In October 2009, I thought I’d be fired from my job in Abu Dhabi. Not because I was awful at it – though I was, and so was everyone else who took that job – but because rumors were circulating that the government had had second thoughts about our project with the Abu Dhabi Education Council and were intending on giving us all the sack in an emirate-wide spasm of buyer’s remorse. We were a bad idea being shown as such; who in their right mind would continue on with such a waste?
My department head almost gleefully told me about the failure of Dubai’s similar scheme some years back. (I wish I could find documented evidence of said project, but never have, and to this day I wonder if he just made the whole thing up.) The second week in October, I was quaking that I’d have to return to Phoenix, tail between my legs, humiliated by circumstance and forced back into my parent’s back bedroom for yet another round of job hunts. In 2009, that was like death.
That same fall, Community premiered on NBC. Thanks to my self-imposed Western-culture-must-die blackout, I didn’t learn about it for two years.
Rather, in 2009, I’d just learned, years too late, about Battlestar Galactica, which fed my inner nerd the soul-food necessary to survive the trials and tribulations of my deeply fucked up job in the emirates. When I packed for the UAE, I brought along a handful of books that I thought I’d reread and DVDs I thought I’d rewatch. Biggest was the BSG series; it became my cultural crutch for the first six months, the go-to of comfort that I needed at the end of a long, shitty day of kids talking over me, administrators scheming against me, and rumors claiming I’d get the sack because our dear Crown Prince was having second thoughts.
In BSG, a group of interstellar survivors get lucky and avoid a robot-caused apocalypse. They spend the series wandering around the galaxy, steps ahead of their enemies, trying to find a new home. The show is dark; it mirrors the traumas of 9/11, Iraq, terrorism, and all the beasts that were fashionable to confront in the Bush years. In it I found a commonality; as I heard stories of people quitting, people being attacked, schools falling apart, tales of our being sent home by Christmas, I identified with the siege mentality that permeates the first two seasons. People are so deeply battered that the only thing that comes to matter is simple, primal survival. In between their moments of war, death, and scraping through yet another Cylon fleet, they find little things that make them happy.
It became my mantra for those first six months. We were not at war, and nobody was being truly harmed, but the chaos and insecurity of the time was echoed within the fiction of that show. The solemn, stony-faced pilots and sailors of that fake space fleet were getting through their shit; I too could get through mine because my job was not nearly as lethal.
In the background of the world, the first two seasons of Community played on. In August 2011, when moving from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi and laid up for a month in a five star hotel as ADEC took its sweet time processing my apartment lease (no complaints, the breakfast was fantastic), I stumbled upon one of the final episodes for season 2 – the infamous cowboy paintball show.
Something clicked. It was immediately, instantaneously, my favorite of all time. I’m usually pretty judgmental about cultural products, especially American ones, but I fell in love with Community the way I fell in love with The Dark Knight in its opening scene. Something was just right. Thanks to Hulu’s blockade of any country not the United States, I downloaded it. (The fact that the UAE doesn’t prosecute pirates helped).
Once finished with BSG, I left it well alone. I’ve tried to rewatch it, but it’s fallen out of sync with me; their desperation, terror, and grim determination to find Earth doesn’t mirror my more pedestrian existence I’ve now fallen into here in Qatar.
Rather, it’s Community I watch again and again (subsuming to season 4 when I have to). What’s unique about Community, as opposed to so many other shows out there, is that there’s not one character I identify with – nobody I want to emulate or follow, nobody who has wisdom to impart to me. Rather, parts of each character carries a shard of myself; a bit of truth, mashed up, comically exaggerated, hidden by mounds of dialogue but shining out when the right light falls on it.
Each of them is uniquely broken, thrown off, and their life plans have not turned out as grand as they’d hoped. Within that, I see a lot of myself; not because my plans haven’t turned out, but because they very nearly once did not. It’s not hard to imagine myself having not left Phoenix, feeling and thinking the same things the characters of Community do, failing to communicate, to forgive, to forget, to grow properly. They’re like the warped, stunted bushes placed in a badly designed garden, grasping for the sunlight and water put just out of their natural reach. There’s something terribly wrong with their hometown, with the lives they’ve chosen for themselves, and they spend the entire series messed up and tossed about trying to figure out what the wrong is.
Now that the show is cancelled, it’s unlikely they ever will.
I suppose it’s fitting; it’s been cancelled just as I am about to cancel my Middle Eastern experience. Each year it came back was more improbable than the last (as each year I came out here it grew increasingly improbable that I’d return). From an experience standpoint, the first year was the best, full of novelty and uniqueness, things never seen before, life lived fully, a beautiful comet that was doomed to burn out. Year two was remarkable, but not as unique; some good tunes are worth being played twice. Year three began a tangible slip; not quite a slide, not yet, but the cracks were starting to show, and things that were funny in year one were merely just old hat, or downright annoying (as in, Chevy Chase’s character, and the failure of the rule of law in the Persian Gulf in general). Year four was a serious downgrade, a painful experience of many failures as purpose was lost, as the experience became about “just getting through it” – until year five, which was a do-over and which managed to scrape out what remained of the original goodness.
But now it is time to move on; perhaps a sixth season of Community was as much of a stretch as a sixth year of life in Arabia. Community was never fully at home on NBC, a major network that values big audiences, simple humor, and lack of controversy. Much like me in Arabia, it was clear Community did not belong and had an inevitable shelf life. Unlike the show, I go on to a newer and (hopefully) better life; another do-over. But it will not have the same spark or novelty; it won’t have that season one feel.
It’s over; the cast and crew of the show must go on; so must I. I’ve learned a lot; hopefully, so have they. Now it’s on to next chapters.
Maybe its successor can beat it. I damned well hope it does.