By the time you read this, NBC's brilliant, neglected stepchild of a sitcom will back on the air, having survived its creator's firing, various scheduling debacles, and the epic flouncing-off of Chevy Chase. It remains to be seen whether Community (Thursdays at 8 pm) will have returned as the same show, or as a lurching zombie version of itself, but I don't care. Whatever happens, the first three seasons have shaped me. Changed me. Made me a better person. I'm incredibly grateful.
It's weird and awkward to find yourself in the position of discovering spiritual teachings in a half-hour network sitcom. But then, weird and awkward are what Community is all about. The show — about a mixed-age group of students at the fictional Greendale Community College — is personified by Abed Nadir, played by Danny Pudi: a TV-trivia shaman who might have Asperger's, a character on a TV show who often thinks he might be a character on a TV show. It's possible to view the whole show as taking place in Abed's head.
One of the best things about Community is how adamant the show is that Abed is okay. The other characters might be way more competent at things like telling time, reading facial expressions, and communicating in sentences rather than movie references, but again and again the show makes it clear that while Abed may be just as injured or damaged as any of them, he's also the one who's the least lost.
This is because out of all of them, Abed is the one who knows how to play.
I think this is the show's thesis, built into its fiber from the first episode. It amounts to a sustained argument in favor of the power of shared imagination.
You see it almost immediately, in the tag to the second episode, now elevated to meme status: Abed and the resident jock, Troy (Donald Glover), are sitting side-by-side on the study-room couch, studying. Abed starts to beat box. Troy looks up and then, tentatively at first, he busts out an improvised and nonsensical rap in intro-level Spanish: ¿Dónde está la biblioteca? And then they trade off increasingly ridiculous verses about ice cream and mustaches and Cameron Diaz. Troy's already stepping out of his identity as a meathead to follow Abed's lead. Their interactions have the "yes-and" dynamic of an improv game.
If the show has had a rule, it's that imagination always wins out. But there's always a distinction made between solitary fantasy — which is just escapism — and shared fantasy, shared play. And in episode after episode, the characters are successful only to the degree that they're able to shake off their ideas about themselves and join in with someone else's fun, no matter how ridiculous it looks from the outside.
So Jeff the snarky lawyer plays pool in his underwear. Britta the social-justice junkie sings the song of her heart. Shirley the Christian mom destroys some Germans at foosball. Pierce the asshole gets a little less racist. And Annie the high-strung prude finally throttles some Blorgons in Troy and Abed's Dreamatorium, the paint-and-electrical-tape holodeck of the mind that inhabits the spare bedroom in their shared apartment.