Mourning Community, or How Television Can Help Us Deal with Death

It’s been a couple weeks since the news that Community would not be renewed broke, giving fans (myself included) time to accept the news that our beloved show will not be returning to NBC’s (now #1) fall line-up. This has come as a hard blow to the many fans who campaigned for the show, especially in the wake of the most recent season’s return to form with creator/showrunner Dan Harmon return to the helm. It seems that the iconic chants (or hashtags, if you prefer) of “six seasons and a movie,” and renditions of “Oh, Christmas Troy” must finally be put to rest.

Admittedly, this is my second post about Community since its non-renewal (I can’t bring myself to call it a cancellation, despite knowing that’s what it is), and I have to hope this one will be written a bit easier, without the constant feeling of a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. This may certainly be read as an overwrought or maudlin reaction to a television show, but I don’t think I’m entirely alone. I like many other’s truly loved Community. At its best, it was a sharp take on television as a medium, the construction of television narratives, as well as an expert on adapting and parodying genre. Even at its worst, it was a show with more heart than I believe it was given credit for, and (gas leak year notwithstanding) a great expression of Harmon’s media philosophies.

At this point, it looks as though the show is finally, and definitively over (there’s that lump), and most likely will not be returning through another venue – the AV Club‘s Todd VanDerWerff provides a great outline of how this is unlikely – much to the disappointment of fans everywhere. And while we may not be able to bring back our show, or really any other beloved show (see: Arrested Development, Firefly, Twin Peaks, etc.), I think some fair comparisons can be made regarding how we deal with other’s and our own mortality, and the loss of television shows.

I know this sounds like an incredibly inappropriate comparison. Death of a loved one is deeply devastating, and Community going off the air is nowhere near as important as the loss of a person: no question. That being said, parallels can certainly be drawn between the manner in which people cope with the loss in general, even of two things so seemingly divergent as television and people. To make this as clear as possible: I do not think losing Community, or any other television show is as important or upsetting as losing a person from your life, nor would I ever argue that is the case.

With that disclaimer hopefully clear (again, people > TV shows), it is time to turn to the not-entirely debunked, and Britta-endorsed Kübler-Ross model to outline my theory:

Denial

“But I was just watching it last week!”

Early optimistic reports of a sixth season renewal likely helped foster this in the case of Community. And perhaps we were all on a high coming off a 13-episode fifth season that I, for one, certainly did not think would actually happen. But as the days went on, and we got closer and closer to networks finalising their 2014-2015 schedule, that optimism may have been mixed with some denial. Ignoring the constant challenges the show faced from the network, we held on to hope that an eleventh hour save might come through, that the network might drop one of their new pilots and maybe Community can return to midseason along with Parks and Recreation. I personally haven’t entirely moved out of this stage, hoping NBC will see their error of their ways and bring back the show. It’s just one more season after all, how difficult could it be?

Anger

“Why do they keep taking away the shows I love?!”

This stage was probably more acutely felt the first time Community encountered trouble, with many of the show’s fans deeply disappointed that the network would consider pulling a show with such a devoted fan base. And while this anger likely helped motivate the outpouring of support and activism in support of the show, it seems to have no real place here. These reactions are frequently paired with a sense of misunderstanding, as fans struggle with grasping how something so beloved to them, and likely many people they know, could encounter this type of institutional trouble. It may encourage fans to know they are certainly not alone in this stage as many of the people who work on the show, and are obviously quite invested in its outcome, have themselves expressed great anger in the face of cancellation or lack of network support. Look no father than David Cross’ rant on the lack of marketing support Arrested Development received in spite of the numerous awards the show received.

Although occasionally productive, in the way it motivates viewers to urge the network their way, when it fails anger frequently gives way to…

Bargaining

As more and more television shows find a new home beyond their original spot in the network line-up, so too has bargaining increased among distraught fans looking for a new avenue for their favourite shows to be produced. Fans call out to the likes of Netflix, Hulu, cable broadcasters, and other services to pick up on the network television slack and provide a new life (often with a distinct change in production practices and values) for their favourite shows. No sooner had the death knell been sounded for Community, than did fans turn to these avenues in hopes of fulfilling the aforementioned “six seasons and a movie.” Though this does not seem likely in Community‘s case, even the previously linked to AV Club article finds it necessary to hedge its well examined estimation of a Community resurrection (the idea of a show called Community: Resurrection is sounding more and more appealing) with a couple of hopeful possibilities.

Ultimately, it’s time to move onto…

Depression

I feel like I should once again point out that the “depression” I’m referring to here is in accordance with the Kübler-Ross model, not with a clinical concept of depression, which is a serious affliction that many people deal with and certainly should not be taken lightly. Also once again, people are more important than shows, and the sense of sadness that may accompany some fans with the loss of a favourite show is not comparable to the loss of a person. Moving on.

I kind of don’t know what to say about depression. I’ve come pretty close to shedding tears (read: I have straight up cried) about Community since I have heard the news. Granted, I cry pretty easily. But this sense of sadness comes from the loss of potential. Season five seemed to provide viewers with a taste of what Community could be again with Harmon at the helm. I want to know who the ass crack bandit is! I want to know how Troy and LaVar Burton escaped pirates on their round the world sea adventure! I want to (always) see more Britta! But we can’t. The thought of those lost storylines and laughs and genre send-ups can be really difficult to manage. Overall I just want more of the show, in the same way that I want to see more of people when they are no longer a part of my life. I want to see the show get to another season, to the classic syndication benchmark of 100 episodes (just three more!), and I want that movie (may still be too early to give up on this, or I’m just bargaining). We want more time with the show, and simply cannot have it. That’s life. And that’s why we have to come to…

Acceptance

Ultimately, Community is probably never going to come back, nor are many of our favourite shows. And while we don’t have to be happy about it, we need to acknowledge that we probably can’t change it. We didn’t get all we wanted out of it. But that’s okay. In reality we got a lot. We got five seasons and 97 episodes of a wonderful show, which in the end is more than most shows accomplish, especially one as constantly troubled as Community. We were introduced to a wonderful cast of fresh faces, and a talented group of writers, directors, and crew members who will hopefully go on and contribute to other fantastic shows. And while a new show may never truly replace Community in our hearts, as it moves on it leaves room for new shows and the wonderful, and maybe so far unknown people who produce them. Great shows like community don’t come around that often, and I could write at least five more posts on the show alone. It was never perfect, but it was sometimes sublime. Dan Harmon himself has given his blessing: it’s time to move on.

 

And fuck the Big Bang Theory‘s three-season renewal.

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Losing the Why and How for the What: A Case for Spoilers

As someone who has never really cared about film or television spoilers, I surprised even myself recently when discussing the season finale of Brooklyn Nine Nine with a friend. At that time, she had yet to see the episode, which I was particularly excited about. However, when she asked me what happened in the episode (this friend recently described herself as “pro-spoiler,” so this was not an unusual request) I found myself hesitant to fill her in.

When we discussed the episode after she had the chance to see it, she confirmed my impulse to not reveal any details was appreciated. So, what about this episode cause such a divergence from our party line on spoilers? When we finally talked about the episode in person, I realised I was not hesitant to spoil the story. What I was really concerned about was ruining the how the story was told, and why it was revealed in that particular manner.

This really gets to the crux of my issues with many people’s attitudes towards spoilers. With many insisting on going into films and television shows completely free of any story knowledge, this overemphasis on story is leading us to lose focus on what I would argue is the more important aspect of a piece of narrative visual art: the how and the why.

The terminology itself is a problem. To say something is “ruined” or “spoiled” seems to imply nothing can be gained from experiencing it. While that may be true for some films and television shows, shows with better writing and plotting should be more than just a string of surprises. Good art (of all modes) should do more than just surprise us. It should make us reflect upon how we understand ourselves, how we understand our culture, and how we understand the medium we are consuming.

This is not to say that these two models are mutually exclusive. As someone who had The Sixth Sense “spoiled” for them, there can certainly be a diminished impact in seeing a twist coming. That being said, I would argue the best part about that film is not so much the reveal, but rather how the overall form of the film both hides (in plain sight) the secret throughout the entirety of the film. If the value of a work of art is entirely tied up in a surprise, without that sense of reflecting on how the televisual or filmic conventions were employed to allow that surprise to happen in the first place, then you might as well be watching a fireworks demonstration (see also the diminishing returns of M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent films).

I enjoy approaching a film or television show fresh too, but there are few things that will completely squash my interest in something faster than someone completely unwilling to divulge any story information. If the only tool a television show or film has to capture my attention is withholding information, then it’s usually not worth watching in the first place. We should expect better. Take for example, the recent success of True Detective. When I hear fans discussing the show (which full disclosure I have not watched, but have spoiled for myself), little of the conversation was based on people eager to find out who the killer was. Instead, fans seemed to want to talk about the characters. How they interacted with each other, how they changed between the two time settings. Yes there was mystery, but the show was built on more than just a question mark.

To move to two much older examples, think of the “Who Shot JR?” and “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” stories from Dallas and The Simpsons respectively. While I can’t speak to the specifics of the original Dallas story line (as neither was I born, nor have I ever watched Dallas), I have a fair understanding of the story entirely based on my familiarity (some say overfamiliarity, I say go fuck yourself) with The Simpsons episode.

In the end, Maggie Simpson bares the responsibility for taking down the sun-blocking villain. Does it matter? No. Are there any significant reprecussions to this? No. Does it even make sense? Not really. Subsequent episodes of the show comment on the nonsensical nature of the crime, and making the culprit an infant means there is no need to make drastic canonical changes as no jury in the world would convict a baby…maybe Texas.

So what does it do? It provides an opportunity for The Simpsons to do what they once did best, execute top notch pop culture parody. This extended beyond the Springfieldian diegesis, and into the show’s marketing and publicity throughout the intervening summer. It allowed the writers to dream up a completely ludicrous fiendish plot for Mr. Burns, and gave the audience the cathartic experience of seeing some semblance of comeuppance for his cartoon villainy.

I’m not saying mysteries and twists don’t have a place in our culture. They do. And those that are done well last as examples of great storytelling that is based on more than just an unexpected story event, but on a well crafted narrative. So let’s ask for more than temporary scintillation, and change our priorities to hold the how and they why above the simplicity, and unrewarding nature of the what.

Besides, there are only seven stories anyway, and they’re all about sex and death.

 

P.S. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. It’s been 15 years, there’s gotta be a statute of limitations on this thing.