The last time I wrote about NBC’s Community, I was deeply ambivalent. It was a little to shiny and cutesy for me. Since then, I’ve become a semi-regular watcher, but once again, I think I’m going to stop watching the show.
One of the things that pisses me off is the free pass that the show seems to get from TV critics about the show’s racial humor. I think this pass is a result of two things, the fairly ( and depressingly uncommon) diverse and integrated cast, and the fact that every once in a while, the show has extremely witty race-based humor (see the clip above). For example, read this fawning passage from Todd VanDerWerff at the AV Club:
Community‘s about a lot of things, really, but one of the things it keeps buried until it’s useful to trot it out thematically is the fear of getting old. I mean, just aside from the fact that the show has an elderly guy and a middle-aged black woman as characters and actually takes them seriously beyond the stereotypes other shows would reduce them to, …
…As much as everyone loves the supporting characters on the show, Jeff and Britta are its heart, with Annie and Troy as reminders of who they were, Pierce and Shirley as ideas of who they might become, and Abed as the odd man out, observing and always commenting.
The thing is, I’m not convinced that the show takes these characters beyond stereotypes at all. Alyssa Rosenberg blogged about this in relation to Glee a few days ago:
I love, love Amber Riley, and I love Mercedes as a character who can declare “I’m worried about showing too much skin and causing a sex riot,” as an explanation for why she refuses to wear a cheerleading skirt, and I hate that the inevitable end consequence of having a big, sassy black girl is a story about eating disorders and a rainbow of high school students singing Christina Aguilera’s most saccharine song. Why can’t she just be fabulous without consequence? Why can’t she have a boyfriend? Why are the show’s best, tartest couple reduced to sidekicks? Why does the gay kid have to be semi-pathetic and clueless?
What this comes down to is that there is still work to be done, still decisions to be made once the casting is done. Both Glee and Community would have you believe that they are poking fun at the “sassy black woman” stereotype. But the shows never made that transition to treating their characters beyond stereotype, and so end up reinforcing them.