One big happy "Community?"

communityAs many of you have heard, NBC has produced a comedy series called “Community” that will premiere next month.  It looks to me to do for colleges what “The Office” has done for office culture.  (New Kid on the Hallway has a clip here, which I actually thought looked pretty promising.  It shows a Spanish professor warning his students in no uncertain terms about deploying racial stereotypes about him–not exactly standard fare on broadcast TV, or really, anywhere on TV.  Just click and watch people–it’s a free laugh!)  Inside Higher Ed has a roundup today of (mixed) reviews from community college administrators, faculty, and students.

I’ve long observed that in spite of what I see as the near-limitless comic potential of academia, our workplace is rarely the setting for TV shows or movies.  Our profession is never examined, romanticized, or glamorized the way that law enforcement, medicine, or even high school education are.  (This is not necessarily a complaint, just an observation.)  Maybe we should be happy, because when a college professor is a major character, ze is often unattractive and/or revealed to be a corrupt or devious person.  Gary on thirtysomething was a whiner and pretentious Peter Pan.  The faculty and graduate T.A.s of “California University” in the original Beverly Hills 90210 were all either trying to score with 18-year olds or falsifying the grades of basketball players to preserve their team eligibility.)  Perhaps the last popular TV series set in the academic workplace, Third Rock from the Sun, was even more revealing of how we are viewed by our fellow citizens:  in this show, the academic workplace was the ideal place for a space alien to take cover, because there would be plenty of other kooks and weirdos there.  (Did any of you see that series on CBS that starred Richard Dreyfuss a few years ago as a college professor?  I think that came and went before I remembered to check it out.)  And let’s not even talk about the doomed faculty and students of Hudson University!

What do you think?  Will you check out “Community?”  Why don’t we get the same Hollywood treatment as doctors and dectectives?  Are we not at least as satirizable as the venerable Dunder Mifflin paper company?  Go take GayProf’s latest quiz about the different kinds of colleagues you might have if you have any remaining doubts.

0 thoughts on “One big happy "Community?"

  1. I’ll check it out; this was the first I’ve heard of it. Sounds like they’re trying to buy in to some of the success from something like Big Bang Theory – which, while not centered around a college per se, IS focused around several professors. If Community sucks, I’ll just adjust the channel on my Thursday night t.v.


  2. Hm, one more TV series with a college setting was “The Paper Chase” (1979-1983) — that was set at Harvard’s law school. It seemed to do a better job than most at focusing on campus life (more from the students’ than the professors’ perspectives, but at least John Houseman wasn’t trying to bed any of the students–or vice versa).


  3. “Why I teach ______…? It’s none of your business!!” I kind of liked that one, although I’d never do that–or probably even want to do that. It does, however, kind of establish a useful distance between the medium and the thing learned. Our Center for Teaching Excellence would have a sh!t fit, I have no doubt. But their tao runs more to things like “If Your Course Was a Video Game” and other karmic konundrumz of that order.

    Will I watch it? If I had a t.v. I might give it a try. Is it safe to come out of the Hi Def bunker now?


  4. What I think is kind of interesting about Community is that until the Senor Chang commercial, the only commercials I’d seen were about the study group people, and it was ALL students ALL the time. Not that students aren’t interesting, but I became much more interested once I saw Senor Chang.

    I never saw the short-lived Richard Dreyfuss show, though I know some people who really really liked it. (I’m not really a Marcia Gay Harden fan and didn’t really want to see what network TV thought my life was supposed to be like.)

    And I had NO idea that Big Bang Theory is about actual professors – I just thought they were generic nerds. Does it ever show them actually in the classroom, teaching, or even doing research, or are they always in their apartments/building hallways? (Because the latter is what it looks like from the commercials!)


  5. I saw the Richard Dreyfuss show several times, and remember liking it and thinking it was way better than the average show set among faculty. On the other hand, now I can’t remember much about it, so I guess ultimately it was forgettable.

    On the evil faculty list, don’t forget the psychology professor Maggie Walsh on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There is an interesting development of response to this character. At first, Buffy is intimidated by her strong and exacting demeanor. Then, she starts admiring Prof. Walsh, after she praises some of Buffy’s work and begins to mentor Buffy. Halfway through the season, we learn that Prof. W is actually working with a secret government program, but by the end of the season, she’s a power-mad enemy to Buffy who tries to kill her at one point. But especially in the early part of the season, in the classroom, Buffy’s evolving responses to the tough female prof. are really interesting.


  6. NKOTH– Actually, The Big Bang Theory does feature a cast of academic researchers, and it regularly shows them at their place of work. But it’s still a really irriating depiction of academia because it takes the whole professors-are-socially-awkward to a new extreme, and because there are hardly any women working in their department. There is one female scientist, but she’s only an occasional guest star, and a few female graduate students (again, infreqent appeareances on camera).

    squadratomagico — I love the Buffy reference. You’re right, the relationship between Walsh and Buffy is interesting.

    The Community show definitely looks interesting, and I’ll be sure to check it out.


  7. I never watched Third Rock regularly, but I think the fact that John Lithgow is married to UCLA history professor Mary Yeager might have had some influence on the college scenes in the show.


  8. I never watched Buffy–mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa! IIRC, it was on WB when we didn’t have cable or great broadcast reception, so I missed the whole phenom. Interesting report on the tough female proffie–I know it’s Buffy and all that, with vampires and stuff, but it’s too bad they couldn’t make her just be a positive force in Buffy’s education.

    I knew John Lithgow was married to a professor–I didn’t quite realize the close connection to UCLA! Funny. I wonder if people in that department watched that show defensively, to see if any of them appeared in exaggerated or comic form. (Actually, the smarter bet would have been to follow the show’s writers’ connections to academia…)


  9. Historiann,

    You missed Buffy??!! Seriously, get on Netflix right now and remedy that.

    As much as I love the Buffster, I have to agree that I was dismayed at the extremely negative view of a powerful female faculty member (heck, female authority figures in general. Remember Faith’s Watcher, anyone?).

    Another view was the 3rd and blessedly final season of Veronica Mars (the first two seasons rawk and are all about cool, powerful blonde grrrls and class disparity, but the third was nothing but disappointment). There we have a male professor who is interested in mentoring and helping student and a grad student TA who abuses his power.

    About that Richard Dreyfus show, I watched it once for 10 minutes and laughed out loud at the classroom scenes. The students–every last one of them–were engaged, hands in the air, contributing smart comments that went beyond the reading. It was the ideal class, which in 10 years of teaching I’ve had exactly once.

    And I would never, ever, take a job at Hudson U!


  10. Dr. GunPowderPlot–nice name, by the way. Isn’t it too late to do remedial TV watching? It seems like TV shows like that connect with a particular zeitgeist that’s un-recapturable after the moment is gone.

    Those classroom scenes sound delightfully improbable! My classes more often resemble the recurring joke in Doonesbury, in which the professor says increasingly outrageous things to his class just to see if they’re listening, or even alive.

    And, word to the wise: if you get an on-campus interview at Hudson U., DO NOT GO! It’s really not worth it.


  11. “Numbers” features math professors from “Cal Sci” who solve crimes for the FBI.

    Didn’t Christine Lahti recently do a TV turn as a professor? I think I saw one episode. Maybe there were no more.


  12. And don’t forget one of the only decent shows about the undergraduate experience ever aired: Felicity. Though of course faculty play a pretty marginal role in the show as a whole, they were generally portrayed evenly (though there was the ubiquitous male prof who sleeps with students). At least the show portrayed students working and studying, esp cramming for midterms and finals.


  13. After watching a few clips, I’m willing to watch the show for a season. It certainly seems that it will be a study in the deployment of racial, gender, and perhaps even class stereotypes, as well as stereotypes of college professors and administrators. According to one of Ken Jeong’s critics, such stereotypes have been the course of his career in comedy. One might say the same for Chevy Chase who seems to have a prominent role in the series, and of Sherman Alexie who almost certainly will note the absence or near absence of Natives amidst every other stereotyped American group.


  14. Re: Big Bang Theory…

    The guys in BBT are employed by a university but have never been shown or mentioned as being teaching faculty. They all appear to be part of a “department” whose job is completely research-oriented.

    Perhaps they are the mythical (and all-too-real) course-buy-out scientists whose grants are used to fund the university while simultaneously employing fleets of grad students and adjunct instructors to teach the tedious physics and mathematics courses to the underprepared plebes.

    I bet at least one story this coming season will deal with one of the dudes (like Sheldon or Raj) getting assigned to teach…and then the hilarious hi-jinx will ensue.


  15. You know, it’s true that the female authority figures in Buffy often are portrayed negatively (as are many male authority figs as well, such as the watchers’ council, the HS principals, etc. The difference is that there are some positive male models to balance that out.) However, looking back I think this aspect of the series resonated with me personally. While I agree that it would have been interesting to see a positive female role model, I also identified with the sense that the girls in the show are sort of making up new rules as they go along. They don’t have any female models except the mythos of the Vampire-Slayer (“in every generation, one girl is the chosen one…”). I think I identified with that, insofar as I never could identify a strong female role model for myself, either. I never knew a woman, growing up, who was what I wanted to be (or indeed, who I became). In our culture, men get to have most of the cool roles in reality, as well as on TV.

    There also is an interesting dynamic between the various girls in Buffy’s social group, especially in the High School seasons. Her best friend Willow is an unpopular nerd, and Buffy herself is a smart kid who does poorly because she has so many other obligations (she often is unfairly accused of being lazy and not studying, when she’s been busy saving the world). Buffy’s group disdains the narcissistic persona of the stereotypically popular girl Cordelia, yet she often ends up being included in many of their adventures because Buffy’s gang intuits that Cordelia’s persona is just that: a persona crafted to survive the Hell that is High School. They are able to see that underneath Cordelia’s social vapidity is someone who can grow into a smart, courageous person. Indeed, one of the best things about Whedon’s writing is that, while the show ostensibly is about good and evil, those categories are presented in very multilayered and complex ways.

    Sorry to go off-topic… just wanted to pursue this train of thought while I had it. And you really should watch BVS — some of it may be ever-so-slightly stale, but much of the show transcends it’s particular time frame.


  16. Historiann, you’re not alone in not having seen Buffy. Of course, immersed in genre as I am, I’ve seen enough of Buffy to know all of the characters and some of the songs from the musical episode, “Once More, With Feeling”. After that, who needs to actually watch the shows?

    That said, I’ll wait to see which Canadian network picks up this show, if any. It might be fun but I’m pretty much resigned to the show getting things only tangentially authentic — between the chances the writers don’t know everything about academic life and all the ways in which stories are tweaked right up to airing, it seems silly to expect a positive and realistic portrayal.


  17. I think the main problem is that the things that academics get emotionally overwrought about and which generate interpersonal conflict–which is what it takes to make a drama–are completely incomprehensible to non-academics: tenure, publications, departmental/institutional politics, reputation, space, titles, and so forth. The things that get characters emotionally overwrought and generate interpersonal conflict in cop shows, lawyer shows, and medical shows are comprehensible to everyone: crime, death, sex, illness, divorce, and adultery.

    So the choice of anyone trying to create a drama about academics is to either make it realistic–and painfully boring to non-academics–or to leaven it with crime, death, sex, illness, divorce, and adultery–and make it unbearably unrealistic for academics themselves.


  18. Several thoughts:
    1) Historiann, you don’t even have to wait for Netflix! The first three seasons of Buffy are available for free on (And how do I know this? I was re-watching the finale of Season 3 just the other day form my laptop!)I love the show, though I became more of a fan of _Angel_ by the time that end (for reasons I won’t go into here.)

    My growing dislike for Whedon’s work actually comes from his treatment of strong female characters. The drama of his shows often relies on the killing or maiming of his female characters (leads or supporting players) in a way that it never does his male characters. (SPOILER ALERT for those that haven’t watched): Buffy dies twice, Faith put into coma, Willow goes evil because her lover Tara is randomly killed (which gets the “gay person goes crazy” trope in there too). Giles’ love interest is killed to show how bad Angelus is. Anya is the only character to sacrifice herself “for good” in the big final battle. On the male side: Xander loses an eye. And I was really troubled by the attempted rape on Buffy in season 6, too. Whedon pulled the same schtick on his two year arc on X-Men, when he centered the series around the Kitty Pryde character (who he has admitted is in different ways the inspiration for Buffy and Willow), then had her save the save in the end by sacrificing herself. It was well-written and even more moving than Buffy’s season 5 self-sacrifice–but somehow the male writer always ends up with the female characters dying for “our” sins. Long rant: sorry. But I get worked up about gender and superheroes/heroines!

    2) Regardless of the depictions of other fields on TV or in movies, I am resigned to the fact that history will always be, as currently practiced, too boring for TV. The problem isn’t in the research, but the way we do our courses. I remember watching the show _Head of the Class_, where Howard Hessman was history teacher to the advanced (read: geeky) honors students in the fictional high school. They’d cover some awesome interesting topic from early modern Europe one week, then move on to modern America, then next week on the middle ages. I thought “wow, this is what a cool history class must be!”

    And then I went to college, where I would hear a great lecture on popular partisan mobilization against the Jay treaty, followed the next class by….a lecture on the relative influence of class and region on the 1796 Presidential election. Great lectures, great mix of “new social history” with political history–and so boring as material for a TV show. After all, professors have to, like, follow a syllabus, and can’t teach whatever happens to match the particular life lesson the writer wants to convey that week! (If that were the case, what does it mean that I teach the US survey every year? Is my life that circular? Ha!)


  19. This stuff tends to migrate into the fiction printosphere, where composition and creative writing faculty–who are often oppressed in English departments–create breakout books and then never look back, if always looking back is a form of never looking back. Even when their work gets optioned for t.v. or the movies, it tends not to be the academic stuff. Of which, Richard Russo, a patron saint here in TransAltoonia, apparently has another book out, which from the reviews treats two different generations of academic angst. When he got greenlighted by Hollywood some years back, it was not for the scene in which the adjunct crashes through the dropped ceiling of a seminar room and lands on the table in the middle of an English Department meeting. For whatever reason…


  20. @ Comrade: I both agree and disagree with you. While I understand what you’re saying about the peculiar “vocabulary” of academia (vs the universal one of crime, medicine, etc), there are ways in which all the “universal” examples you cite also have their very own peculiar vocabulary and contexts. Did anyone ever understand what the doctors on ER were saying? Or the intricacies of the law/ court procedure? All themes – love, hate, jealousy, insecurity, success – can be universalized and particularized. It’s not impossible to do for academia. I think the problem is more how invisible academics are, and how socially marginalized we are. Other than John Lithgow, I bet more Hollywood types know basically zero about academia, other than a handful of stereotypes.

    Squadro, rock on with the Buffy analysis! I’m always happy to wander off topic to Sunnydale.


  21. The characters on The Big Bang Theory are either post-docs or junior research scientists, which means they have essentially no teaching responsibility. It’s not a show about a university, it’s a show about scientists (physicists, primarily). And real physicists love it, in part because the actual physics that comes up is always done right.


  22. But John, isn’t female self-sacrifice the inevitable risk, that accompanies the rewards, of having a female superhero? It’s what makes her a hero. Only the central character can be the sacrifice: female central character = female sacrifice. And the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for the characters of Willow and Faith: I believe it makes them stronger, more multidimensional characters to show them as having negative traits, flirting with evil, and yes, even as suffering. So much more interesting than “good girl who is rewarded.”

    That having been said, I have been disappointed in much of Whedon’s later work. I think that after season 5, Buffy went steeply downhill. I never warmed up to Angel. I watched Firefly and now watch Dollhouse, but the former I found only moderately interesting, and the latter, besides having some disturbing gender politics, also is populated by characters I find it hard to care about (most of them, after all, literally have no personality). So, I can see basic your point about the limitations of Whedon’s work.


  23. @ John S. I have to add along with squadra’s comments that part of the reason so many bad things happen to women on the show is because the show is about women. But I could also add that your list is a bit self-selecting – after all, Angel also turns evil and is sent to hell, Oz is a werewolf (which messes up his life pretty royally), and all the mostly male villains are outsmarted, outfought, and killed in the end. So it’s not only women getting maimed or murdered on the show. Nothing much bad ever happens to Xander, but the whole point of his character is that he’s the “normal” one, the zero, the one with no power and subsequently to whom nothing happens.

    My main beef with Buffy is the icky “women as nature/instinct/ emotion men as technology/reason” streak that runs through his writing.


  24. Wow — The Buffy fandom kinda took over this whole post.

    The clip was way funnier than I imagined the show would be. I do have a bit of a crush on the adorable John Oliver, too.


  25. I think that the general perceptions of professors is that they lead very isolated lives and that the process of generating academic knowledge is highly interior — that is, that we just sit in our offices and think. The latter certainly doesn’t lend itself to television, and the former tends toward caricature. On the Big Bang Theory (yes, they’re researchers, not professors, but the stereotypes are similar for both), most of the comedy is generated by the scientists’ attempt to interact with their non-academic female neighbor. And the result is a long list of binaries: academic versus non-academic, intelligent versus capable, male versus female, anti-social versus social.


  26. Oh, yeah: the Geek-out is ON! (I really don’t mind–this is what happened on the Star Trek thread a few months back inspired in part by GayProf’s movie review.)

    I think if I caught up on all of this quality TV viewing, my blogging would suffer! (It’s what I do most evenings and early mornings when normal people are vegging out and/or sleeping in.)


  27. I have never heard of Big Bang Theory until this thread today. It sounds pretty cool–but it seems like they’re missing out on some real comedy gold by setting it among research scientists and thus missing out on student story lines.

    Isn’t that the setup of most TV dramas, at least those that revolve around the working lives of doctors, lawyers, and police officers/detectives? The rotating cast of patients/clients/victims and perps is what keeps the drama alive and keeps us tuning in.

    Then again, “The Office” is hillarious precisely because of its insular nature. Most of the comedy revolves around the weirdly intense relationships–and weirdly intense reactions to other people’s personalities–that people have in an office setting. Very few new characters or customers wander into those story lines. Is this a key difference between drama and comedy? Or is this an idiosyncracy about “The Office?”


  28. Historiann, The Big Bang Theory is probably the only sit-com worth watching on TV right now.

    Well worth the Netflixing…

    And Bookbag is totally right about it: It’s not a workplace comedy; it’s a relationship/friends-as-family comedy.

    Think “Friends” or “Seinfeld” …just with Schroedinger’s Cat and scifi geekery.


  29. I’ve always wanted to teach at Hudson University. They all have such great offices–and right in Manhattan!

    I’ll likely check out the new show, but for some reason I’m anticipating being disappointed. I’ve always thought academe is the perfect setting for some killer (slightly dark) comedy, but it would be hard for someone to capture the full flavor of it. After all, can you really appreciate the comedic value of assessments if you haven’t actually lived it? Perhaps if Richard Russo did some writing for the show…..


  30. @ Comrade PhysioProf – I would like to say, respectfully, that I was *not* being self-pitying in making that remark. I was simply pointing out that in the spectrum of possible professions about which the general American public knows something, academia is pretty low on the list. While Americans might (and do) have misconceptions about the true work load of high school teachers, for example, or what the day to day life of practicing corporate law is really like, if you asked Mr. Joe on the street about what a lawyer does, he’d have some idea. I did *not* mean “socially marginalized” in the larger sense of “out of all the people who are marginalized in this country academics are among the worst”; rather I was speaking to the specific context of this thread, which was to talk about professions that have been depicted on tv and why academics aren’t among them. Academia has a culture that most Americans don’t understand – that’s not an attempt at self-pity (like I think they should, or like I feel hurt that they don’t) or a crack on the American people (like they aren’t sophisticated enough to get it). My family is blue collar historically, though some of the younger (my) generation have gone to college and a few beyond – if one says “I’m a lawyer,” they nod, or “I’m a nurse,” or “I’m a teacher,” same response. “I’m a college professor,” gets more bewilderment. I also don’t think one should underestimate the strength of the strand of anti-intellectualism in some circles/regions (profs are “bad” because they are indoctrinators of liberal propaganda [true story]). It’s not a big deal, but it explains why nobody makes shows about college professors.


  31. Perpetua–I agree wtih you & appreciate your elaboration on this point about people being unclear about the workload of professors. Sometimes I just tell people I’m a teacher so that I don’t have to get into a conversation. Once, I made the mistake of telling someone (whom I thought was pretty smart and with it) that “I’m a historian.” The response? “What’s THAT? What do YOU *do*?”

    I also wonder if the confusion and/or dissonance you and I have gotten when telling people we’re professors has to do with sex and age. I’m a little older than you, but I think I get blinking disbelief because I’m not a middle-aged man with a beard, a pipe, and patches on the elbows of my tweed jackets.


  32. p.s. to CPP: most of the commenters here are like me Lib Arts proffies, and we do get stereotyped and kicked around more than scientists like you. I bring this up not to suggest we should be pitied, but rather to point out that the public (and right-wing) stereotypes of “professors” are based on the notion that we’re not doing “real” work or important research because it’s just about books or ancient history, whereas I think people in the sciences, engineering, and business get a much wider berth. People attach monetary value to the latter fields, whereas few Americans perceive that what humanists do has any monetary value, and so don’t think it’s of any value at all.


  33. Squadratomagico and Perpetua: Well, I hadn’t thought of these character arcs this way, but you’ve given me an excuse to go back and watch Buffy again! I’ve pondered this issue a lot since I first watched the series, but not revisited the eps with that in mind.

    And here’s a wonderful bit of t.v. news serendipity that will appeal to commentators here: Marti Noxon, former show runner for Buffy, has a new series coming out with HBO called “Women’s Studies.” Dianne Keaton plays “a feminist icon who attempts to reignite the movement by starting a sexually explicit magazine for women.” (That’s HBO’s description.) Keaton’s character is a professor of (you guessed it) Women’s Studies. I have no idea what the series will look like, but I will watch!


  34. Amazed I have not been Greeked on this – recall Ross’s stint as a Professor on Friends? Every stereotypical academic flaw was portrayed there. . .

    Oh, and to steal a line from Run DMC, Buffy does not merely rock, she rocks and rulz.


  35. Profane–you’re right! I never watched “Friends,” but I was vaguely aware that the not-good-looking guy who was nebbishy and whiny was a “professor,” or at least a Ph.D. (Didn’t he work in a museum?)

    That’s another beef: why do only funny-looking actors play “professors?” Has there ever been a hunky/hottie professor? (Aside from “The Professor” on Giligan’s Island, that is. Russell Johnson is probably why I went into this line of work. Looky what I just found!)


  36. Well, as far as actors playing professors, there are Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks (the professor of art history “symbology” in the Da Vinci Code), and Noah Wyle, playing a character with 4 PhDs in the “Librarian” show on TNT. My wife was always convinced that Noah Wyle should play me if there was ever a movie made of our grad school department. I took this as a reflection of her affection rather than her skills as a casting agent. (But then, Bob Woodward became Robert Redford on the big screen, so there’s always hope!)


  37. John–I forgot about the 30-years younger Harrison Ford, who was pretty cute (and moreover, we were meant to “read” him as cute, and understand that he was the object of many undergrad crushes. Remember the girl with LOVE and YOU painted on her eyelids in the original “Raiders” movie?)

    Noah Wyle hasn’t aged well, John–I don’t think it’s a complement to you any longer! And Tom Hanks–when was that guy ever handsome? I mean, he’s better-looking than Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but who isn’t?


  38. Historiann–this was 1995 Noah Wyle, back in his younger and cuter days. Whether I have aged better than he has is *not* a debate I would willingly entertain! And I do see your point about Tom Hanks, though he has been tapped to play the male lead in more than one romantic comedy. Maybe there’s a double standard for male and female leads in these films?

    (I will admit, though, that I never found Meg Ryan as cute as everyone else did, which would seem to make Sleepless in Seattle a film starring people Hollywood *thinks* we should find attractive rather than people we might find appealing on our own. It’s almost as if the media is trying to dictate beauty standards to us or something.)


  39. On “Friends,” Ross was a professor and worked in a museum…and dated one of his undergrad students in season 6 (thanks,!).

    The undergrad’s dad was played by Bruce Willis, and I believe he dated Rachel for a bit.

    So, Ross has a Ph.D., works for a university, teaches, and is a total skeeve who dated one of his students.

    Another great model for professor-types. Reminds me of John Mahoney’s character in “Moonstruck.”


  40. Pingback: Counterfeit campuses? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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