Friday, October 30, 2009


Thoughts on Community

Thoughts on Community

I've opined before that academic deans, and community colleges, need more glamorous portrayals in the media. Dean Wormer from Animal House had one great line ("fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son"), but he was generally held up for ridicule. Larry Miller's "dean" character in the Nutty Professor movies got sodomized by a giant hamster. (Make 'faculty senate' joke here.) And community colleges have been almost completely invisible.

So, along comes Community. It even has a youngish dean!


On the plus side, the show is funny and humane. The students are pretty realistically diverse, if skewing a bit older than you'd usually see in daytime classes. (I'd also add a Latino character or two.) Senor Chang is a great character (though he doesn't help with the Latino factor), and I like seeing the juxtaposition of Joel McHale's "young Chevy Chase" to Chevy Chase's "old Chevy Chase." The status-bickering between John Oliver's character and Senor Chang at the academic dishonesty hearing was uncomfortably close to true, and funnier for it.

(Readers who want to imagine a slice of administrative life are invited to imagine trying to manage Senor Chang once he has tenure. Welcome to my world.)

Still, the show so far strikes me mostly as a missed opportunity.

First, there's the annoying tv habit of making colleges into high schools. I've never seen a community college with 'morning announcements,' or a dean's office with a microphone prominently displayed on the front desk. That's high school. For that matter, I've never seen a community college with a football team, though I'm told a few exist.

The dean character seems to be a dean of students, as near as I can tell. I enjoyed his flubbed 'welcome' speech on the first episode, but since then, he's been played for slapstick. His invocations of the Ivy League, and of diversity, could have been far more clever -- and biting -- than they are. (Okay, I'll admit laughing at his explanation of the "Greendale Human Beings" mascot. "If we make the Human Being a white male, what message would that send...?" I've almost had that conversation.)

But the most annoying part has been the study group.

I guess it's theoretically possible to gather a bunch of community college students who don't have outside jobs, but I'd be hard pressed to do it. Their meeting table feels much more like The Breakfast Club -- again, high school -- than any recognizable community college setting.

The writers are missing a chance to flesh out the student characters. Give each one -- except old Chevy Chase, since he's retired -- an outside job. Now you can juxtapose the demands of the job, of the classes, and of the logistics of daily life. Have one kid work at Arby's. His coworker is a burned-out hippie. They're running the meat slicer. The hippie speaks. "I don't know, man" (slings beef) "what does economics have to do with life?" (slings beef). They could vary the settings whenever they need more jokes, and still stay true to the premise. So far, they haven't, but it wouldn't be that hard. At least one student in the group should have kids. Show one taking the bus to class, and dealing with the various indignities of that. Having them just appear at the table every week is lazy writing.

Still, it's early yet, and the show seems to have a sense of humor about itself. If it can just drop the high school trappings and roll with the promise of the premise, it could really be something. And nobody will have to get sodomized by a giant hamster.

I agree with your assessment of what the show is lacking, but -- with what I know about the way television works (I teach production, and though I know the TV industry, my specialty is features) -- my guess is that the reason they don't incorporate the outside world more via the jobs these students have is budgetary. It would cost a lot more to have regular standing sets for each "job" location, not to mention recurring cast members who work at those jobs along with the main cast. (That's no reason not to have at least some of the characters TALK about work and other responsibilities; I'm just talking about why they might choose not to show those things).

I also agree that there is some laziness to the "study group" that brings them all together, but at the moment I'm stumped as to what could be the central location for gathering these disparate characters on every episode. If you think about successful sitcoms, they usually have a single central location at which all characters gather regularly. If not one location, it might be two or three, but there are very few. Think Cheers, Wings, King of Queens, Barney Miller, etc - just to name a few. Workplace or home-based comedies that use a single primary location each week, while still venturing out to other places. Friends had the coffee shop and the apartments. It's not that we never see other spots, but it's not too often that we do...

Community is using the study room because, well, there's no other central gathering point that is as 'controlled' as that one on the campus. They could use the cafeteria area, but it has to be so big that it's harder to control it. Then again, I have very limited experience with community colleges, so maybe I'm wrong about that -- that's just my perception of the issue. Where would a small group on a community college campus regularly gather outside of class? I can think of several spots on a SLAC or university campus, but I don't know the community college culture as well.

That's not to say I think it's a great show or disagree with your points in general. It does seem very "high school" in a lot of ways. The creator and head writer/producer of the show has talked a lot about basing it on his own experiences at L.A. Community College, for whatever that's worth. But I'm sure there's a lot of stuff that's just expedient for comedy or storytelling reasons, regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

I found it amusing enough to give it a few weeks to see if it develops. I like several of the characters, and it's nice to see Chevy Chase in something that's moderately funny.

TV Sitcom Does Not Reflect Reality

There's a shocker.

I'm sorry, but I don't find this show to be very funny or engaging, and I will admit to having a pretty low TV-quality threshold. The writers are lazy and figured that we would be amused if they threw a few stereotypes together and made them interact.
Last week's episode is the only one I've had a problem with so far.

I've worked at CC's that have intercollegiate athletics. The athletes that particpate in them are far from those portrayed on Greendale's football team. These athletes aren't attending a CC because of their lack of athletic prowess- academic deficiency is what keeps them out of NCAA D-I schools. (And you gotta be significantly deficient in most cases.)

But that doesn't make for prime time TV humor; it's more of an inside joke. If the school was D-II or D-III, however...

For what it's worth, my current employer just installed a speaker system throughout campus that is akin to Greendale's. We're told it's for "crisis situations" but the irony of the installation occurring when a fictional CC is making comedic use of one isn't lost on me, anyway.

See what I did up there not calling them "student-athletes"?

I have to say I'm rather disappointed. It's not the innacuracies--Greendale is a lot like the ccs in California that I have experienced, though I agree that the demographic is off a bit, too old and not latino enough. But the show just isn't that funny. The writing is definitely lazy, but what's worse, they're pursuing hackneyed storylines with stock characters, like the hapless dean, the controlling father, the callous lawyer, etc. And as much as I love classic Chevy Chase, he does almost nothing on this show. Every episode I watch just looks like a mess of underutilized potential.
The faculty aren't overworked enough. (If this semester wasn't such a time suck, I'd have had time to blog about the program by now.)

You nailed it, DD.

I was LOL at the status issue between "professor" and "teacher" at the hearing.

But, as you note, those HS bits are silly and the writers have no clue that a Dean is a manager. Shouldn't he be working on next semester's class schedule and staffing plan and budget only to be interrupted by the need for an academic dishonesty hearing?

Maybe they need some suggestions from us here in the trenches.

Last night's hot prof with student puppies at her feet, also funny -- until she made a decision that would cost her a job, health insurance, and retirement (more than a million dollars over the rest of her career plus retirement) just for a night with a guy in her class? Rarely. Most have the sense to wait until the semester is over.

Our CC has a pretty nice study area, although no single room quite as big as the one they use. Groups tend to be smaller and more flexible because of the time pressures of work and class schedules.

As for sports, there is a lot of football at CCs in California and some of the flyover states. It is mostly basketball in my region. JC players are not generally that good, because someone will find a way to get most of the good ones into "college". Ours usually graduate from JC to D-2 or even NAIA, but we do get a reverse transfer now and then that is pretty good.
I tried to watch the show, but it was just so boring. Sigh.

As for the intercomm, it was recently announced that our university is getting all new clocks. On one hand, that's great because the clocks are going to be coordinated from a central server. But ... the clocks are also going to have a PA system in them! Really? I guess the logic is that the PA can be used to inform everyone about safety issues.
I think at least one student does have kids. I've only seen the first episode, but I thought Shirley said something about having to get home by a certain time to relieve the babysitter.
"And nobody will have to get sodomized by a giant hamster."

Maybe not have to, but should, certainly.

One of last night's highlights: Senor Chang referring to his moped as a "hog." Oh hell yes.

(And I take it to be as reflective of the CC experience as "Barney Miller" was of police work or "Alice" was of food service. Eh, it's a sitcom. The only way it'd be less accurate would be if it were a drama.)
I had hopes for this show, but it is mildly amusing. One of the issues I have with it is the female characters. I noted there were very few female professors and this past week's episode was disgusting. I don't care how old the lead character is, another professor helping him to have sex with a female professor is out of line. What statement are they making - that even the sweetest lie can trick a highly educated woman? It amazes me that just two weeks ago they had Jeff's professor friend inform Annie it was unethical for him to date her when she was inquiring about course material. I did also find the entire first few episodes pathetic where the main focus was on Jeff trying to sleep with Britta. And I did not appreciate the episodes where Shirley seems to turn Jeff into a gossip and Shirley teaches Britta the ways of girl talk in the bathroom.

Abed is the only interesting character on this show and at least the controlling parent is a reality especially for those of us who have taught at a Prop. U.

I give it 2 seasons. On a side note I found out on the Internet that Joel McHale was supposed to star in the American version of The It Crowd (British). Thank god they axed that.
Somtimes the education you can receive at a community college can be far superior to that received at an Ivy League Institution. Now this idea is far fetched, but it does bring back the human element. I have known several community college professors that are just about the most amazing educators I have ever had the pleasure of receiving my education. I went on to a university, but I must say that these teachers I had the good fortune of studying under at the community college were never second rate.
Our local community college works closely with our local high school. Some kids graduate HS with an AA from the college and a high school diploma from the HS. I'm not sure of what the hanging out opportunities are, especially since about 80% of the school has been built or rebuilt in the last three years. On the other hand, I do see students hanging out here and there, so I presume it can be done.

Interestingly, they have a number of BA granting four year programs, and, oh yes, a baseball team. (We're out in the sticks, so having four year programs is a big deal for our town and for the folks who live in the sticks of our sticks.)
I think Britta has a child as well; I recall that being mentioned in the first episode as an explanation as to why she is tough--as a single mom, she has to be.

I'm not at a CC, but a commuter, regional comprehensive with very loose admission policies. The student characters on Community resemble my own (including the use of a study room, because on my campus, there aren't too many other places for them to gather).

I love the relationship between Troy and Abed (and Abed in general). His whole Batman shtick during the Halloween episode cracked me up, especially the scene when he dragged Pierce and Jeff away from the collapsing chairs.

Thanks for writing about the show, DD. I'd been curious to hear your thoughts on it.
I find it amusing. I only wish Annie were an overeager dual enrollment student.
I've been thinking a lot about this show too. I really want to like it, but...we'll see.

I love your suggestion for giving them jobs and showing the conflict so many students feel between work and school. A great opportunity is being missed there. Though, as the economy is going the way it is, more and more of my students are on unemployment than rushing to work from class. How about being unable to buy books for class because their financial aid hasn't come in yet?

Also, every time the campus is on screen or the students are walking down a hallway, I always think "That is the nicest community college I've ever seen!"

I guess we are now experiencing what cops, doctors, and lawyers have been feeling for years while watching their professions and workplaces represented on the small screen. Bound to be some frustration.
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