My generation is conditioned to love and appreciate pop culture references. Telvision, film and music are the great uniters for men and ladies of a certain age — those of us who are young enough to have had enough choices to allow which bands we liked to identify us as people (“what you like is more important than what you are like”), yet old enough to have matured before American culture splintered past the point of no return.
We relate to each other through movie quotes, shared memories of concerts, and the joy of a song from our youth being played on a jukebox at the perfect time. In the late 20th century, popular culture became our shared experience. Alex P. Keaton is our collective brother. Ric Ocasek is our collective weird uncle. Belinda Carlisle is the older girl we all fell for.
In lieu of conversations about actual feelings, or anything equally dreadful, we talk about our favorite David Lynch movies and toss Seinfeld references around like confetti. It’s why we love Quentin Tarantino, Beck, Girl Talk, and any other artists that deal in pastiche. It’s why we love High Fidelity (book and film), and making lists. We love the movie Beautiful Girls as much for its revival of “Sweet Caroline” as for the confused feelings it gave us about Natalie Portman.
Pop culture. It’s what we are. And pop culture references are what we use to get by in daily life.
Because of that, those references have became a cheap signifier. In place of actual content, it’s easy for artists to throw in a line from an ’80s movie we all love to form an emotional connection. To make us like them. Recognizability has replaced quality. And it’s right to be suspicious of pop culture references when they’re used to trigger a certain response. Just like it’s right to be suspicious of nostalgia.
But when used correctly, in conjunction with legitimate story and characters, those references can elevate art/entertainment to a higher plain. At least for those of us in a certain demographic group.
Family Guy, the much-loved Fox animated sitcom, is a pop culture reference factory. In some ways, it was built for our generation. It’s not so much a show as a string of gags, almost all of which are tied to pop culture in some fashion. Characters say things solely as an excuse to jump-cut to a flashback sequence riffing on Star Wars, or Die Hard, or countless others.
And that’s the essence of the problem with the show.
I consider myself a fairly representative member of my generation. I share the same cultural touchstones as most of my peers — Seinfeld, Reservoir Dogs, Nirvana, etc. I’m a walking stereotype. Pop culture references, even cheap ones that rely on recognition as a subtextual shortcut, are right in my wheelhouse. But I fucking loathe Family Guy.
It’s because there’s nothing behind the call-outs and yuks. The characters in the show aren’t even two-dimensional, let alone three. (Yes, I know it’s a damn cartoon. Shut up.) Their personalities, such as they are, are entirely fungible and are built for maximum laffs. If Peter or Stewie has to behave a certain way, or have an entirely new and unreasonable motivation for their behavior, that’s no problem with Seth McFarlane and his band of writers as long as that inconsistency is in service to the latest movie parody.
South Park famously lampooned Family Guy by “revealing” that the show is actually written by a team of dolphins who select interchangeable balls with jokes written on them to be inserted in an episode in any order. Family Guy’s pop culture references aren’t in service to characters or story — they exist solely to exist. To make the viewer think, “Oh yeah, I remember that movie!” and create a false sense of connection.
Community is also filled to the brim with pop references, but that show uses its nods and jokes to further our understanding of the characters, or to further the plot of a particular episode. At the very least, the pop culture gags fall in line with what we already know about the characters, instead of directly contradicting that knowledge.
Like 30 Rock, Community throws an insane number of jokes per minute at viewers, which would seem to give it more than a little in common with Family Guy. But whereas Family Guy has an empty, robotic core, Community has a heart. Even though it’s a fairly silly sitcom, we end up caring about Jeff, Annie, Troy et al. The jokes don’t distract us from the plotline in any given episode, they enhance it.
That’s why Community can get away with devoting entire episodes to action movie parodies and zombie attacks, and reference countless other pop culture checkpoints in each episode. (The character of Abed, a pop culture obsessive who likely has Asperger’s, also grants them a lot of leeway because of his unique view of the world.) Where Family Guy lets the references and gags drive the characters and story, Community takes the reverse tack. Yes, there’s still the cheap rush of recognition and familiarity when the show references a movie or song we know, but that’s not all there is. Community uses pop culture to augment its basic set-up; Family Guy uses pop culture as its basic set-up.
All of which is a roundabout way of getting to the point: Community is the best show on the air right now. It helps that Mad Men is off the air, and Parks & Recreation doesn’t start again until January. I’d put Terriers as a distant second. Joel McHale & company have built on an already-impressive first season to coalesce into a truly remarkable sitcom — one of my generation, but not only for my generation.