Why Teenagers Love “Community”

Though Community is a show about college students, Kevin Nguyen finds that it better represents the high school experience.

The only TV show my sister and I both like is Community. She’s 17 — a junior in high school — and even though we’re only eight years apart, it sometimes feels like we’re from different generations. So it’s nice (and increasingly rare) to find something we both enjoy.

But sometimes I wonder why she likes Community. The show panders to a Millennial’s sense of nostalgia with frequent references to ‘90s pop culture; and yet the show still resonates strongly with my sister and her friends, who are too young to get many of references. One episode is about Pulp Fiction (she’s never seen it); another about Dungeons and Dragons (she’s never played it); and my sister’s favorite episode is about drinking (we’re close enough for me to know that she’s never done it). And yet, she says it’s the only show that she and her friends keep up with. (I realize that using my sister and her friends is a small sample size to gauge the show’s popularity among teenagers, but a cursory glance at the “community” tag on Tumblr reveals a multitude of GIFs being reblogged by high schoolers everywhere.)

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Max Read at Gawker recently wrote a piece that argues that the show’s constant self-awareness and pop-culture references make it the sitcom that is most attuned to nerd culture on the web. But while this certainly speaks to why I, a twentysomething who lives on the internet, like Community, it doesn’t quite explain why teenagers like a show about seven people who attend community college.

Read concludes that the show teaches socially inept people (aka people on the the internet) “how to make friends.” Community is, for all its somewhat smug self-winking, shockingly earnest. But it’s far from the only show about disparate personalities who care about each other. TV’s most popular shows, Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, and The Big Bang Theory, are all about friendship. Parks & Recreation has a similar format to The Office, except instead it features characters who are people you would want to work with. And have we forgotten that the biggest sitcom of the ’90s was called Friends?

What separates Community from its contemporaries is how traditional and untraditional it is as a sitcom. The characters have been established as broad archetypes; where Sex and the City‘s four characters have become cultural archetypes of the female psyche (and varying degrees of promiscuity), Community‘s seven characters cover the nerd spectrum. (My sister says she relates closest to Troy, but I think she’s more of an Annie.) And after the first season, those characters have been more or less set in stone. They’re familiar, like hanging out with old friends every Thursday at whatever-time-NBC-has-moved-it-to-now.

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Even though Community hangs out among the comedies on NBC’s Thursday schedule, it actually has a lot in common with CBS’s decidedly less-hip lineup because it adheres to a pretty standard sitcom rule: show people something familiar, week after week.

But Community finds inventive ways to retell the same friendship-is-important moral by changing format from episode to episode. This is easily the show’s best quality. After the first season, there aren’t really any ”normal” episodes, and each successive one has a new twist, whether it’s parodying documentaries or gangster movies or Glee. It’s a lot like the musical episode of Buffy or Daria — seeing familiar characters in an entirely different context. Except Community does this every week.

And perhaps this is why teenagers love Community: they’re at a point in their lives when they are discovering who they are, establishing their own identities. Community takes familiar archetypes and subjects them to dozens of different scenarios; it tests the limits of its characters’ friendships, and each episode generally ends with Joel McHale delivering a monologue on the importance of caring about other people (some of these are better written than others).

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It’s hard not to see the teenage experience embodied in many of the characters. Community‘s cast is constantly trying to balance their own needs with the needs of the study group: Abed, who relates to pop culture better than he does other people, is reminiscent of any high schooler who believed an author or musician understood them better than their friends; Annie’s academic over-achieving prevents her from pursuing the things she wants; Troy’s nerdy fascinations threatens his masculinity; and of course there’s Jeff (McHale), who just wants to look cool and be liked. In fact, these central conflicts are best emphasized in the episode about drinking, which I mentioned earlier was my sister’s favorite, and I’m realizing is mine as well. In it, Troy is excited to have his first legal drink because it’s his first step toward adulthood. But he comes to understand that doing supposedly grown-up things isn’t necessarily the key to growing up.

Maybe it’s not so surprising that teenagers like Community. Despite its college setting, Community reflects the high school experience better than any other show. Adolescence is, after all, a struggle to find both acceptance and individuality, even when those things are at odds.

The truth is that I’m too old to really understand my sister. I’ll ask her how school is and she’ll say it’s good; she’ll ask me about work, and I’ll say it’s fine. Community is the way my sister and I relate to each other best, which makes me sad that it likely won’t last past its recently announced shortened fourth season. The problem with Community is that it’s tough understanding the show from the outside looking in. Its self-referencing is so pervasive it reaches near-Arrested Development heights, and catching an episode of Community partway through season three must be like being a stranger at a party where everyone else already knows each other.

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But perhaps Community‘s exclusivity is part of its appeal. I visited my sister last weekend, and at the dinner table, we constantly joked in Community references. Our parents stared at us, sort of bewildered and largely annoyed. But that’s the strength of an inside joke: it’s like a code or secret language, one of the last few things that my sister and I share.


Images courtesy of Community GIFs and teenagers everywhere

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.