Hot Take: ‘Community’ is a masterclass in character writing

Graphic by Derin Savasan

After being pressured to watch it for years, I finally caved in and started “Community” (2009–15). I must say: I now get why people like it so much. I mean, how could you not? You have these seven characters who couldn’t be more different from one another, trying to push their way through community college as a group. It’s basically an invitation for mayhem.

Now, I believe there are many reasons as to why this show is great. But if I had to pick one, it would have to be its phenomenal character writing. Let me explain.

One of the biggest problems with TV shows nowadays is how most characters across TV shows look, feel and talk the same. Take medical dramas, for instance. They almost always feature an introverted, uptight specialist, a best friend anesthetist and a charismatic, unconventional doctor who’s usually the protagonist. Sure, these character tropes create more digestible content, but they also make the plot predictable — which is the worst thing a show can be.

This is where “Community” shines, because its characters act like a satire on these predictable character tropes of sitcoms.

Consider Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), who’s a cool, fast-talking, selfish, good-looking lawyer — not so different from Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams) of “Suits” (2011–19). But unlike Mike, Jeff subverts your expectation of this trope by being kicked out of his law firm for faking his academic credentials and going from a highly regarded lawyer to a community college student. This twist on the classic lawyer/cool guy trope makes his character so much more interesting and unpredictable.

Let’s look at another example: Annie Edison (Alison Brie). When we first meet her, she seems like the classic, hardworking schoolgirl we’ve seen countless times — somewhat comparable to Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (2013–) or Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) of “The Simpsons” (1989–). But as we get to know her, we learn that she has suffered from a pill addiction, and we occasionally witness her being childish and crazy. It’s this subverted character trope that keeps us invested in her story and her relationship with Jeff.

What about Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown)? She’s the traditional Christian mother figure, but she has underlying anger issues and has divorced her husband — neither of which fits in with her religious, motherly trope. You also have characters like Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), who appears to be a dumb jock at first but turns out to be an emotional pop culture junkie later on. Even the friend group’s Spanish professor, Señor Ben Chang (Ken Jeong), subverts the teacher trope by acting immaturely and bullying his students.

But what is it about the subversion of these tropes that makes the show so good?

Well, when you have a satire of traditional TV paged right into your characters, it automatically adds another level of humor to anything you do with them. And when you take that and apply it as well as “Community” did, this decision becomes nothing short of genius.


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