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.