Community and You*

*You, the Netflix series, not you, my gentle reader.

After a stressful Thursday evening, I joined my roommate to rewatch several episodes of the old NBC series, Community (including “Critical Film Studies“, one of my all-time favourite television episodes: who doesn’t love a mash-up of Pulp Fiction and My Dinner with Andre?), then I finished binging the last two episodes of You on Netflix.

For those who have not yet seen You, the show is about a weedy bookstore manager, Joe, who becomes obsessed with a sunny aspiring poet, Guinevere, who goes by her last name, Beck. Joe will say and do anything to be with her and to remove people who get between him and Beck. It’s a very dark satire of relationships in the modern selfie-obsessed hipster New York scene. It was like The Talented Mr. Ripley, but about cash-poor millennials.

You is nothing like Community, which is about a group of people who end up at the same sub-par community college for various reasons (upgrading or resuming school after dropping out or having kids; doing something interesting in retirement; pursuing a real degree after previously lying about having one to an employer), and end up becoming friends.

However, both You and Community feature lead characters who are narcissistic. After seeing the first season of You and the first two seasons of Community, I noticed that narcissism factors into the main plot of each show in interesting ways.

In You, narcissism is dangerous, no matter the reason for it. Beck and her friends seem to be afflicted by a run-of-the-mill narcissism associated with unfinished family business or social pressures. Joe’s narcissism seems to be a symptom of his psychopathy. Beck is aware of her flaws and her often failed attempts to be a better person. Joe, on the other hand, rationalizes his flaws to the point of casting himself as a victim, and to use his perceived victimization to justify heinous acts.

On Community, the lead narcissist is Jeff Winger. He’s even proud of being a non-constructive member of society. Despite his cynicism, Jeff learns to allow himself to be vulnerable and accept others’ help: heck, he even learns to help others. The supporting characters are also self-involved to various degrees. Britta is a classic white saviour, treating political activism as a performance. Shirley is obsessed with keeping up her semi-chosen role as a proper Christian woman. Annie previously burned out because of her neurotic perfectionism. Abed lives in the his own pop-culture suffused head far too much. Troy is the closest the show has to a neutral figure, though he and Abed have created their own verbal and gestural vocabulary. Much of Community is devoted to showing how some of these characters’ “selfless” acts are actually selfish. But once characters acknowledge their flaws, they generally end up doing something genuine and making a meaningful personal connection that enhances the community they have found themselves building.

The “villains” in Community are the characters who are so far gone into their own worlds, they either don’t realize it (Chang) or don’t care (Pierce). Pelton knows enough to erect a paper wall between his public life as the Dean of the school, but he puts so much energy into fooling himself that he doesn’t realize how little he’s able to fool anyone else.

There are no classic heroes in You, but there are heroic acts. They happen when people get outside of their own heads, face situations without prejudice, and actually help another human being without expecting any benefit for themselves.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Community and You are the same show (they are most definitely not!), but I did have some fun imagining what would happen if characters exchanged shows. Jeff from Community and Joe from You would immediately face off: a good guy posing as a bad guy versus a bad guy posing as a good guy. It’s too bad that Community is no longer on air. It excelled at dealing with material this self-referential.

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