Community’s “Ladders” and Constant Creativity


You thought Community was dead, didn’t you?  The show has been written off several times because it requires a little more of the audience than just staring at a screen.  You  never need to worry about Kardashians going away:

See?  You don’t even have to move your eyeballs!  You don’t learn anything!  Your mind and soul can remain asleep while you watch.

Community has been in danger since it premiered because the show invites you to move your eyeballs and to process what is happening in the show.  The program also offers you something in return for a little bit of attention.  The same can’t be said of the Kardashians.  After five seasons on NBC (one of them without the brilliant creator Dan Harmon), Community has moved to Yahoo! Screen and has made a change or two.

“Ladders” establishes the new new new new new normal at Greendale.  Writers Harmon and Chris McKenna have a bunch of exposition to drop for us.  As is the case with many previous episodes, the writers begin with a voice over from the Dean: the audience is reminded of which characters remain on the show and are refreshed with respect to character.  (Winger is still a bit selfish; he parks in an electric-only spot and just throws the charger in the window.)  Britta is homeless, Abed is still creating, having written the Dean’s announcement.  The inciting incident of the episode (and the bringer of change to Greendale) is Annie’s failure to address the mountain of Frisbees on the roof.  One more disc makes the roof collapse, forcing the Dean to bring in a humorless penny-pinching manager.  “Frankie” has as much trouble adjusting to Greendale as the study group has adjusting to her.  She takes the booze out of the teacher’s lounge and makes a million other awful changes.

Abed, perhaps jarred by all of the change around him, begins to question his meta-entertainment-centric worldview.  Winger, Annie and Britta start a speakeasy in the basement in response to Frankie’s rules.  As you can imagine, she discovers the incredibly illegal bar and leaves, believing she doesn’t fit in at Greendale.  As you can further imagine, removing all boundaries from Greendale results in big problems, not the least of which is combining alcohol and “a class called ‘Ladders.'”

After the predictable ladder accident, the gang brings Frankie back, changing what it means to be part of the family at Greendale.

See?  The summary demonstrates that Community is a little bit complicated; the show is certainly “harder to get into” than many other pop culture creations.  Everybody Loves Raymond is very easy to understand; that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The husband is dumb, the wife is mean, the in-laws are a pain.  Got it.  (And the creators got hundreds of millions of dollars…)  I’m not just talking about TV shows; it’s very easy to engage the outrage du jour.  (OMG.  Lindsay Lohan called her friends Kanye and Kim the “n-word” in a friend way.  Why don’t I write a 100-word post about it and tack on several ads instead of wasting my time writing a meaningful essay?)  It’s much harder, on the other hand, to create real art.

Dan Harmon and Community exemplify what I love about my favorite creative people.  Harmon and those around him push themselves to try new things, no matter how hard or annoying they are.  I’m sure that the paintball episodes of Community were a massive logistical pain in the behind for everyone involved.  Instead of simply planting actors on the stage, the cast and crew covered the set-and each other-in paintballs and had to have everything back to normal for the next episode.  It was likely a huge, costly inconvenience to find the artists and resources necessary to make the animated episodes of the show.  Can you comprehend how many hours went into composing and choreographing songs for the musical episode?

I suppose this point cuts to the quick of what bums me out about some writing that least engages me.  People are welcome to write whatever they like, but what’s the point of writing the same story a thousand times?  With the same exact characters?  In the same exact setting?  We become writers to explore people and ideas, not to repeat ourselves a thousand times, right?  At least, that’s the way I approach art.

As a further example, I’ll use Alison Brie, the very talented actress who portrays Annie in Community.  Annie is bright and bubbly and vulnerable.  Ms. Brie also plays Trudy Campbell on Mad Men, a character who is (increasingly) the opposite of Annie.  See?

Ms. Brie is a stellar actress and clearly understands a wide range of complicated characters and their emotions.  Writers get to create and inhabit all of the characters they want…and they don’t even have to sit through hair and make-up.  Why deprive yourself of any creative opportunity?

“Ladders,” like many episodes of Community, is interesting for the way it interacts with the real world.  That whole “meta” thing.  The audience is (likely) aware that the show has gone through some changes; Mr. Harmon and Mr. McKenna address these changes in the context of the show.  Abed, the narrative-obsessed character, describes the changes in the characters and in Community itself:

I’m worried you’re not distinctive enough from Annie both in terms of physicality and purpose.  I can’t determine if you have any specific flaw, quirk or point of view that makes you a creative addition to the group.  My umbrella concern is that you as a character represent the end of what I used to call “our show,” which was once an unlikely family of misfit students and it is now a pretty loose-knit group of students and teachers, none of whom are taking a class together at a school which, as of your arrival, is becoming increasingly grounded, asking questions like “how do any of us get our money,” “When will we get our degrees?” and “What happened to that girl I was dating?”  instead of the questions I consider more important like, “What is real?” “What is sanity?”  “Is there a god?” “Where’s that Pierce hologram?”…

Abed is referring to the changes happening around his character and he’s also guiding the audience through the transition the show is making.  What’s the primary point to take from Abed’s thoughts in this episode?  Writers must evolve as a result of external and internal factors.  Do we get better with every paragraph we put down?  Sure.  Do our skills improve each time we read a classic book or think about a classic film?  Of course.  We must also challenge ourselves in order to honor our gifts.  Dan Harmon and his team must deal with a million external challenges: changing budgets, network changes, contractual availability of actors…it must be a nightmare.  Mr. Harmon and his team turn these challenges into opportunities as often as they can; many thanks to Yahoo! for bringing Community ever closer to #sixseasonsandamovie.