When Community first made its début in 2009, there was little indication that it would become anything more than a run-of-the-mill sitcom.
It had all the staples, from the unlikely crew of misfits to a creative setting for all the generic hijinks, like a lead character going way too far to woo the hot girl.
But around the halfway point of its first season, it became clear that Dan Harmon’s creation was something much, much more.
Community’s core dilemma can be summed up by Jeff Winger’s Season 1 line, “So do you try to evolve, or do you try to know what you are?”
Not only does this existential question define the arc of each character, it is the driving force behind the series as a whole.
The most straightforward case of this is Troy, the ex-jock who is initially presented as constantly living in the past. However, it is revealed that he faked his career-ending football injury due to a lack of passion for playing competitively.
Fast forward to his enrollment at Greendale Community College, he feels the pressure to act as an adult and constantly looks to Jeff for mentorship. However, as his initially hostile relationship with Abed matures, he realizes that he’s a dork through and through.
So, then, he is faced with a choice: does he try to become the mature adult he wants to be, or enjoy life as someone he knows he’s happy as?
Jeff, however, faced a much rockier road to find an answer to this question.
A disgraced ex-lawyer, he was initially forced to enroll into Greendale due to being exposed for not having a bachelor’s degree.
At first, his reply would have been simple: he wants to return to being a sleazy attorney making a living off screwing people over. He was prepared for the mad dash back to his old life by living it, attempting to cheat and lie his way to a diploma.
But like it would do many more times in the series, Greendale foiled that plan by being too virtuous for its reputation.
And over time, the band of misfits that Jeff originally intended to take advantage of demonstrates the fulfillment that only genuinely open-hearted relationships can provide. Even upon graduation, to leave the group was too much as he decides to return as a professor at the college.
Eventually, however, it is not him leaving his study group, but the other way ’round. With the study group having been a constant in Jeff’s life for so long, it tore him apart to see its members moving forward in life.
So again, the big question is asked: Does he try to evolve into difficult, yet true self-reliance, or fall back into old habits in which he has seen so much success?
Not an easy question.
So, back to the main point: what made Community so special and memorable?
It didn’t have a notable ensemble cast, nor did it contain the ultra-layered character depth of shows like The Sopranos or Mad Men.
Heck, Donald Glover wasn’t even close to the megastar he would eventually become when he first took up the role of Troy Barnes.
But in spite all this, the show had genuine heart.
Even when Annie held the group hostage over an allegedly stolen pen, you understood why she did it, even if you didn’t necessarily agree with the method.
And when Pierce finally came to terms to not living up (down?) to his father’s racist expectations, you were rooting for him despite the ridiculousness of the whole situation.
The lows felt just as raw as the highs, and these flawed characters – you felt for them as they made their way through life’s big questions.
Because in a way, many of us are still trying to find the answers for ourselves. ∎