The end of ‘Community’

I’ve just finished watching the final episode of Community. It’s a sad moment. I can’t remember when I first began watching Community, but it was a while ago.

It filled that space after I’d watched Scrubs too many times on DVD, and when Parks and Recreation was still finding its feet. I loved it.

The story, in as much as there is one, is about Jeff Winger. He comes to Greendale Community College broken, cast down from the heights of law-firm success, when he’s discovered what he’s always feared himself to be. A fraud.

In the process of trying to persuade Britta that having sex with him is a good idea, he ends up bringing together a mismatched jumble of characters in a study group. But what that group becomes, and what that show is really about, is … (well, partially about, anyway) – is community. It has its genesis in his own experience:

I wanted to save a relationship with my then-girlfriend. She was going to take a dance class at the local community college, and I thought we should take Spanish together. Because we’ll have to drive there and drive back, and we’ll be in a class together where we’ll be underdogs together and we’ll have things to study and learn. [Laughs.] It will force us to communicate and interact and have fun together. It didn’t work, but while I was there I became part of a study group of people I normally wouldn’t hang out with, because I’m very agoraphobic and narcissistic and solipsistic. But I was in this group with these knuckleheads and I started really liking them, even though they had nothing to do with the film industry and I had nothing to gain from them and nothing to offer them. There was a flash where it was like, “Oh shit, this is what normal people do all the time.”

In Community, too, Jeff Winger gradually finds himself – unwillingly, initially and for most of the remaining seasons – part of a group of friends. It’s not quite a community. They’re not best friends, but there is a sense in which the rest of the college serves as a backdrop for their exploits.

Jeff Winger starts by despising the group – they are misfits, and he is a normal person, temporarily cast into their purgatory before he rejoins the normal world. Along the way, he gradually realises that he likes them. Gradually, he becomes a part of their world.

And what a world it is. Part of what made Community so amazing was that it was a deeply, awkwardly, brilliantly, self-aware and self-reflexive TV show. The word meta probably goes in that sentence, but you can decide where. There’s too much to fit in here, so I’ll just say that it was brilliant. You should go watch some. Now.

No, seriously, right now. Everything else can wait. Go do it.

One of my favourite pieces in the last season was the extended riff on product placement. In an episode which featured a huge number of mentions of a particular car brand, clearly paid product placement, Harmon made it possible to still question what that kind of product placement does in every day life, and how it tears apart the authenticity of relationships by depriving people of their agency. We felt for the people being manipulated, we felt for the people being forced to do the manipulation, and we laughed at the ridiculous suits doing the manipulation.

There was the moment where Harmon booby-trapped the series, providing an alternate canon in what might have been a finale.

The paintball episodes are, for the most part, glorious celebrations of people who love TV, revelling in a parody/homage/whatever-the-hell you want to call it. They’re special moments.

Of course, Community was patchy at points. In later seasons it felt as though it was loosing its way a little, and each episode simply became a riff on a joke, without any underlying idea of what the show wanted to be. There was the darkest timeline, before Harmon’s return.

The final episode captures much of what was amazing about Community. It was a hilarious set of riffs on the characters, and on the concept of what a TV show can be – what TV should be, with Abed somehow imbuing a flickering screen with the warm glow of affection.

It was a heart-warming episode. In part a celebration of the people, and the adventures they’d shared. And the sad, bittersweet struggle of Jeff Winger to come to terms with the fact that now that he’s put down roots, and accepted that he’s staying in a place he once detested with people he once despised, they’re moving on, and he can’t keep them they’re once they’ve grown past it. The episode ends, though, with an encouraging message. Winger finds a kind of peace. With Community gone, I hope I can too.

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The Moral Bucket List

I came across this article by David Brooks a few days ago. It’s a great read; and apparently based on his book, The Road to Character.

The article is excellent – I like the distinction it draws between moral virtues and other virtues. I like the focus on working for it, the idea that moral virtue is something we can strive towards.

The reviews of the book aren’t unanimously glowing, but they’re certainly positive. I’m looking forward to checking it out.

Justice and moving forward

I read a good article recently, on the murder of civil rights volunteers in the sixties. There’s a lot in there, but one part in particular jumped out at me. The author quotes two different sources, that say

How can we say to the world we’ve changed, when we’ve never dealt with the past?

and that a failure to bring about a just resolution,

… would only further compound the wrong

It’s easy to say, I think, that we should let bygones be bygones. And I think sometimes, there may be something to be said for that. But there’s a cost to letting things go, without acknowledging suffering, without recognising and redressing injustice. Depending on the issue, it can be something fundamental, that shapes how a country sees itself in the future.

I don’t know much about Australian history – certainly not as much as I’d like to. I’m glad we had the apology to the Stolen Generation. I just worry that there are other acts that will echo down, and will need apologies as well.

Rereading 1984 – Part I

I’ve started re-reading 1984I’m really enjoying it. I’ll be doing a few more posts as I go, (edit: the next one is here) but I just wanted to jot down some quick observations.

One of the things that jumps out at me on rereading is how important writing is to the book. I’d remembered ‘doublethink’, and the way Orwell sees language as crucial to how a society works and a person thinks, but I didn’t remember that the physical act of writing was also key. It’s one of the first things we see Winston do, when he sits down to write in a diary, and it’s a crucial first step in his journey.

For some time he sat gazing stupidly at the paper … It was curious that he seemed not merely to have lost the power of expressing himself, but even to have forgotten what it was that he had originally intended to say. For weeks past he had been making ready for this moment, and it had never crossed his mind that anything would be needed except courage. The actual writing would be easy. All he had to do was transfer to paper the interminable restless monologue that had been running inside his head, literally for years. At this moment, however, even the monologue had dried up … He was conscious of nothing except the blankness of the page in front of him, the itching of the skin above his ankle, the blaring of the music, and a slight booziness caused by the gin. Suddenly he began writing in sheer panic, only imperfectly aware of what he was setting down. His small but childish handwriting straggled up and down the page, shedding first its capital letters and finally even its full stops. 

And from a little later:

He wondered again for whom he was writing the diary. For the future, for the past, for an age that might be imaginary. And in front of him there lay not death but annihilation. The diary would be reduced to ashes and himself to vapour. Only the Thought Police would read what he had written, before they wiped it out of existence and out of memory. How could you make an appeal to the future when not a trace of you, not even an anonymous word scribbled on a piece of paper, could physically survive? … He was a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear. But so long as he uttered it, in some obscure way the continuity was not broken. It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage. 

Particularly in that description of writer’s block, and also in the questions of why writing matters in relation to readers, it’s easy to imagine Orwell, sitting and writing and thinking.

Thinking about death

I mentioned Still Life yesterday; I wasn’t terribly impressed by the movie. One of the points I disagreed with was the treatment of death – what matters to a person before and after their death. [mild spoiler alert – discussion of the movie’s ending follows]. 

In Still Life, the protagonist looks after the funerals of deceased individuals, where the next of kin can’t be found. He researches their lives, writes detailed eulogies for them, selects personalised music, and orders ornate coffins instead of cremations (I’ve looked for clips as examples, but there don’t seem to be any online yet).

The priests and his supervisors roll their eyes, but the film asks the viewers to side with the protagonist, how he cares for those who’ve died, and sympathise with his noble effort. At the end of the movie, when he’s died, we see the ghosts of all those he’s cared for, gathering around his tomb (unattended by any living people); a demonstration of the nobility of his effort.

I’m unconvinced. In fact, I think the movie has it … dead wrong. There’s a moment when the supervisor says ‘Of course, if it’s for the living …’, as justification for more expensive funerals. I agree; I think funerals make a lot of sense for the living, as a way of recognising, mourning, and beginning to accept a tremendous loss. I think, though, that the living are who funerals are for; if there is no-one living to grieve, it doesn’t make much sense to me to have an ornate process.

It reminds me of two essays I’ve read at different points, that touch on death. Recently I read a piece by Diana Athill, It’s silly to be frightened of being dead. Athill reflects on a number of things, including that it is not death that is to be feared, but the process of dying.

… death was just something that would occur when I was old – and which was not, and never had been, frightening.

That this was true, I owe to Montaigne. I can’t remember when I read, or was told, that he considered it a good thing to spend a short time every day thinking about death, thus getting used to its inevitability and coming to understand that something inevitable is natural and can’t be too bad, but it was in my early teens, and it struck me as a sensible idea. Of course I didn’t set out to think about death in a regular way every day, but I did think about it quite often, and sure enough, it worked. Why coming to see death’s naturalness should have caused belief in an afterlife to melt away, I am unsure, but it did.

She reflects on some of her own near death experiences, and the process of dying. But throughout it all is the understanding that this, now, the life we have, is very much the important part of the process. What happens after we are gone is, to the dead individual, irrelevant, much as, in an interesting way, the millions of years that preceded us are irrelevant (another anecdote in her piece).

From another angle, Samuel Scheffler makes an interesting argument that part of what matters to us is not our individual death, but the continuation of other human beings. I can’t find the article I originally read, but there’s a shorter summary over at the New York Times (and he’s written a book):

Although we know that humanity won’t exist forever, most of us take it for granted that the human race will survive, at least for a while, after we ourselves are gone.

Because we take this belief for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing.

I think both of those angles are important. Death is a difficult, complex, and important topic; and there is a lot of room for discussion, and really good art. But having ornate funerals for people who are gone, when no-one else is around to appreciate them, doesn’t make much sense to me.

Making decisions

Making decisions is something I’ve done a little bit of thinking about, although I still don’t have it figured out.

So I was interested to see this talk by a philosopher, Ruth Chang, come up – How to make hard choices. It’s a good talk, and worth watching.

I think she articulates the problem well; and she reaches a conclusion that I agree with. But something about her logic feels a little off to me. I’m hoping to read her article (I think it’s Are hard choices cases of incomparability?, which you can find on her webpage), and I may come back to this then.

But for now I’ll just reflect on the talk. I think her definition of the problem is great. When we’re confronted by a ‘hard choice’, it’s often because there is no clear metric for which option is better. It’s a mistake to think of comparing two potential jobs as something that can be put next to each other on a scale from one to ten, particularly if they’re strikingly different (she uses the example of an artist and investment banker).

I also agree with her that hard choices like that are opportunities to define our values. I read somewhere in my undergrad studies (apologies for not digging the reference up) that one theory of how we think about ourselves is through interpreting our actions; that is, we build a self-model based on perceptions of our own actions. So in that sense, it’s very concretely a case of building ourselves. More broadly, a ‘hard choice’ is a chance to translate into action a set of ideas we may hold; about what we value, or don’t value.

But I disagree with her on the intermediate step of her speech. After saying that a simple one-dimensional perspective isn’t right, she suggests that instead of the three possibilities when comparing two quantities (greater than, less than, or equal), there should be a fourth – ‘on par’, which might mean … I forget her words, but something like ‘roughly equivalent’.

Perhaps I’m approaching this too simplistically, but that just sounds like a fuzzy way of saying ‘the difference between the value of these two options is small’, which puts us right back on a simple one-dimensional number line. The issue is that big choices aren’t choices between two things – even when we have two options, we’re really choosing between packages of multiple types of things. One option might involve status, money, and stability; another might involve freedom and some form of artistic fulfilment.

There are multiple things involved, and multiple types of things; they’re different scales. In choosing between donuts and cereal, we’re valuing both healthy eating, and tastiness, which are two separate attributes.

The question then becomes, how much do you value each of the things in different bundles? And I’m not suggesting that in the real world people engage in some kind of utilitarian calculus, where they weight each attribute, and calculate a total utility for each option. (Not because that isn’t theoretically possible, but because humans use heuristics even for major decisions, and there’s significant uncertainty around most hard choices). But most of our hard choices are hard because they’re choices between multiple different types of things. So the hard part of that process, and the one (where I agree with Ruth Chang) where we get to define ourselves, is on the value we place on different attributes. How much do you value security? Fulfilment? Adventure?

So it goes on.