It wasn’t until the Comedy Network began running Community every night that I saw the pattern. Every episode, in the first season so far at least, revolves around the group seeking Jeff’s approval. Why is this disturbing? Let’s back up.
We all knew a Jeff
If you’re reading this, you likely got picked on in high school. But as we got older, we took some comfort in knowing that unlike our bullies, we didn’t peak in high school. Perhaps a bit smugly, we take satisfaction in knowing most of our bullies hit college, and then the real world, not as cool as they used to be. Being a jerk in the closed system of high school can work, but not college. And facing a day job and marriage and kids, being the slick player who looked down on everyone else and felt better about themselves by making someone cry will get you marginalized quite quickly.
But we also know one or two of them are still bullies. College was better than high school, and the real world is their time to shine. The bully who oozes charm, confidence and charisma, and everyone wants to be their friend (and fears being their victim.) Jeff is one of these people. Smart, good looking, successful—Jeff no doubt tormented his peers in high school. And Jeff has admitted he was a bully as a lawyer.
At first, Jeff does not know how not to bully
What makes early episodes of Community interesting is Jeff does not know how to deal with the rest of the group. As a lawyer, he dealt with two kinds of people:
- Those not as intelligent as him, so he could outsmart them
- Those who were as vain as him, so he could manipulate them through their vanity
Jeff comes from a world without genuine relationships. As a lawyer, his world was about shaping and re-shaping you and those around you to get what you wanted. This is why the study group at first confuses Jeff. They are not out to screw someone else. While not everyone is as smart (Troy) or vain (Abed) as Jeff, they all present characters Jeff does not know how to deal with… except genuinely.
But the group idolizes Jeff
For the group, though, Jeff represents a leader and a protector. And they are desperate for his approval.
In early episodes, they (except for Britta) overlook his shortcomings and fete him upon his arrival to the study room. Episode after episode, Jeff breaks down his smug attitudes, embraces true friendship and saves the day. These changes are great character development for Jeff and we grow to admire him for it, but the reason why we love Jeff and how he treats the group is disturbing.
Though relationships become more complex, it boils down to this: The study group wants their own bully to not just protect them, but validate them. We secretly wanted the guy who knocked our books out of our hands or called us horrible names to suddenly say “Hey, you know what? You’re really cool. Let’s hang out.” What’s happening on Community is the good-looking and arrogant cool guy who would normally bully us is giving us approval, and we accept as fact that we do indeed need his approval. That we can change our bullies.
Community is a revenge fantasy?!?!
So in the end, the reason so many geeks and nerds and outcasts love Community is it is wish fulfillment. While we all had fantasies of violent, bloody retribution raining down on our tormentors, a better revenge is for our bullies to break down, come over to our side and admit the nerds and weirdos actually are cool, the bullies suck, but the traits that made him a bully will now be used for our benefit to torment others.
Still, we do learn more about Jeff’s past (like one member of the study group sent him on his path to being a bully) and come to sympathize with him. However, the group is incomplete without Jeff and all they can talk about is when will he show up when he is absent. As if to say the group cannot exist without Jeff.
I’m not sure that’s a message I can get behind. (But I will keep watching.)
What do you think? Leave me a comment.