Television: So The Dean on Community is Gay, Right?
I’m worried about Community. NBC’s show about lost dreams and friendship at a community college started out last year as one of my definite new favorites for its well-realized characters, unique sense of humor and slight tinges of meta-comedy. This year, though, those tinges have blown up to the size of elephants. Episode after episode has been given over to winking genre parodies (zombie movie, space movie, action movie) that seem like a desperate attempt to win ratings but only serve to undermine the show’s strengths.
While I liked last night’s episode, “Conspiracy Theories and Soft Defenses,” more than any genre exercise since “Modern Warfare,” it did remind something else that the show could be doing a little better: Mining too many laughs from Dean Pelton’s ambiguous sexuality. Call it the “Tobias Funke Syndrome:” It’s when a character’s most salient trait is an unawareness of or discomfort with his own sexuality that leads to everything he says being an unwitting gay joke. Tobias was known to let out one liners like “a banger in the mouth” and “I’d like to kiss that man between the cheeks” that were, honestly, hysterical. It was hard for me to get annoyed at Arrested Development because I like it too much, and I believe Tobias’ gay jokes were played more as a spoof of being in the closet than anything else.
Dean Pelton started out the same way. His obvious and slightly-creepy crush on series star Jeff Winger was pretty funny. Actually, it is still pretty funny. In a void, the series intimations of his Dalmation Fetish, Gaga worship and rest-stop trysts make me laugh. But the more annoyed I get at Community the easier it is start asking questions about the dean.
The website TV Tropes has a great entry on the trope of “ambiguously gay,” TV characters like Andrew from Buffy, Chalder from Friends and Gill from Frasier whose defining characteristic is that they’re clearly gay without being gay. So at best, Community is commenting on another yet another obvious facet of TV, the “normal guy” who outs himself everytime he opens his mouth. At worst they just think gay people are funny , but I’m not ready to concede that one yet.
A small wrinkle of hope came last night when it was divulged that Dean Pelton has aspirations of literary fame and is writing a book about a time-traveling desk to stave off the other elements of his depressing life. In that context, it might be safe to say that Dean Pelton is like the other characters on the show: Stifled, living in a presumably small-town and unsure of how to realize his gay potential.
But if he came out, and was actually recognized as a gay character, it would take away all his humor. Maybe the show can actually tell us a little bit more about this life — how he lives, what he does, why he can’t or wont admit/know he’s a big ‘mo — that would put this all in perspective. Because I like Dean Pelton, but the world can only have so many Tobias’s and there aren’t a lot of other ways to make a character like this original.
The show is generally successful at portraying diversity. Instead of employing the collect ‘em all “Pokemon” tactic, they have a diverse core cast of characters and don’t act like they are just differently colored white people. Britta and Troy came to a memorable clash last year about Britta’s refusal to seem racist by questioning Troy’s crazy grandmother’s desire to spank Britta. Shirley frequently brings up interesting issues of religion between her Christian self, Atheistic Britta and Muslim Abed. Pierce frequently acts a catalyst for the ridiculousness of intolerance , spouting racist one-liners and being told how off-base they are. It would be great if Dean Pelton could be given this level of care instead of just being a one-note gay joke.
Addendum: Zack Ford, of ZackFordBlogs, raised a good point about the Dean’s future viability as a well-rounded gay character:
I, too, love Community and have always had a twinge of concern about some of how the dean’s sexuality exists.
One thing you left out about last night’s episode was a note of sincerity about his struggle coming out, which was wanting the theatre prof to confirm to his father that he had a girlfriend. While we certainly get laughs at the expense of his struggle (and creepiness), part of me also wants to give the benefit of the doubt that show respects his humanity too, and that at some point his struggle will come to fruition in some ways.
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