Abed the Hero: Race and Role-playing on “Community”

Posted on May 24, 2011 by

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Though we as viewers like to think of a hero as driving the action of his story, the machinery of a television show – where its plot comes from – is rarely located within its hero. Perhaps this is because television shows grant their heroes subjectivity as a matter of course. Viewers are granted insight into the hero’s point of view, and who doesn’t want to believe that the point of view we are seeing is the point of view of the guy in charge? However, the machinery of a television show is more often located in the hero’s objective environment (as with the Doctor and his constantly changing temporal and spatial location in Doctor Who) or in a constantly changing culprit whose subjective viewpoint we never see (as with detective shows like The X-Files or the CSI and Law & Order franchises). The subjective viewpoint of the hero that we see is merely comprised of the hero reacting to this external machinery.

This is not the case with Abed Nadir of Community. A constant and active character, he serves as both machinery and hero. His approach to Greendale Community College as one huge amalgam of pop culture references is the show’s machinery, helping to churn out episode after episode of highly entertaining parody. At some point in almost every episode, Abed gets meta, identifying the genre of the spoof du jour, then committing to it. Without fail, the show commits with him, changing its generic conventions to match Abed’s pronouncements. In my favorite episode, “Contemporary American Poultry”, he does this by crafting a Goodfellas-esque narrative, actively taking on the role of the chicken finger kingpin. In response, the show changes its generic conventions to fit Abed’s specifications. The cinematography and music morph from that of the sitcom to that of the gangster movie, punctuating Abed’s voiceover with freeze-frames and a musical montage.

The episode’s genre then turns on a dime at the end of the episode to fulfill Abed’s request for a Sixteen Candles reenactment, complete with a camera zoom in on him sitting cross-legged on a cafeteria counter, enjoying a final plate of chicken fingers with Jeff Winger. By naming the genre of the episode, Abed engages in world-building, helping to shape Community.

Though this phenomenon emerges in Season One, Abed’s world-building reaches a fever pitch in Season Two. A few highlights: he blatantly engineers the twisted romance that is Jeff and Britta’s engagement in “Anthropology 101”; his movie about moviemaking multiplies the meta in “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples”; and he predicts the bottle episode gimmick of “Cooperative Calligraphy” before Annie even puts the study group in lockdown. However, the mid-season winter special “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” tops them all. In it, Abed takes world-building to greater heights, going so far as to create a world devoted to Christmas, changing the medium of the show from live-action to stop-motion. By creating this world, he takes his fellow characters and the audience into his mind. Even when blatantly told otherwise, Abed’s world is real to us.

Of course, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is not bereft of metacommentary, as when Abed acknowledges the falseness of their stop-motion selves by explaining that they are made of silicone, not clay. By acknowledging the falseness of Abed’s Christmas hallucinations, the show gives us the choice to decide if all of this world-building is just due to Abed’s mental breakdown. But even then it’s not much of a choice when he remodels the medium of the show. Whether or not it’s real, we’re there until Abed is ready to leave. We take the plunge, wholeheartedly signing ourselves over to Abed’s care no matter how many seasons it takes.

Immersing ourselves in Abed’s world forces us to experience him as subject and controlling creator. In light of the lack of powerful people of color on television, this is a bold move to make. It’s refreshing to see a person of color take on such an integral role in a network television program, and actor Danny Pudi receives due praise for the task; when critics and fans applaud Community’s cultural savvy, they are really commending Pudi for doing the hard work of genre, cranking out parody like a meta machine. This creates a problem, however: The very thing that makes Abed so commendable – his unique function as Community’s cultural boiler room – calls the innovation of the role into question. How can we expect to see true progress on television when the “revolutionary” characters of color are used primarily as tools instead of people?How can Abed be a progressive character when he appears to operate as a narrative function, not a real human being?

The answer lies in geekdom. Of course Abed partakes in a good deal of geekdom, watching sci fi films, quoting pop culture extensively, dressing up as superheroes, and making his own fan films. Yet his world-building is another kind of geekdom, a form of role-playing not unlike Dungeons & Dragons. When Abed bends genre, he role playsas the hero, subject, and creator of Community; this is geekdom at its most rewarding, allowing him heroism and subjectivity he would never otherwise enjoy.

These rewards have far-reaching effects. In November 2010, The A.V. Club interviewed Danny Pudi, who plays Abed, about the possibilities for future genre-bending on Community:

Oh man, I don’t know. Already there’s been so many wonderful, wonderful things. What have we not done that I’d like to do? I’ve always been, as a little kid, just a huge fan of ninja movies, like karate and stuff. American Ninja would be great. Anything with a Bruce Lee-type thing? I’d love to play Bruce Lee. I think that’d be kind of fun, if we were all ninjas. . .

What else could we do? A Western? That’d be really dope! I was a huge fan of Deadwood, and I’m always a fan of period pieces, especially, I think, maybe I’m a fan even more as a minority actor, or someone of color. It’s like “Oh. Rome. Ehh, you’re not going to see me on that series.” Or Deadwood. You’re probably not going to see me on that series, you know? But within the context of Greendale, that could happen. So that’d be kind of cool. I dunno, Greendale goes to some old mining town in South Dakota? [Laughs.] We all strike it rich?

The genre-bending world that Abed creates in Community allows him freedom to explore a wider range of hero positions (Don Draper, Han Solo, Batman, a chicken finger kingpin, an astronaut, the mayor of a city, a documentary filmmaker, and the messiah Himself, to name a few) than in the “real” world, which inhibits him due to his race. In turn, this allows the actor who plays Abed to do the same. Now that’s meta.

Geekdom itself calls Jeff Winger types into question; this specific type of geekdom does that by allowing non-normative men to be heroes.

The power of this ability to play is not confined to Abed. We see more explicitly in “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” that roleplaying provides a safe space to feel powerful for men like Fat Neil who do not conform to the patriarchal ideal of the coiffed, muscular, ubercool white ladykiller (i.e. Jeff Winger). Abed encourages the study group to play D&D, actively cultivating a social situation in which Fat Neil can feel welcomed, accepted, and capable of role-playing as the hero for once. Troy also enjoys these effects. He starts off the series performing the worst stereotype of the egotistical black male athlete. Yet as time goes on and his friendship with Abed develops, Troy discovers more leeway in which to explore the world. This leads him into a more drop his football-star machismo and cultivate responsible leadership (as opposed to the reluctant leadership of Jeff) as displayed in “Mixology Certification” and “For a Few Paintballs More”.

Allowing non-normative men like Abed, Fat Neil, and Troy to become heroes calls into question the glorification of the Jeff Wingers of the world. Why should Ken doll clones like Jeff monopolize power, prestige, and leadership when men like Abed have genre-bending superpowers? Why should Jeff Winger languish in privileged cynicism when men like Troy actually care about the people around them? These questions become even more pressing when we recall that Abed, Troy, and Fat Neil are nerds of the purest form, meaning: they care about stuff. A lot. But on Community their caring doesn’t make them fodder for ridicule; rather, it makes them respectable men – or at least a whole lot more respectable than the complacent, cynical, privileged Jeff. Their nerdiness allows them to bend genres and make connections with others. It allows them to play the hero.

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Posted in: Television