This entry is part two in a series of my personal favorite pieces written for Pajiba.com, or as I like to call it: My Pajiba Best. For your reading pleasure, I have made several additions here to further cement my argument.
The love a few of us here at Pajiba have for NBC’s “Community” isn’t a real secret unless you’re new here or terribly unobservant (see here, here, and here for starters), and that love abides no matter how much the network punishes us for it, with sudden hiatuses and always, always being on the cancellation bubble. It’s like they think anything can compete with the popularity of “The Big Bang Theory” and its ever growing audience of howdaydoodats. Critics tend to reference the pop cultural density of the show and its penchant for going meta, as well as the apparent emotional coldness for pursuing all that meta, as reasons why “Community” isn’t the ratings bonanza so many of its fans think it ought to be. But what if there was an even higher level of self-awareness the show could reach?
Some have said that the main characters on “Community” could represent different traits of a single personality - like, perhaps, creator and professional malcontent Dan Harmon. Or the study group could be personifications of the seven deadly sins: Jeff is vanity, Pierce is avarice, Shirley is wrath, Abed is sloth, Troy is Envy, Britta is gluttony, and Annie is lust. With a cast and crew as talented as this one, “Community” could be a metaphor for practically anything if you put a little effort into it. But what if there was a metaphor embedded into the DNA of the series itself, one that if heightened would recall one of the most popular teen sitcoms of the 1990s, and put into question every naysayer’s critique that the show isn’t for everybody and doesn’t placate the lowest common denominators?
What if “Community” was really just “Saved by the Bell” this whole time? Both shows are products of NBC. Both shows have rabid fan followings. Both shows focus on a core group of six characters, with guests and background players that consistently round out the universes and play larger roles when called upon. Both shows are open to experimentation, “Community” with its parodies and “Saved by the Bell” with its location shake-ups. Both shows revel in standard sitcom tropes while also playing specifically to their audience, and these connections go ever deeper once you start looking for them down the rabbit hole. Clearly, this needs to be investigated for the betterment of all humankind.
Thankfully, I’ve already done that for you. As well as my own observations, others have detailed similar findings (one I agree with, one I do not), and I hope my own theories can help solidify this groundbreaking theory. The results and conclusions of my exhaustive study can be found below, but read at your own peril unless you’re ready to have your entire worldview completely changed…
Jeff Winger = Zack Morris
He is the ostensible lead of his show. He is the filter through which the audience receives the zany antics the gang gets up to on, and off, the school campus. Those adventures are often caused by the sheer fact that he doesn’t want to do something, or because he wants to manipulate a situation to his benefit, and he really gets motivated when both of those ring true. He’s blonde, a pretty boy fashion plate, and has a way with women that most people would admire, if they didn’t also find him reprehensible. Most of the time, an episode ends with one of his big speeches - a speech where the audience is never really sure if he learned anything or if he’s just milking it to wrap up the remaining loose ends. So, who am I talking about, Jeff Winger or Zack Morris? Doesn’t matter, because they’re the one and the same. “Oh, but, Rob,” you cry out, as if I can actually hear you speaking, “Zack could freeze time and talk directly to the camera! Jeff can’t do that!” Not yet, he can’t. Just wait until season six. Or, the movie. Whichever comes first.
Troy Barnes = A.C. Slater
Both Troy and Slater started out on their respective shows as jocks with large chips on their shoulders and equally large vacancies in their knowledge beyond stereotypical “guy” things: sports, women, and being better at dancing than they would like anyone to believe. But over time Troy and Slater arguably changed and matured more than anyone else in their ensembles, both men becoming more in touch with what he really wants out of life and not just what is expected of him. Part of that growth seems to be coming to terms with their serious feelings for a member of their circle of friends of the opposite sex, somebody they neglected at the very beginning in favor of another character but who is obviously a better match with deeper chemistry. For Slater, it was the love of his polar opposite: Jessie Spano. For Troy, it looks like the person he once called “the opposite of Batman” and “the AT&T of people” might just be his soul mate. Speaking of whom…
Britta Perry = Jessie Spano
On the surface, this is exceedingly obvious, and not just because of the correlation between their romantic interests above. Jessie was one of the first ultra-liberal, uber-feminist, super passionate about causes-far-larger-than-she-can-handle characters on television. Granted, her far-left advocacies were the butt of the joke as often as they were meant to help steer her friends (and the audience) to a moral lesson, but she took her beliefs seriously no matter how outlandish. That fits Britta to a vintage tee and leather jacket ensemble, though she’s often more the joke than whatever her cause happens to be for that week. One could argue that Jessie is the more studious and smarter of the two, but then one forgets that Jessie only managed to be valedictorian - and president of a bunch of clubs - by working her ass off and taking
speed caffeine pills to make up the difference. If Britta had tried that, she likely would have Britta’d the whole student body, but both she and her Bayside counterpart have to fight for everything they get, especially when it comes to respect.
Annie Edison = Kelly Kapowski
Wait, pill popping and studying too hard? That sounds an awful lot more like Annie than Britta, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but we’re talking about characters and their development, not their origin stories. Annie is much closer to Kelly: idealized by her male friends; somewhat envied by her female friends; perky to a fault; a goody-two-shoes who never met a plunging neckline she didn’t like; has the eye of the series’ lead even if they aren’t meant to end up together (until they marry in the movie that takes in place in Hawaii, duh-doy); brunette. Annie is clearly a more well-rounded character than Kelly, though that may have as much to do with the actors’ respective performances as it does the writing. Like Kelly, Annie is always given a reason to, and finds a way, to show off all of her assets, and that’s how they both became the sweethearts of their own shows. The biggest difference between Annie and Kelly is that Annie’s Boobs is a capuchin monkey and Kelly’s boobs are boobs.
Shirley Bennett = Lisa Turtle
Let’s get one thing straight here, Shirley and Lisa are not grouped together merely because they’re both the only black women on their respective shows, but it certainly helps. They’re also both defined, predominantly, by their surface stereotypes: Shirley is the judgmental religious, Bible thumper and Lisa is the judgmental rich, mean girl. Both also have character arcs that show their deeper, more humble and human selves, but these two women have clear and omnipresent self-righteousness ready at their disposal whenever necessary. They both also gossip incessantly and both are defined by the men in their lives, albeit to different effects and degrees. Shirley is devoted to her ex-/re-husband Andre and Lisa can’t get away from Screech fast enough, but without either of those two men, these women would have very little else to do. It should also be noted that neither Shirley nor Lisa are ever given the serious possibility of a romantic entanglement with the leads of their shows, not that they necessarily should take those notions seriously, but it’s worth noting that both of the other major female characters on both shows do. Make of that what you will.
Abed Nadir = Screech Powers
This one may be the most obvious and the most insulting, to both parties. First of all, Abed and Screech are perennial outsiders always looking in on worlds they don’t really understand, much less want to be a part of. Sure, they both have the same inherently human inclination to be members of a group and to belong and to have friends, but they’ve known loneliness and have made being perpetual loners a strength of character more than a weakness. Secondly, both are wicked smart when it comes to what interests them, to the detriment of almost all other knowledge. Abed loves movies and TV shows. Screech loves math, science, and Lisa Turtle. Ask them a question or advice on any other topic, though, and they’re as likely to stare blankly at you, or flail around wildly in a state of panic, as they are to help you and your situation. But neither lack for confidence, knowing and loving full-well who and what they are. It’s why even though the blonde-haired Adonis is the ostensible lead, Abed and Screech are the real audience surrogates.
Pierce Hawthorne = Mr. Belding
You may think that Belding and Pelton are the more likely match-up; after all, their names have an approximate rhyme and being Principal and Dean of their schools sort of makes them equivalent authority figures. I admit, those are compelling comparisons, however, they miss the fact that Mr. Belding was most often the source of the Bayside clique’s angst and frustration than being a fun side-gag. That would come later, but first and foremost, Belding is the antagonist and that’s what brings us directly to Pierce. These two men certainly differ in their levels on the Audience Lovability Index when it comes to their attempts to derail each gang’s fun, but both are constantly preventing (or trying to prevent) Jeff and Zack from meeting an episode’s goal. Both men also have an unhealthy fixation on the shows’ leads, stemming from seeing themselves in the younger men they have decided to help mold and shape into even more awesome versions of themselves. In fact, Belding’s constant meddling could be less about being the only grown-up in the room and more akin to Pierce’s desperate cries for attention and self-esteem. Also, they’re both <em>so </em>old…
Dean Pelton = Max from The Max
If it wasn’t obvious before this season, it’s quite clear now that Craig Pelton will never be a source of antagonism to anybody for longer than a few minutes. Instead, his position as authority figure is constantly undercut by his penchant for dressing up in increasingly elaborate and nonsensical costumes. Rather than being an office door slammed into the Greendale gang’s face, Pelton is the wall they regularly bounce off of. This makes him so unthreatening that he can hang with only a minimal amount of questioning, though he will never actually be a member of the study group. Similarly, the only other adult the Bayside kids ever dealt with nearly as often as Belding was Max, the magician that also owned their favorite after school hangout, The Max. He also wore elaborate outfits, but those weren’t meant to be the joke, rather his schtick was entering with a non-astounding magic trick and then offering up some advice. Max’s sexual proclivities weren’t made nearly as obvious as Pelton’s, but it’s perfectly legitimate to wonder why he was so damn fond of Zack and the rest. And everyone knows that wacky hair was the early 90s answer to complete and utter baldness. Still not convinced? Glasses! ‘Nuff said.
Magnitude, Garrett, and Annie Kim = Ollie Creekly, Alan Fairbanks, and Violet Anne Bickerstaff
Ben Chang = The Malibu Sands Beach Club
There is a small, but passionate, contigent of fans who love both Chang and the first six episodes of “SbtB” season three — otherwise known as the dreaded “beach episodes,” but most loathe each with the passion of a million scorned ex-Mrs. Changs and Stacey Carosis. For what it’s worth, Malibu Sands totally speaks my Changuage.
Star-Burns = Tori
Nobody ever remembers his real name is Alex, and nobody ever remembers Tori. Period.
Now, the addenda:
P. Professorson Sean Garrity = James
Both of these would-be mentors for our heroes have shady morals and seem willing to do anything for the spotlight and a paycheck. Obviously, they’re both actors of the failed variety, which likely explains their desire to be as melodramatic in their cons as possible. It’s no wonder they get along so well with the motley ensemble.
Fat Neil = Wendy
Granted, Wendy only appeared in a single episode of “Saved by the Bell” and Neil has become a regular featured background player on “Community.” Regardless, his first episode followed her arc to a T(-bone steak [sorry, I had to]). Both characters helped a lead get over their own prejudices and insecurities while at the same time becoming more comfortable in their own skin. Wendy already had relatively high level of self-esteem, but there’s no question getting to dance with Zack at the end was a highlight of her high school years. And Neil’s journey through the dark side with Pierce and Jeff has clearly given him the confidence needed to find his own lady friend, Vickie.
Prof. Slater = Miss Bliss
The most immediate connection to be made here is that both teachers inexplicably disappeared after each show’s respective first season, which for “SbtB” was when the series was called “Good Morning, Miss Bliss.” It’s true that Slater and her leading man had a more obvious romantic relationship, but they initially did try to keep it hidden from their friends and the school at large. In a time before junior high students were knocking up their teachers left and right all over the country, the storyline couldn’t be followed directly, but if you watch closely you can see that Miss Bliss’s odd obsession with the fate of one student verged on the creepy, if not outright pedophilia. In short: If you don’t think Miss Bliss was getting the Zack Attack, ala Slater and Jeff Winger, you clearly weren’t paying attention.
So, is Dan Harmon’s supposed genius merely a conduit for all those unproduced scripts sitting on some disgraced NBC executive’s desk? Are the stories of Greendale really meant for Bayside High? Have we really been watching “Saved by the Bell: The Community College Years” for the past three seasons and didn’t know it? Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. But it sure is fun to think about.
(Original version posted at Pajiba.)