Last week, Community returned to NBC after a mid-season hiatus that left the Internet holding its collective breath over the show’s future. For the uninitiated — and, judging by the ratings, that encompasses a lot of people — the series focuses on a group of students attending a community college in the fictional town of Greendale, Colo. Creator Dan Harmon uses that basic premise as a launching point for some of television’s more inspired flights of meta-humorous whimsy, toying knowingly with sitcom conventions and parodying everything from Call of Duty to claymation Christmas specials. Anything so self-referential is going to endear itself to a small minority of pop-culture geeks, which is why the show has struggled to stay on the air. If you held your ear up to the blogosphere — that metaphysical nether-region that makes up roughly 97 percent of Community’s audience — you could almost hear the sigh of relief when the Peacock announced the show would at least be allowed to finish out its third season.
Of course, a world without Community remains a definite possibility. If and when it gets canceled for good, fans will probably just go back to watching their Arrested Development DVDs on a continuous loop. But if hard-core aficionados want to explore the real roots of Community, they should probably re-investigate another, less obvious series: Boy Meets World.
Or, at least, watch one particular episode of it. Boy Meets World was a ’90s sitcom following a group of high school friends growing up and learning valuable life lessons in a Philadelphia suburb. It was basically an evolutionary Saved by the Bell, a show Community is essentially the adult incarnation of. (The character types match up intriguingly well: Jeff Winger is obviously Zack Morris; Annie is Kelly Kapowski; Abed is autistic Screech, etc.) On the whole, BMW wasn’t really all that similar to Community – which makes the fact that fifth-season episode “And Then There Was Shawn” is everything Community aims to be all the more curious.
BMW didn’t often go high-concept. After all, its target demographic was teenagers. But “And Then There Was Shawn” deftly weaves together pop-culture parody and character-driven comedy, which is Community’s entire bag. It takes place in an alternate reality — well, an extended dream sequence, but same difference — a trope Dan Harmon has explored extensively on his show. It pokes fun at the teenage slasher flicks that were big at the time, with a masked killer stalking the cast, and features a guest appearance from the then-omnipresent Jennifer Love Hewitt as “Jennifer Love Fefferman,” a joke straight out of the Community writers’ room. If the gags were just a bit more mature, and the haircuts less ’90s, it could literally be an episode of Community.
Apparently, I’m not the only one to notice this: On Twitter, someone asked Harmon about the influence of “And Then There Was Shawn,” to which he gave a pithy response. But don’t be surprised if Community doesn’t get renewed for a fourth season and Harmon is suddenly in talks to do a BMW reboot.
I Need Media is a biweekly media column. Matthew Singer watches everything from PBS documentaries to Community and Showtime’s Gigolos, but mostly he’s just filling the void until Breaking Bad starts again. Follow him on Twitter at @mpsinger.
Chris O’Neal wants Mulder and he wants those files. Follow him on Twitter @AgentONeal.