had me capslock keymashing all over the internet. I celebrated Thursday's episode with friends and champagne: it was glorious and beautiful, and it's not really an exaggeration to say that this show is a religious experience for me. Here's why.

1. The community of television

I tend to be fairly generous with my definition of “the religious”. Like Tillich, I think religion is an orientation toward ultimate concern; like Barthes, I believe we are surrounded by images that signify ideologies – and if popular culture reveals and reflects a society's most deeply held values, then it's not a huge leap to argue that pop culture can be a locus of religious experience. (Tom Beaudoin's Virtual Faith makes this argument very nicely.)

Although TV ownership in the US is apparently declining, television is still the most ubiquitous form of mass media in this country (of that 3.3% of TV-less households, it's a fairly solid bet that many of them still watch shows online). As such, it is the most unifying artifact of American popular culture, and thus television as a whole could be considered a site of religious meaning. Even for a small cult show like Community, several million viewers participate in the weekly ritual of watching it – a shared experience that nonetheless resonates on a personal level for each individual, much like a religious service.

2. The community of the individual

Some people have accused the Community ensemble of being uniformly terrible human beings who evince no character growth and are unlikeable and completely unrelatable. I will not link to the people saying these things, because they are erroneous, incorrect, inaccurate, misguided, mistaken wrong-mongers who are very very wrong.

I see myself in Jeff: his walls of sarcasm and cynicism that try but fail to hide the true depths of his emotional responses.

I see myself in Britta: her enthusiasm for political causes and her morality that stems from a heart in the right place but is often ill-thought-out or hypocritical in practice.

I see myself in Abed: his profound love of pop culture, his social discomfort, his use of pop culture to understand those around him.

I see myself in Shirley: her deep Christian faith and her struggle to overcome her personal failings to live a really loving Christian life.

I see myself in Annie: her neurotic perfectionism and intense fear of failure.

I see myself in Troy: his goofy sense of humor, his deep bromance with his BFF, his quest for a place and purpose in the world.

I see myself in Pierce: his desperate desire for acceptance and inclusion, insecurities often masked by acting like an almighty asshole.

I really, really love these characters. Each one of them speaks to a different part of my own personality, often in ways that illuminate my flaws and weaknesses. They are complicated, imperfect human beings, but they love each other and I love them. They embody the complex, messy reality of being human – of being simultaneously wonderful and terrible, capable of beautiful things and horrific things, worthy of love and of hate.

3. The community of friends

It's called Community because that's what it's ultimately about. This is a show about a group of people who are thrown together in a situation that's for none of them ideal, and who learn to make the best of it. The interpersonal dynamics at play in this show are special because they are bold and because they speak a truth that is rarely spoken in television.

Compare the show Friends. That was also a show about a group of friends, and it was often a sweet show with a good heart, but all the friends came from the same social location: straight, white, young, of a certain socioeconomic bracket. Community dares to portray a very diverse group of people who find common ground without erasing their differences. The relationship between the Self and the Other must involve both the unity of commonality and the space of respecting difference. Friendship is the experience of navigating this Scylla-and-Charybdis – learning to find common ground in your shared humanity while celebrating and benefiting from each other's difference – and Community portrays this wonderful, difficult process better than any other show I've ever seen.

4. The heart of Community

Community is a dizzyingly inventive show, playing with pop-culture history in endlessly fun and creative ways, but it is still a television show, and as such it follows a certain formula. The characters love each other; they learn lessons about the value of friendship; they make missteps and hurt each other, but they ultimately make the right choices and warm our hearts. Like religious truth, Community's heart is both inexhaustibly profound and completely obvious.

So very many religious and philosophical traditions hinge on the Golden Rule. Jesus himself said that everything else was pretty much window-dressing. Love your neighbor as yourself: it really couldn't be simpler. And yet we have to be taught it, over and over again, in different ways and by different people, and we still don't do it. It's childishly simple, but it's also really difficult.

In the same way, Community is a television show. More specifically than that, it's a half-hour network sitcom. It plays by established rules and conveys a simple, feel-good message. At the same time, though, it takes such delight in exploring the limits of those established rules and finding new and awesome ways to express that simple message.

Community is a show about love, it's a show written from a place of love, and I believe it's a manifestation of God's love in the world. I leave you with the moment I first knew this show was something really special and a nugget of pure wisdom: cabeza es nieve, cerveza es bueno.

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