Monday, May 21, 2012

Six Seasons and a Movie

Popular culture is a bit like God: it's hard to define, a lot of people worship it blindly, and it often works in mysterious ways.

The best way I can think of to visually describe what pop culture (or, to use a more complex and hilariously foreign-sounding term, the "zeitgeist") might look like...picture a very, very long road running straight through a barren desert. As you drive down this road in a vehicle of your choosing (for the sake of argument, let's go with a 2004 Prius), you can see man-made structures erected on either side of the road. Lots of them. Some of them are run-down grey piles of rubble,dilapidated, forgotten, abandoned, and unloved; while others are towering fortresses with majestic towers and stained-glass windows tinted with blazing colour that provides a literal orgasmic delight to your eyeballs as you drive idly past, pressing your nose up against the window of your Prius.

These houses are the framework of pop culture itself, the literal backbone: namely, the ideas and creations set loose upon the world for audience consumption. Be they works of literature, television, cinema, comic books, websites, video game, sports, or any other media, they are represented on this dusty road by one of those man-made structures. The 1958 movie The Blob has its own structure. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has a structure. The Muppets Christmas Carol has a structure right next to it, just a few structures down from the L.A. Lakers structure. Everything is represented. But the thing is, every one of them starts off looking exactly the same: a plain, unadorned grey box, virtually empty and waiting to be expanded upon. Creators can only make something exist. It takes fans and -most importantly -love to make something ALIVE.

That grey box representing the L.A. Lakers didn't stay small and grey for long, because the Lakers have a plethora of fans supporting them through every game of the season. Through the good games, and through the bad, those fans continued to paint their faces purple and gold, slap on their Number 32 jerseys, and fill in the seats at the Staples Center. And that's exactly the kind of unconditional love that has allowed the grey box representing the Lakers to flourish into a towering castle of purple parapets, with golden banners fluttering in the breeze and a varnished hardwood drawbridge. It's a far cry from the structure next door, which represents a by-the-numbers, cops-&-robbers movie that only a handful of people have seen and already forgotten about, which lies in shambles of broken plaster and shattered windows.

The point I'm dragging towards at a snail's pace here is that of the half-hour TV comedy, Community, the third season of which reached its climactic end this past Thursday on NBC. To submit my application to be nominated for Biggest Understatement of the Century Award, this has been a tumultuous year for the show. Cast & crew disagreements almost came to blows, the network dropped it from syndication in favor of programs with less than a fraction of Community's talent or cleverness, and the dreaded monster called Cancellation seemed to be looming around every turn, hiding in dark crevasses and waiting to sink its teeth into another juicy morsel. The people responsible for making Community happen (i.e., the cast & crew) kept right on making the same great stuff they'd always been making. But that's not what kept the show from floundering. The life raft was tossed not by NBC, or by showrunner/creator Dan was tossed by us. The fans who love it so much that we'd rather jump in after it than watch it sink.

As soon as the show's mid-season hiatus was announced, there was an outcry akin to the swarm of villagers grabbing their pitchforks and storming the gates of Dr. Frankenstein's castle. Petitions were written and signed with enough speed to make Sonic the Hedgehog blush. Threats were made to the network responsible. Less psychotic fans held vigils outside of the NBC offices, chanting memorable songs and quotes from Community episodes. The Twitter hashtag #SixSeasonsAndAMovie became the single-highest trending topic for months, becoming so popular that it's now pretty much considered to be the unofficial slogan of the show itself. These outcries continued until the show finally came back on the air to seas of thunderous applause. And now, not only did the show complete its third season with a trio of spectacular back-to-back episodes, but it's been renewed for a fourth season next fall.

If you're thinking right now that these people are getting a little too worked up about some TV show, you're missing the point. NBC wanted to pull the show because of poor ratings. Ratings = money, which is the sole language spoken by most people in this industry. Community was saved not by money, but by love. If those fans didn't love the show as much as they did, there'd have been no petitions, no vigils, no hashtags, no YouTube videos, no death threats. The structure on the side of that desert road representing Community was in danger of being smashed through with a wrecking ball. But an army of stalwart supporters linked arms and stood in the way, shielding the structure from harm and fortifying its defenses until it became an almost-untouchable palace of solid gold rainbows complete with a working Dreamatorium and E Pluribus Anus flags aplenty.

That's just the kind of show Community is. It seemed destined to be a classic before the second episode even aired. It's that special kind of show where literally 100% of it is fan service, no matter what you happen to be a fan of. It brings back staples of TV that we didn't even realize we've missed until we saw them again. Everything from inside jokes to wacky character costumes to catch phrases to end-credits scenes. Every episode of Community is a grab bag of unpredictability: you never know which of your fanboy stimuli are going be tickled next. To me (and, I'm sure, to those legions of fans who hashtagged and petitioned their way through those long,dark hiatus months), the show that started off as a loving tribute to The Breakfast Club has become a quotable, genre-defying juggernaut that someone may very well create a loving tribute to thirty years from now. In the same way that Star Wars or LOST or Harry Potter touched so many hearts and minds that they became institutions unto themselves, so too has Community reached heights that other media can only dream of. In my eyes, Ben Chang is just as iconic a villain as Darth Vader or Hannibal Lechter; Abed Nadir is just as classic a hero as Frodo Baggins or Hercules. Those are the kinds of lasting impressions that Community has left us. And it's only three seasons in.

Even though the hiatus is over and NBC has conceded to fan demands, the dreaded monster Cancellation still hasn't left our peripheral vision. The next season is going to be a shortened, 13-episode run, and there's still the lingering dread that the monster might strike at any time and snuff out the show's life for good. At this point, though, if that were to happen...I don't think it would be as bad as it sounds. Like Firefly or Arrested Development before it, Community seems destined to live on no matter what the network execs decide to do with it. It has transcended the boundaries that ground normal, humdrum shows and escaped into the world. It's touched so many people that it literally has created itself: a COMMUNITY. And no amount of cancellation could ever, ever take that away. The structure that represents Community can no longer be demolished, even if we can't add any more rooms or towers to its already imposing facade. In a perfect world, we may get our six seasons and a movie. But even in the darkest possible timeline, where the fourth season ends the show prematurely and we never see any further adventures of Jeff, Britta, Abed, Troy, Pierce, Shirley, and Annie again...we still come out on top. Because the show was that good. It'll have died honorably on the battlefield, staring its executor in the eye and daring it to pull the trigger.

Pop Pop.