In season three episode four of the NBC (and later Yahoo! Streaming) sitcom Community, the study group must decide who has to answer the door for the pizza guy. Made up of six unlikely friends, Community centers around the increasingly chaotic adventures of community college students in a Spanish study group. In this episode, after agreeing to roll a dice to decide who must answer the door, resident TV lover and nerd Abed points out that this method creates six different timelines––some distinctly darker than others. The episode ends with an apartment on fire, a character losing an arm, and a legacy in the comedy world. Though Community has had a lasting impact on modern sitcoms, none loom quite as large as the running darkest timeline bit.
Community writers are all for a meta joke but they didn’t realize that one relationship would spiral their show into the dreaded “darkest timeline”. That’s right, two characters and their tiny, one season fling would destroy the show and wreak havoc on the structure of situational comedy forever. By forcing together Troy (Donald Glover) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) the writers unleashed a madness that would ravage the show, leaving it to die a slow and painful death on Yahoo’s briefly operating streaming platform.
To understand what makes Troy and Britta such a dumpster fire of a couple, we have to first unpack what makes a good sitcom couple. Unlike the real world, sitcom relationships are driven by two things and two things alone: sexual tension and comedic potential. Doled out in bite-sized 30 minute episodes, sitcoms specialize in low stakes suspense. The audience doesn’t need or want a solid support system or hard but ultimately worth it conversations, they want hot people, good banter, and the occasional musical number.
In terms of chemistry, there is more tension between actor Chevy Chase and a racist tirade on set than these two characters. In the first season, the writers develop a carefully crafted dynamic between Britta and Jeff (a disgraced and egotistical lawyer). This combination makes a lot of sense––both characters are narcissistic and slightly unlikable in one way or another. However, because of the building chemistry between the pair, we learn to love them despite their flaws. When Britta attempts to make a self-righteous speech about activism, Jeff is there to call her out on her performativity. When Jeff indulges his inflated ego, Britta is there to remind him just how big his forehead is––they work! Even in the later seasons, Britta helps Jeff talk to his estranged father while Jeff helps Britta to realize her full potential as an organizer. Jeff and Britta present compelling satire about real people (Jeff, an overly confident white guy and Britta a self-involved fake woke white woman) while still reminding us it’s all in good fun.
Similarly, Troy and Annie have an interesting and ultimately unexplored bond. Annie––a tightly wound previous honors student––has been obsessed with an unassuming Troy since high school. This checks the boxes for two of the most effective tropes of all time, the nerd/jock pairing AND unrequited love. While it might be argued that these tropes are cliché and played out, that’s the beauty of sitcoms! Community is so adored because it dives into these tropes, unafraid to poke fun at them and explore their forced simplicity without descending into nihilism. The combination of Troy and Annie produces the desired tension of unmet love while still presenting us with an open-ended will they/won’t they dynamic. Spoiler: they won’t.
The Britta and Troy pairing on the other hand plays to the worst of both of these characters. Troy is sweet, popular, and relatively uncomplicated. We don’t want to see him fail to meet the needs of another person. He is at his best when he is pulling off an elaborate scheme, not when he’s failing to read social cues. Britta is cynical and outspoken by nature. While Jeff brings out a fire that is lovingly irritating, Troy forces a softness that doesn’t feel natural to her character. The audience is compelled to feel guilty for making fun of her when, deep down, she’s been a real person this whole time. Gross.
As for comedy, Troy and Abed are the undisputed power couple of the series. The creators of “Troy and Abed in the Morning”, the unlikely friends do everything together from analyzing TV shows to exploring the fifth dimension. It’s at their housewarming party that the idea of the “darkest timeline” first emerges. In the later seasons, Annie moves in with the pair and becomes a natural third to their duo. Britta doesn’t fit organically into this dynamic at all. The only time the couple is together is when Britta is annoyingly pulling Troy away from Abed. We even get a sense of separation anxiety when Troy is forced to do couple things. Ultimately, she takes away from the comedy rather than adding to it––a sin on par with murder in the world of sitcoms.
Sure, the couple only lasts for one season, but we must remember the butterfly effect. Troy and Britta’s ill-conceived relationship sends tremors throughout the Community universe that would have devastating effects. First of all, we waste precious time setting up chemistry that was never there to begin with. Troy and Britta’s relationship must be spun out of thin air in the third season, taking time out of one of the otherwise best seasons of the show. Furthermore, this coupling also creates a domino effect that creates an even more sinister duo––Jeff and Annie. The audience is gaslit into seeing Jeff as a hot guy when in reality he’s pushing forty with a receding hairline and a teenage girlfriend. The couple is so bad, it’s not worth the breath to condemn them to the fullest. Similarly, this leaves old guy Pierce with working mother Shirley to get into some thoroughly forced misadventures. It’s hard to even articulate what’s wrong with this duo, it just feels wrong.
Though this argument might seem frivolous, it is thoroughly relevant in modern society, otherwise known as the real life darkest timeline. In a world that coined the phrase “Ruthkanda Forever” and endured a global pandemic in the same year, there are many parallels between our current wretched existence and the botched relationships of the show Community. And, if we must rotate time and time again on our cursed and dying rock, creature comforts are beyond important. Comedy kept us sane in the last year and will continue to keep us grounded as our real life circumstances remain twisted and uncertain. Writers should be held accountable for making good and consistent art.
Community represents the future (if any) of sitcoms. It still adheres to age old traditions (two dates at prom, anyone?) and remains self-effacing enough to criticize these ideas. The show is a paradox––a joke about a joke about a joke. Future writers will use it as a reference for how to make a solid comedy with a cult following. As a canonical text in the sitcom world, it’s essential that we analyze what went right and what went horribly wrong (or, in Community’s terms, who “Britta’d” it).
While we can’t change the past, we can look forward to a brighter future. In the later seasons of Community, actors, writers, and fans alike chanted the mantra “six seasons and a movie” like a battle cry. We’ve gotten our sixth seasons (though, at what cost, I can’t say) but we have yet to get our major motion picture. Earlier this year, Joel McHale (Jeff) stated that a movie was absolutely possible. With the right direction, we can right this tragic wrong. Set the universe right and perhaps set ourselves on a path outside of the darkest timeline. Unlike Community, if we do the right thing and think about logical pairings, we can still stop the spiral into the most evil versions of our world.