Yesterday, Community, NBC's sitcom about the odd and endearing relationship between a diverse group of community college students, was named TV Guide Magazine's fan-favorite comedy, and its fan-favorite ensemble. Its time slot competitor Big Bang Theory, the Caltech-set CBS comedy about a pair of nerd genius roommates, didn't win in any category.
Community's wins were unquestionably driven by a highly responsive and devoted online fanbase — currently mobilizing to vote in Hulu's "Best in Show" contest. On Reddit, "the front page of the internet," the Community subreddit page has more than 40,000 subscribers; the Big Bang Theory, a tenth as many. Yet less than a week ago, Big Bang Theory was the highest-rated comedy in the country and Community, all but guaranteed cancellation within the next year, posted its lowest-ever ratings. For some reason, the show about geeks is the one that everyone watches, while the show about everyone is the one that only geeks watch.
As anyone who has ever paid attention to television, the internet, or human beings can tell you, the relative popularity of the two shows — and the locations of that popularity — has essentially nothing to do with their quality. (For the record, Community is clearly a better show than Big Bang Theory, though not by as much as Community fans think.) Really, the odd phenomenon of Community's internet popularity is less about any specific critical judgment than about a sea change in geek and internet cultures over the last decade, one that's still developing and that not many people in television have caught up with yet.
That is: where once geek and internet cultures overlapped to large degree, and barely at all with mainstream culture, the opposite is increasingly true: geek subcultures are an integral part of mainstream popular culture, as imagined in movies and on television, while internet culture has developed over the last decade or so into its own beast (or into several interrelated beasts), no longer dominated by the hand-me-down geek culture that defined the 1990s internet.
To some extent, Community's popularity and the emergence of these independent internet cultures are driven by demographic changes on the internet, which is more ethnically, racially and socio-economically diverse, and far more female than it used to be. The show's cast matches that shift; it also skews younger, and where Big Bang Theory's cultural references lean heavy on iconic comic-book geekery, Community's Barenaked Ladies, Friends and Luis Guzman jokes feed into the instant nostalgia that makes those "You Know You Were a 90s Kid If..." Thought Catalog and Buzzfeed articles so terrifyingly popular.
The youth of the new internet cultures, and the sites on which they're emerging — Tumblr, Reddit, 4chan, Twitter — is important, because their different relationship to geek cultures partially marks a generational shift. HBO is making multipart fantasy sagas and FX is optioning semi-obscure Image comics, so Big Bang Theory, which drenches itself in meticulously accurate geek-culture references, isn't the big deal to the internet that it would've been in the days when message boards were mostly devoted to complaining about comic-book movies taking huge liberties with their source material and television writers not checking the science behind their relativity jokes.
In fact, the obsessive sci-fi/fantasy fandom with which Big Bang Theory beats its viewers over the head is increasingly foreign to a youthful internet culture, which recognizes Community's seamless and unconcerned weaving of geek tropes and icons into its universe as more familiar and more realistic. Community, which devoted an entire episode to a Dungeons and Dragons session uses geek culture as a means to explore its characters. On Big Bang Theory it's supposed to be a end unto itself.
But the shifting ground between internet, mainstream and geek cultures has other ramifications beyond the cultural meaning of Dungeons and Dragons and Star Trek. There's an interesting parallel between the two shows' best characters, Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper and Community's Abed Nadir, played excellently by Jim Parsons and Danny Pudi, respectively. Both men are geniuses, in different ways; both difficult to read; and both unwilling or unable to empathize with their friends. This affect — which Parsons and Pudi have both connected to Asperger's syndrome — is played for laughs on both shows, but only in Community does it meaningfully affect the other characters, and only in Community does it lead to actual growth and change, not just on the part of Abed but on the part of his friends.
"The Asperger's guy" (professionaly diagnosed or not) is a recognizable character type to both old-school geeks and to the kids who grew up on the internet, and Owen Thomas and Ryan Tate have both written on this website about the relationship of autism and Asperger's syndrome to internet and tech culture. It's therefore unsurprising that Abed's possible diagnosis has become a subject of much discussion on Community (and Asperger's) message boards.
In a discussion with Wired, Community creator Dan Harmon told the magazine that he recently began to see some of himself in Abed — after taking several online tests for Asperger's syndrome. "I started looking up these symptoms, just to know what they are," he said. "And the more I looked them up, the more familiar they started to seem." Wired writes that after consulting with a doctor, Harmon "now sees that he may fit somewhere on [the Asperger's] spectrum, though figuring out exactly where could take years."
It seems likely that there's a connection between Harmon's own struggles with empathy and sensitivity and the extent to which Community is about developing and maintaining healthy relationships. For all of its surreal humor, the show is almost shockingly sincere, and more often than not ends with an earnest monologue about friendship — as New York Times critic Mike Hale noticed last month:
[I]t seems safe to say that the web of allusions woven by the show's creator, Dan Harmon, and his staff serves a double purpose. It's potentially funny in its own right [...] but it also serves as a kind of code, in both the moral and the encryption senses. [... E]very episode is a miniature essay on friendship and belonging, and nearly every incident and every obscure line of dialogue works toward those themes.
Reading that, it's hard not to think of the "brony" phenomenon — the popularity of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic among a certain kind of empathy-deficient young person. There's a fairly common theory that My Little Pony has developed this devoted, socially awkward post-adolescent fan base because the show is a straightforward, almost step-by-step guide to friendship. Maybe Community resonates where Big Bang Theory doesn't for a similar reason. It used to be that all you needed for internet popularity was sci-fi references. Now everyone loves sci-fi. Want to be popular on the internet? Teach it how to make friends.