TV: Glee, Community and Consistency

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in TV

This week’s episode of Glee should have been poised to be one of the highlights of the series’ entire run. Instead, the glee club’s return to competition felt like it came out of nowhere, with no build-up other than characters dropping the word “sectionals” sporadically throughout the season.

Last year, Glee built its first 13-episode run to that final performance at Sectionals, as if the glee club’s entire fate revolved around the competition. Once that first run ended and the show went into hiatus, though, Glee became more and more of a headache to watch and quickly became the most inconsistent show on television.

At its outset, Glee was a show about a high school teacher wanting to relive his glory days, and a group of kids with nowhere to fit in. That group of people came together through a love of music, and made a few fantastic hours of television. Now, the show will have plotlines appear and conclude within a single episode, creating a continuity that is baffling at times. Characters, most prominently Will Schuester, will make complete 180-degree turns in their motives. The characters serve whichever purpose they need to each week, and whenever the show has a big finale-esque episode (like this week’s) that needs to tie the past ten episodes’ loose threads up, the result is anticlimactic and feels unearned.

Even with all this inconsistency, Glee still remains one of the most popular shows on the air. Its success is counter-intuitive to everything ratings machines have been telling America for decades.

TV viewers are supposed to like consistency, familiarity, and characters that won’t change too drastically. This theory is why Two and a Half Men and American Idol, while both very different shows, are hits. They provide a safety for viewers — a show they can watch without thinking too much. Even Modern Family, while churning out smart and hilarious half-hours week after week, sticks to this tried and true principle.

But under most people’s radar, there is a show that reliably outdoes both Glee and Modern Family at their respective games. Community is just as wildly unpredictable as Glee, as Meg Walter pointed out on Rhombus a few weeks ago. The show can jump from a zombie-apocalypse episode to a parody of Mean Girls to an episode ribbing convoluted conspiracy theories — all without ever feeling strained. However, what most viewers of Community forget is that, during the show’s first two seasons, only a handful of episodes have been the genre-bending parodies the show has become praised for.

The rest of Community‘s episodes are smaller in concept, but equally great in comedy. The show began by mostly taking familiar sitcom tropes and turning them on their heads, as evidenced in last month’s exceptional “bottle episode.” These episodes succeed or fail based on the believability of its characters. Community‘s cast began as a group of stereotypes with little development. But while Glee has let its characters stagnate and remain caricatures, Community has given every member of its ensemble unique dreams, fears and motives that can carry an episode. The show’s writers pride themselves on the ability to pair any two characters and make a compelling plot, something they’ve proven in nearly every episode.

A TV show can only succeed if the viewer truly believes that the characters have lives off-screen. Characters need to be a show’s fallback, something it can turn to when a story becomes too absurd or illogical. That has been Glee‘s biggest shortcoming, because without those relationships and character dynamics to fall back on, what should be an important episode in the show’s mythology comes out of nowhere and still feels anticlimactic. It makes for a show that may be enjoyable to watch, but is completely superficial and fake. Building relationships is how shows like The Office and Modern Family have built their success, in making characters that feel like genuinely real people. Through that, a show can take its characters anywhere — even to the moon, as Community has already done this season!

To call Community a parody show is “an oversimplification… and not the whole truth,” to quote the show itself. It is more aptly a show about a group of friends that, when it wants to, can parody just about anything it wants to. By combining that wild inconsistency of Glee with genuine characters to care about, Community is poised to go down as one of the greats.

If all this sounds like a shameless plug to watch Community, that’s because that is exactly what this is. Watch it.

Community airs Thursdays at 7 p.m. on NBC. Glee airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on FOX.

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