Black characters on 'Community' are positively funny

Over the past five years, NBC has built a roster of what are, for my money and attention, the best comedies currently on television. It started with the introduction of the U.S. adaptation of the hit British series The Office, the critically acclaimed workplace comedy that became a star-making vehicle for comedic actor Steve Carrell. Following closely behind was the brainchild of ex-Saturday Night Live actor/writer Tina Fey, the hilarious and offbeat 30 Rock.

Though they weren’t winning in the ratings department, with The Office and 30 Rock, NBC found a loyal niche audience, possibly including those fans disappointed by the cancellation of the FOX series Arrested Development. Central to their marketing has been the critical success these shows have achieved, boasting Emmy, Golden Globe, Screen Actors and Writers Guild awards. Using a similar formula that includes quirky characters and compelling storylines in otherwise mundane settings, NBC has produced other shows to bolster its Thursday night lineup, most notably Parks and Recreation and Community.

Community debuted as part of the fall 2009 schedule and has since been heralded by some critics as one of the best shows on television. With a wink and a nod to the 1985 John Hughes film The Breakfast Club (the pilot episode makes an explicit mention of the parallels and is dedicated to Hughes, who passed away shortly before the show’s premiere), Community follows a group of characters that can be best described as misfits and oddballs assembled in a study group at a Colorado community college.

The bulk of the appeal and brilliance of Community lies in the ability of the writers/producers/actors to simultaneously skewer and pay homage to traditional sitcom tropes, often taking satirical approaches to many of the standard sitcom cliches while being firmly planted in them and mining them for new material. It also confronts and challenges the values that have been taught to a generation raised on television, but does so intelligently, humorously, empathetically and with plenty of heart. Even with all this going for it, in the end it’s the characters that keep the audience invested.

Of particular interest to me are the characters Shirley and Troy. Played by veteran actress Yvette Nicole Brown and 30 Rock writing alum Donald Glover, respectively, Shirley and Troy are perhaps the most interesting and fully expressed black characters on television today. Shirley, a newly single mother of two returning to school to pursue her dream of opening her own business, is a devout Christian whose judgmental nature and short temper are played for comedic effect, and a compelling character in her own right; however, here I’d like to focus in on Troy.

Like most of the characters on Community, Troy is introduced as a stock character that could have been found in any number of films and/or television shows, in this case a popular high school football player who is a less than stellar student. From the outset, it appears we are stuck with yet another black man more noted for his physicality than any remarkable personality traits. The genius of Community and the skills of Glover as an actor are such that throughout the course of the series the layers are pulled back on this old and tired notion of black masculinity and a full human being is unearthed.

Troy is a quirky individual, who enjoys building blanket forts and eating giant chocolate chip cookies. He watches bad movies for the joy of making fun of them. His interest are varied, ranging from wild keg parties to modern dance class. And he idolizes LeVar Burton, of Roots and Reading Rainbow fame. Troy is given just as many quirks as any other character, something unusual for black men in ensemble casts, as they are typically cast to give the appearance of multiculturalism and relegated to reciting clichéd ‘black man phrases’, as was parodied in the 2001 spoof-film Not Another Teen Movie.

He clearly exists as a black man, his race is not ignored, but he is not charged with embodying the stereotypes that normally accompany black men’s presence on the screen. He’s not a suave ‘ladies man’, but is allowed to express sexuality without being defined by it. Troy also experiences a range of emotions, from anger to sadness, joy to heartache, love to insecurity, pensiveness and self-reflection. His character does not exist to fill a quota or represent the exhaustive ‘black experience.’ Rather, he exists as himself, a human being living and loving like any other, just a bit more humorously.

Glover’s portrayal of Troy is especially refreshing at a time when the dominant images of black men in comedy manage to play right into the stereotypes and be demeaning for black women concurrently (think Tyler Perry’s ‘Madea’ films and Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma’s House trilogy). He doesn’t play for the cheap laughs. The dialogue is whip smart and even the physical gags show an understanding of character building and story relevance.

Unfortunately, Glover’s work (and Community as a whole) has been overlooked when it comes time to hand out the prestigious awards. While it’s disappointing the Golden Globes and Emmys haven’t taken notice, it’s perhaps more tragic that NAACP Image Awards failed to recognize Glover (or Brown). In a year that seemed as though nominations were given out to anyone who was black (and in some cases weren’t black) and had appeared on television for more than 20 seconds, the Image Awards neglected the work Community has done to expand the type of roles that black actors/actresses are being called to fill. The fact that these roles are so unique is reason enough for praise, but the fact that they are done skillfully is cause for celebration. The Image Awards clearly dropped the ball.

That won’t stop me from praising the work Glover has done, though. In him, I’ve found a character that I can identify with not simply because he looks like me but because his experiences and quirks mirror my own at times. Even if he is never afforded the praise I feel he deserves, my hope is that this role opens the door for more varied representations of black men across the media landscape.