Thursday, May 24, 2012

Is Community The American Answer to Spaced (And Can It Continue To Be Without Dan Harmon?)

Cross-posted on

I was listening to NPR last week while sippin on a Jamba Juice, as you do when you're so LA sometimes you should be slapped, and heard Joel McHale come on to The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell. During this conversation, McHale noted about Community, the show on which he stars,

"There's a certain level of pop culture knowledge that I think people have. Some don't and [certain references] would be totally lost on them…but there's a certain level of understanding of pop culture ...much like something like Mystery Science Theater, where there is [sic] 100 jokes thrown at you, you may only get 70% of them, but don't worry, there's another one coming that you are going to get if you didn't get that last one."

This quote got me thinking about another television show that followed a similar pattern, one of my top five shows of all time, Spaced. It was this Twitter account that said to me at one point, "hey, remember that failed American remake of Spaced? Well, I actually think the American answer to the show already exists - it's Community." I didn't let it sink in at the time, but after hearing this interview, combined with seeing the completion of Community's incredible third season and hearing the announcement that Sony has declined to renew their contract with creator Dan Harmon, it all sort of hit me and I thought now would be the time to explore the theory.

For those of you unfamiliar with Spaced, it's a half hour single cam comedy created and written by Simon Pegg & Jessica Hynes nee Stevenson, directed by Edgar Wright. It aired on Britain's Channel 4 in 1999 and 2001. The premise, like Community's, is standard sitcom fodder. Where Community sees a disbarred lawyer forced to enter into community college, where we encounter a wacky group of people he soon forms close friendships with, Spaced begins with Tim and Daisy, two strangers who pretend to be a couple in order to move into a North London apartment they were separately vying for, where they encounter a wacky group of residents, and each other's wacky friends, who they soon forge close friendships with. What neither logline hints at are that both shows were created by giant nerds with a vast understanding of genre and pop culture who apply that knowledge boldly and uniquely, challenging the notion of a sitcom, pushing the homage envelope, and bonding with its audiences in a way rarely seen before or since. 

In the way that Community has had a claymation episode, an 8 bit video game episode, a Ken Burns episode, an alternate reality episode, a "Cuckoo's Nest" trope episode, two paintball episodes that played with the archetypes of war video games and westerns, a My Dinner with Andre episode masked as a Pulp Fiction episode, and more, Spaced paved the way with perhaps not whole themed episodes (although series two episode Mettle while not using the Cuckoo's Nest trope, is in fact one giant homage to One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), but elongated homage sequences littered with references in between. The show was so known for its handle on genre and love of and ability to play with American film, that the DVD even has an "homage-o-meter" that lets you know whenever something is being referenced. As Joel McHale said about Community, your average pop culture fan would understand 70% of the jokes, but if there was ever one that went over your head, fear not, because something you *will* understand is right around the corner. Spaced's relationship to pre-existing pop culture was unprecedented and was what helped make it so special and new. So it makes perfect sense that a show like Community that takes that idea to the next level, could be seen as its American counterpart. Oh, and Spaced too had an episode where paintball played a major role, it just happened to take place on an actual paintball course.
From Spaced's paintball episode

But it isn't just the shows strong exploration of pop culture that bridges the gap. Both shows manage to be completely goofy, surreal, and at times absurdist, while still creating characters you love and feel connected to. With a show like Happy Endings or 30 Rock, their absurdity makes us laugh a million times an episode, but aside from Liz Lemon, I'm not sure I feel a personal connection to any character on either show, because they mostly exist on another plane of reality. No character on Happy Endings feels real, so we are incapable of relating to them or caring about them. Which isn't to say I don't enjoy the crap out of the show, but it can't rise to a level of greatness without that element. With both Spaced and Community, as crazy as things get, and as not-actually-the-straight-man as our lead characters become, we still care about what happens to them. We root for Abed and Troy's friendship the way we root for Daisy and Tim to get together and root for Jeff to become a good person the way we root for Marsha to be happy. 

Both shows also come from the mind of, I'm saying it, geniuses. The trio of Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Jessica Hynes is a strong one, and although Hynes hasn't been involved in the films I'm about to name, without Spaced, there would be no Shaun of the Dead, no Hot Fuzz, no Scott Pilgrim. I suspect Harmon may have a similar trajectory, going on to create even more wonderful things, cementing his legacy in this world. It just sucks that he won't get to see Community's journey through to the end. What if Pegg, Hynes or Wright had been taken off of Spaced creatively, but the show continued on? It wouldn't make sense. What made the show so unique was the blending of those minds, aesthetics and sensibilities. Similarly, it is Dan Harmon's creative genius and risk taking that makes Community so special. The fans' chant of #sixseasonsandmovie seems to sad and futile when we envision that future without Harmon. 

Spaced ended after two series, 14 episodes total, and although it never truly felt over, as we never got to see Tim and Daisy admit they loved each other (though we do see in a documentary about the show that they end up together with a daughter whom Tim wanted to name Luke),  better it ended when it did than continue on with a different creative team, not that that was ever a potential scenario, but hopefully you see my point - Spaced may have had a short run, but it was also a perfect run. I can't help but feel a great sense of dread and confusion imagining Community continuing without its true voice. The show's wonderful season three finale, Introduction to Finality, tied up enough to serve as a series finale, but left enough open to continue. Unfortunately, as it moves on, it will be without its master and creator. Guys, remember The West Wing when Aaron Sorkin left, or did we all collectively block out that dark time in our lives? I think all of us #sixseasonsandamovie believers would have gladly taken three or four seasons done by Harmon's rules than any of the show betraying what it is, has been and stands for.

So what do you think? Have you seen Spaced and can you see the parallel? Does imagining a Spaced without Simon Pegg's POV start to put into perspective what Community without Dan Harmon might mean? Sound off!

Oh, and watch this clip from Spaced right now


The Snappy Sneezer said...

I saw the connection to Space during the first season and I believe Harmon mentions Spaced in the commentaries for season one. I always recommend Spaced to Community fans and Community to Spaced fans. I believe we share a common community.

LoquaciousMuse said...

Whaaat?! Reason #87 I need to own all seasons of Community as soon as possible.