Abed makes Community worth saving

Why an unlikely character has won the hearts of this NBC sitcom's fans

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Since Community first aired in September 2009, it has been well-received by both viewers and critics. In late November, Community was christened tv Guide's Fan Favourite of the Year, beating out popular shows like Chuck and The Vampire Diaries. Despite this, nbc recently put the show on mid-season hiatus and rumours of cancellation are circulating.

Community follows a study group of seven friends through their experiences at the fictional Greendale Community College. Among these friends is Pierce Hawthorne, a 68-year-old moist-towelette tycoon who has been married seven times. Annie Edison is a straight-laced 20-year-old honour student recovering from an Adderall addiction and Jeff Winger is an ex-'lawyer' now attending college legitimately after his fake degree was exposed. Britta Perry, a former billboard vandal who dropped out of high school to impress Radiohead, and Troy Barnes, a high school football star who lost his scholarship to an injury sustained during a 'keg flip,' serve as foils to Shirley Bennett, a single mother and devout Christian attending Greendale with the hope of starting a business to market her homemade brownies. And last, but certainly not least: Abed, a half-Polish, half-Arab film student with Asperger's syndrome who seems to be unable to display emotion unless impersonating someone else.

While each of these characters brings something special to the screen in order to win their portion of the fan base, Abed's popularity seems somewhat unwarranted. For a tv character to become popular, the audience must be able to identify with him -- to be able to understand his motives and see the world through his eyes. If we don't understand what a character is experiencing in a given situation, it's unlikely that we will care enough to want to know what happens to him next. This is why Abed's popularity is not as easy to understand -- one of the defining features of the character is that he can't understand, or be understood by, the people around him.

In the pilot episode viewers discover that Abed has Asperger's, and throughout the series he demonstrates that he lacks the social skills to make people comfortable around him. The seventh episode of the second season is largely devoted to how Abed's straightforward bluntness occasionally causes him to unintentionally destroy people's self-esteem. In every episode, we see how Abed's abnormal emotional functioning sets him apart from those around him. Yet despite this seeming divergence from mental normality, you would be hard-pressed to find a fan of the show who doesn't adore Abed every bit as much as the rest of the gang.

Of course, Abed isn't the first tv character to draw a following despite being distinctly different from the established definition of "normal." In episode 19 of season two, Abed makes this analysis much easier by comparing himself to a few characters from pop-culture history -- Johnny 5, the robot who becomes self-aware after being struck by lightning in the film Short Circuit; Data, the resident android of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation; and Spock, the famous Vulcan First Officer in the original Star Trek series.

These characters all serve as emotional outsiders, questioning social conventions on the grounds of utility and practicality. This forces other characters to question and consider themselves in new ways now that are they confronted with different perspectives on customs they had previously taken for granted. Each of these characters has a unique reason for their "otherness," but they are all unable to effectively appropriate the social norms of their close companions effectively -- this leads to difficulty in communication and sometimes tension between them and their friends.

Despite the difficulty that Abed and these characters have experiencing and understanding emotion, they all remain dedicated to the well-being and, if possible, happiness of their friends. This dedication shows that, even though they do not understand emotions in the same way that those close to them do, they understand and respect that their friends have value. This is what gives these characters their mass-audience appeal. Anyone who has ever felt removed from something they wanted to be part of, or who has been unable to understand someone close to them can find some common ground with these characters and, ultimately, with Abed. They provide an outside perspective that allows people to be at once more questioning and more accepting. Perhaps most importantly, they show us how incredibly complex the human experience can be, and how little we really know about it.

Abed is carrying this tradition of questioning the basics of being into a modern context. He allows audiences today to look at the flaws and frustrations of life and people as a necessary part of the larger human experience. His continued dedication to his friends despite his inability to understand them shows us the value of learning to accept ourselves and others' imperfections. His constant questioning and analysis of the world reveal the opportunities for learning and insight in everyday scenarios, and hopefully nbc will recognize the importance of the character of Abed and allow it to carry Community into a fourth season.