Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBC. Five episodes into the second season.
The standard knock on metafiction (storytelling that self-consciously addresses the conventions of fiction, never letting its audience forget the essential fictionness—the falsehood—of the tale) is that it’s empty and insincere, refusing to commit to the emotion or the characters of its story and instead indulging in arch, self-congratulatory naval-gazing, cleverness for its own meaningless sake. That can be true, no doubt—to understand a work as fiction, you always have to take a step or two back, and it’s easy to reach too far a remove—but it’s not necessarily so. The best metafiction finds meaning in the idea that stories are true even in their falsehood, and to me, at least, that’s a tremendously powerful, affirming idea. (I’m the sort of person who cries through much of Adaptation and Stranger Than Fiction.) Good metafiction also provides rich ground for humor, mining the nonsense of storytelling even as it embraces the story. (Arrested Development was brilliant at that.) The balancing act is precarious, and it will never be to everyone’s taste, but done well, metafiction can be startling and provocative and downright hilarious.
Community, an under-performing tongue-in-cheek sitcom in its sophomore year, is still fine-tuning its balancing act. It has its glib moments, its cheap gags, but as it discovers who precisely its characters are and refines its voice, it gets funnier and funnier and, at times, surprisingly affecting. I know Modern Family has its partisans, Glee its passionate fans, but Community is the sole comedy now airing guaranteed to set me in a good mood. Its satiric bite is delicious, its sense of the absurd is unrivaled, and its sentiment well leavened with honesty and wit. This is metahumor done right.