NBC’s Community: Intro to Xenophobia
She had put her thought to the proof, and the proof had shown its edge; this was what was before her, that she was no longer playing with blunt and idle tools, with weapons that didn’t cut. There passed across her vision ten times a day the gleam of a bare blade, and at this it was that she most shut her eyes, most knew the impulse to cheat herself with motion and sound.
Henry James, The Golden Bowl
Strangely enough, a lot of meaning can become a liability. On a show like NBC’s 30 Rock, there isn’t that much continuity between episodes, and there’s virtually no continuity between jokes: every one means something different, analyzing some new, specific wrinkle in American culture. That’s how it used to be on Community as well, which is why it didn’t really matter that the show was a complete fantasy. Greendale was simply a good staging area for jokes about young adults, along with some jokes about old adults befuddled by the young. The cherry on top was Abed, who made jokes about pop culture.
It was exhilarating to watch Community come alive, Frankenstein-style. It stood up, blinked, stretched its legs. It discovered that the weird nerd, Abed, could become a leader by using his Asperger’s strategically. It discovered that Pierce, who was originally supposed to be Joel McHale’s Ghost of Christmas Future, worked better as a living, breathing Oedipus complex, with endless backstory but no identity to call his own. Shirley became a hypocrite. The Dean came out of the closet. Britta was deconstructed so thoroughly that Annie seemed sexy, and Annie escaped her past by proudly becoming a flirt. Troy, the least interesting one, did nonetheless carry a few scenes by being an idiot savant. Chang went from teacher, to student, to stalker, to being the human equivalent of a chronic infection, all of which was amazing.
At this point, however, the characters are played out; they have two sides to them, but not a lot more than that. The show is written thoughtfully, though, so the writers have begun putting more work into plots, and placing more importance on them. The fake trailers were only half-joking; we are getting the “heroic” version of the show now, even if it’s mock-heroic considered line by line. This leads away from the show’s real strengths, which are its explorations of the characters. The “meanings” of the plots land with the subtlety of anvils. For example, when Abed owes a dangerous debt to an impersonation company, and all his friends have to help him by doing impersonations themselves, the moral is that fantasy can be detrimental to real life if it’s taken too far: instead of allowing people to be authentic, we make each other act out roles. Of course, the funniest parts of the episode are the impersonations, illustrating just how lame this moral really is. Nonetheless, they’ve re-used it for so many of the Abed-centric episodes that it’s about to swallow his character whole.
In one of the recent episodes, “The Chang Dynasty,” Chang seizes control of the school, imprisons the Dean, and polices his new regime with the help of child soldiers. It wasn’t an especially funny episode, but initially I didn’t mind it. It just seemed like an OK parody of “plan” movies like Ocean’s Eleven, mixed with some outdated material on the Patriot Act and 9/11.
Then, yesterday, as I was driving through the wastelands of the Central Valley, it hit me: that episode is one gigantic parable about China’s dominance over the United States. The soldiers are child laborers; a reference to Kony, certainly, but also a big part of the news about China, particularly after This American Life had to retract its China story. The episode’s title is (duh) “The Chang Dynasty,” and the reason Chang takes over, imposing a series of China-like restrictions on personal liberty, is that the Dean has no money. The episode portrays American politics in general, and the Obama administration in particular, selling out to China and then dressing up that fact (and the rest of the bad economic news) in something pretty. “I have to give the study group more bad news,” the Dean says to himself, as he begins meticulously selecting an outfit.
I kid you not: in 20 years, this episode will seem as overt and ridiculous as political cartoons from past decades (you know, the ones your teachers put up on the overhead, with the gold standard as a bowl of oatmeal and John Rockefeller as Little Bo Peep). It won’t read as funny; it will read as funny from a racist point of view. I think about China all the time; I absolutely consider China to be the single biggest threat to freedom on the planet. That’s irrelevant here. I don’t like it when people learn Chinese because “one day they’ll be ruling over us,” and I don’t like “The Chang Dynasty.”
It’s like Maggie’s epiphany in The Golden Bowl: when you start permitting yourself to commentate, you are no longer playing with blunt and idle tools, with weapons that don’t cut. Community is becoming reckless. That’s not a dangerous move, because the show isn’t big enough to be dangerous, but it is a dumb one. Remember Rising Sun? Exactly. Me neither. If Community doesn’t reconnect to the simple good things it started with, it will not be a question of where it goes, but — as Dr. Spacetime likes to say — a question of when.
The only problem with your argument is that you clearly do remember Rising Son and how it channeled fear of the imminent Japanese threat into a murder/political thriller. That’s just a recycling of the old Orientalist arguments about the Yellow Peril and the eternal mystery that is the Japanese woman. Community’s criticism of Chang and his dynasty seems more pointed: it criticizes the abuse of child labor; the dictatorial demands of an imperious, self-appointed ruler; the ineffectual policies of those who fall under his control; etc. It’s not world-beating political allegory, but it lacks the mean-spirited and overt racism of Rising Sun.
I agree that the Community episode is better simply by virtue of what it omits, including Crichton’s frightful sexual politics. However, it’s a stretch to say that the episode criticizes child labor; at best, it references it, the difference being that we’re not learning anything. Obviously, fiction isn’t supposed to provide us with statistics about child labor, but this isn’t disclosing the truth of child labor to me in the way that, say, satires like Apocalypse Now or Catch-22 did the truth of war.
Of course, this episode was far shorter than Coppola’s movie or Heller’s book, but that’s part of my point: it’s just not a viable format for a satire with the necessary scope.
China is a totalitarian state, but not a dictatorship per se; those elements of Chang’s personality (to the extent he even still has one) seem more Kim Jong Il. Mixing the two is, I would argue, precisely the sort of conflation that fuels “Yellow Peril” xenophobia.
Finally, many of Chang’s distasteful qualities (toadying, fetishism, intriguing) didn’t really seem like racist stereotypes because the overall setting was so weird, dreamlike, and removed from reality. But make him a symbol for China, and that crucial remove suddenly no longer applies.