If you’re not a fan of the long-cancelled TV series Community you won’t have heard the news that Hulu, Sony, and Netflix pulled the episode Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
Here’s a basic summary of the sub-plot which resulted in its disappearance from streaming services.
Chang wears blackface while cosplaying as a D&D character. Shirley calls him out about it, but he brushes it off by saying he’s a dark elf or “drow”. Chang’s D&D character is killed off during the game.
I think we can all agree that:
A) Blackface is wrong.
B) Racism is wrong.
C) Black Lives Matter is an important movement trying to bring an end to endemic racism and police injustice.
So, at first glance, Sony, Hulu, and Netflix made the right decision.
However, there’s the problem… Community is not a ‘first glance’ show and never was. By ‘first glance’ I mean a show that you watch with your brain turned off. I mean, yeah, you can just sit there and absorb the jokes and be done with it, but Community was never just about that. The characters learn things, and they experience growth, whether it’s for good or bad.
The main cast of characters are shown as flawed individuals with quirks. They’re also a diverse bunch. Abed is clearly on the autism spectrum, and he’s a non-practicing Muslim. Shirley is a single Mom just trying to do right by her kids and live her dream. She’s also a devout Christian. Troy is a young man trying to figure out his place in the world and fiercely protective of Abed. Pierce is older than the rest of the group, and he’s constantly trying to win approval but goes about it in all the wrong ways. Annie is young and impressionable, and an ex-addict. And Britta is, well, Britta. Finally, there is Jeff Winger, a former lawyer who lied his way into a law firm. He’s found out, and forced to leave the firm to get a real law degree. He’s a man, he’s white, he’s good looking, and he’s all privilege. Attending a community college is his worst nightmare.
The casting and characters feel fresh even now. A character like Abed is unique. There hasn’t been a character like Abed on TV before or after Community. This doesn’t feel like a show that has a racism or a religion problem.
However, let’s switch the conversation back to the sub-plot. The other thing to note is that Chang is a terrible human being. He gets a sort of redemption near the end of the series, but he’s a guy focused exclusively on obtaining power. He has few positive character traits and starts his own child army of security guards (the Changlorious Bastards) for the express purpose of assuming control of the college. (You’ll need to watch Community to understand that weird plot point.)
Chang is kicked out of the D&D game with his character’s death. This seems to emphasize the point that blackface is wrong, and Chang’s excuse that he’s a ‘dark elf’ is also wrong (and a comment on the racism bubbling along in D&D). You could argue that its a cheap joke and shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but it could also be argued that the writers were emphasizing what a turd of a human being Chang actually is. Chang is a narcissist, has issues with authority (he wants it and is prepared to do anything to get it), and is just generally awful. The character of Pierce is also awful, but in other ways.
Turning up in blackface and then claiming to be a dark elf, while making everyone angry, is exactly what a person like Chang would do. It’s all about being outrageous to get a reaction, and then gaslighting everyone by saying that it’s a joke, or it’s not what it seems. So, yes, the writers could have have decided not to write that scene, but at the same time, it’s in line with Chang’s character and a good commentary on how some people will do anything if it gets a reaction from others.
The YouTube channel Gamer Greg breaks down this issue, along with the issue of fantasy races in D&D.
Now that we’ve talked about Chang, let’s talk about the episode’s main plot line.
What this episode is actually about is that fact that a character nicknamed Fat Neil is prepared to kill himself. This is an episode about bullying and depression. The D&D game is a plot mechanism to talk about this issue.
In the plot, Neil is harassed at the community college. Jeff Winger isn’t always the most self-aware, but he realizes that Neil is depressed and pretends to like Dungeons and Dragons as a way to befriend Neil.
Neil is contemplating suicide, and gives his much-prized D&D books to Jeff Winger. Neil says he won’t need them anymore. Jeff realizes the stakes, and along with Annie, enlists the aid of the study group to find a way to help Neil.
The study group rally to Neil’s aid. They plan to invite Neil to a D&D game where Neil will win the game and hopefully regain his self-confidence and self-esteem during the campaign.
Chang’s dark elf character is killed but replaced with an even more terrible human being: Pierce Hawthorne. Who proceeds to wreck the game by bullying Neil and reading ahead in the D&D guide so he can figure out how to win.
Pierce is straight out evil in this episode. He belittles and humiliates Neil, and then tells Neil that Jeff was the one that coined the phrase ‘Fat Neil’. Pierce is so awful that viewers can only cringe at Pierce’s rampant displays of cruelty.
However, in a twist on the entire setup, Peirce is revealed as the most pitiful one in the room. He’s a bully, and he wants to exert control over the group. Neil defeats him in the game, reducing Pierce to what he really is: a sad old man.
With Pierce’s ego shattered, Neil, a kind soul, invites Pierce to play another game the following week.
In the episode Neil must find his path to inner peace, stand up to bullies (Pierce), and realize that there are people out there who care about him.
Which brings me back to the first glance thing. At first glance this episode features blackface. But the episode is actually about depression. In a culture that still doesn’t like to discuss these things, or marginalizes people with mental health issues, this is one of the few shows that addresses it in a meaningful way. Neil remains a complete person with multiple facets to his personality, rather than being reduced to a helpless child in need of rescuing by more well-adjusted people.
Sony, Hulu and Netflix have essentially said: bullying, and depression don’t actually matter. We don’t want to talk about it, and we’re prepared to sweep it under the rug.
Pulling an episode because a character appears in blackface should be weighed up against a corporation saying an episode about depression is of no consequence.
Like I said, ‘first glance’ doesn’t work with Community. You need to view the episode through multiple lenses.
Personally, I think a good compromise for this episode is to put a warning on the front. This would allow the episode to be viewed while acknowledging the issue of Chang appearing in blackface.