Community: Breaking the Fourth Wall and the Last Taboo


You’ve been watching season 6 of Community on Yahoo! Screen, correct? No? Forgot it was on? Didn’t know it was on? Never watched Community seasons 1–5?

Whatever stage of denial you’re in, please stand alerted: I am going to reveal the plot twist for episode 12 (109 if you’re counting from the pilot).

This very silly series featuring adults struggling to earn their degrees at Greendale Community College grew on me slowly, but once I was hooked, I was hooked for life. I found the mix of characters (and actors), the homages and pop culture references, the endless debates about social issues, religion, self-righteousness, self-awareness (and lack thereof) endlessly enjoyable. It’s all very meta as Abed (a character described as autistic in the pilot episode, and played with an almost mechanical affect by Danny Pudi) gives structure to his Greendale colleagues’ lives by situating them in standard sitcom and genre-movie tropes and conventions, as if he himself were creating Community in real time.

The show never had a huge audience, no doubt because it was so about itself even as it was about something else, and when it was cancelled after season 5 (despite creator/showrunner Dan Harmon’s rally cry of “Six seasons and a movie!”), Yahoo! played Netflix and stepped in and ordered 13 more episodes.

By season 5, Chevy Chase (millionaire Pierce Hawthorne, of Hawthorne Wipes), who had been feuding with Harmon and bad-mouthing the show, was gone, and Donald Glover (Troy Barnes, Abed’s best buddy) was on his way out. Brought in was Jonathan Banks, late of Breaking Bad — talk about the wrong actor in the wrong show! His character just lay there like roadkill. The community of Community may not have missed Pierce but I sure did. Yet the show retained enough life, enough of the original tone, that I didn’t want it to end. And then it did. And then it didn’t. Just like it would have happened in a very special episode of Community.

To me these characters are like the Peanuts gang. I don’t want them ever to get old or graduate Greendale. I want Pierce and Troy to come back, Pierce to be cluelessly offensive and Troy to teach Abed how to dance like MC Hammer meets a Whirling Dervish on meth (technically, it’s called “krumping”). I want stars Joel McHale (Jeff Winger) and Jillian Jacobs (Britta Perry) to almost always get married but never do because they’re so on to each other’s garbage. I want Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) to have to come up with wacky schemes to keep the state from shutting down the school and I want Chang (Ben Cheong, of The Hangover) to continue to morph into different dysfunctional versions of himself and for Annie (Alison Brie) to almost have a nervous breakdown every fifteen minutes because she can’t control everything and for Abed to confuse reality and fiction so that we’re not sure where one ends and the other begins, just like in Community.

For season 6, the Yahoo! season, the wonderful Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley Bennett, one of the few openly Xian characters on TV), who could play her voice like a tenor sax, was gone too, with the exception of a cameo in episode 1/98. (She was off to be a regular on the execrable reboot of The Odd Couple.) Added to the cast were Paget Brewster as administrative consultant Francesca “Frankie” Dart, and Keith David (he of those inimitable voiceovers for Navy recruitment) as retired scientist Elroy Patashnik.

And while I was still wishing Pierce and Troy and now Shirley would walk through those study-hall doors, I was nevertheless enjoying season 6.

Until it got really weird.

Episode 109, “Wedding Videography,” features an event no Community lover could ever have seen coming: Garrett — who in season 5’s “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” uttered the now-classic line, “Et tu, pencil?” — gets married. Yes, married. Garrett. And Jeff becomes, accidentally, the best man, who, traditionally, has to make a toast, which, actually, was going quite well, as Jeff made a point of pointing out how much the groom’s family and the bride’s family had in common. In fact, they had too much in common. Turns out that Garrett’s bride, Stacy, is his cousin. But just as the wedding party is about to break up and the couple are to seek an annulment, Chang, of all people, intervenes:

Chang: Garrett, who loves you here more than Stacy?
Garrett (in near emotional meltdown): Nobody.
Chang: Stacy, is it your fault Garrett’s your cousin?
Stacy: No.
Chang: Is anyone here going to make less fun of these two or be better friends to them no matter what they do?
Everyone: No.
Chang (to Garrett): It’s you against the world and you will not win. But you get to make your moves, not them.
Garrett (getting down on one knee): Stacy, will you be my legally incestuous wife?
Stacy: Yes!
Garrett: Everybody stay and eat cake OR GO TO HELL!
Applause and cheers!

Cut to Community’s writer’s room (or a reasonable facsimile), in which Briggs Hatton (or “Briggs Hatton”), the “credited author for this week’s episode,” explains to the audience that if we noticed an “emphasis on the topic of incest” — that was no accident.

“For the past two years, when not serving as writing assistant on Community, I’ve been researching incest on the Internet,” Hatton says in a tone made famous by early Chevy Chase. During this time of study, he came across a 2002 New York Times article about how the chances of birth defects in the progeny of married first cousins was virtually nil. So he wants it to be known that he takes full responsibility for mainstreaming incest on a sitcom.

Here’s the disturbing part (wait, Anthony, that wasn’t the disturbing part?) — it was pretty damn funny. All of it.

I assume the “writer’s explanation” was a way of signalling that we’re really not supposed to take the whole “incest” thing seriously and that Hatton & Co. were just playing with us by breaking one more taboo, using someone like poor Garrett, and even poorer Stacy, to do so. After all, they and their families are sorta freaks anyway, probably themselves the products of incest.

Or am I being naive? Because that’s how this stuff works. Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em marry a cousin.

Is this the next great social justice cause? And is the sitcom the perfect vehicle for fighting for it?

Or was this Community‘s ironic, self-reflexive way of turning the whole “sitcom as vehicle for social change” notion inside out? After all, Abed is filming the whole thing, and never appears in the episode on camera. Is this all going on in his head?

But why would that be? Abed sticks with tried-and-true genre conventions.

So maybe this was Community’s way of signalling that, yes, incest is the next big social justice cause. Or maybe…

Community, why? Why couldn’t you just be weird in a normal way? See — this is what happens when the Christian character leaves.

Oh watch it for yourself.

I leave you with this, although what this is I have no idea.