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Communitas and Comfort Television

Through the glow of comfort television, we experience communitas – that feeling of “the lost heaven” of the collective – and, for a time, we are relieved of our existential alienation.

“I feel God in this Chili’s tonight” is an absurd line played for laughs by The Office’s Pam Beesly (Jenna Fisher in the US version of the series). Absurd, for wherever God may ultimately reside, it surely cannot be at the Scranton, Pennsylvania, Chili’s. However, that is not to say God or something that might be mistaken for God could not have been felt in this particular branch of America’s second most popular casual eatery.

The location is unimportant. It is this particular gathering of people that matters, for there is a strong current of communitas uniting the workers of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc. It is that feeling of belonging, too often lacking in our day-to-day, that drives so many people to watch and rewatch a small collection of sitcoms with an almost religious intensity.

The idea of rewatching The Office is, at this point, memeified. There are countless articles examining its rewatchability. In the many surveys I looked at for the most rewatched shows in America or lists recommending the most rewatchable shows, its name was sure to appear. Common companions include: Friends, Community, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 30 Rock, The Simpsons, Arrested Development, Parks & Rec, How I Met Your Mother, and Scrubs, to name a few. Many factors could be said to unite these shows, from their half-hour runtimes, generally low-stake situations, or the simple distinction that they are all comedies, but what this essay is interested in is their ensemble nature and the network of relationships therebetween.

Most articles will point to the reassertion of self-control, or the easing of anxiety by reproducing a familiar situation, as the prime drivers in rewatching certain shows, but we’re going to go deeper into the subject. Rewatching these particular shows is an attempt to recreate communitas, or at least to experience this vital dynamic that has been largely corroded vicariously.

Anthropologist Victor Turner is credited with coining the term communitas, a type of social bond unique to experiences in which all participating members have the same social status and spend time away from social obligations. Only when people are allowed to spend such unalienated time together, acting as equal participants, are these deep bonds allowed to form, and people can process their ever-changing lives and place in the greater social structure. In Turner’s fieldwork with the Ndembu, it was ritual that brought about the special conditions under which he observed “the operation of ‘the work of the gods’ – but work in the sense only of how a group develops ways of channeling common energies and endowing the effort with a sense of moral purpose.”

In the original Latin, communitas refers to an unstructured community in which people are equal or to the very spirit of the community itself. Anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner revived the word, applying it more specifically to the spirit of community produced by a small group going through some sort of rite or ritual. Working in the generation before the Turners, French ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep identified three distinct phases within rites of passage: Separation, Margin, and Aggregation. 

Separation “comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group from an earlier fixed point in the social structure, from a set of cultural conditions”, and places participants in a moment both in and out of time, in and out of the secular social structure. This marginal, or liminal phase, is the world presented to us on television, with many of the listed shows taking place ostensibly within our world, but existing mostly in pockets in which the normal rules do not apply. Margin occurs during the intervening liminal period. During this time, “the characteristics of the ritual subject (the ‘Passenger’) are ambiguous; he passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state”.

Presumably, the characters go through the third phase at the end of each episode. They are reaggregated into their world in a relatively stable state. They are “expected to behave in accordance with certain customary norms and ethical standards”, but it is mainly the second phase we are interested in here, for the medium of television holds the characters in a sort of perpetual, or repeated, liminality. Turner referred to this phase interchangeably as liminality, communitas, and anti-structure, juxtaposing it to the typical structure of secular life. He wrote that anti-structure is “not a structural reversal, a mirror-imaging of ‘profane’ workaday socioeconomic structure, or a fantasy-rejection of structural ‘necessities,’ but the liberation of human capacities of cognition, affect, volition, creativity, etc., from the normative constraints incumbent upon occupying a sequence of social statuses.”

In other words, anti-structure is meant to be a cyclical and contained exit from the societal structure. Periodic time spent in a liminal zone of equality is vital for the upkeep of any social structure, for it encodes the future station of the participants and society at large with moral values. NBC seemed to understand this dynamic and excelled at tapping the conditions of communitas during their Golden Age run of Thursday night comedies. It is present in The Office, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, Community, and, a bit later on, in The Good Place.

For the viewer, entering into this dramatized communitas offers a sort of compound liminality. Not only are the characters contained within a screen, a sort of liminal space all on its own, but in the world of these comedies, there is only the workplace, community college, contained bubble dimension, or whatever place it is these characters’ interactions are mandated by. Further, as within a ritual space, nothing is placed on set by accident. While things may accumulate thoughtlessly in day-to-day life, in ritual and television, everything is mapped out and thus given meaning. 

Furthermore, unlike in the modern workplace where the weight of outside problems is expected to be ignored and suppressed, in these television shows, such issues are to be brought into the group where they can be aired out and dealt with as a unit, leading to tumultuous, moving, and comedic scenarios which each episode reinforce the bonds between the characters. As Turner wrote of the Ndembu, who he lived with and observed for years, “Very often decisions to perform rituals were connected with crises in the social life of villagers.” Likewise, the driving force in most of these series’ episodes is some small problem of an individual, which the entire cast comes together to address. Both recognize the reality that in a close-knit society, the problems of individuals very quickly become societal problems, so working together to solve them benefits everyone. 

Just as important to these worlds as the lack of structure is the lack of real authority figures. When a nominal one is introduced, such as Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott, Greendale Community College’s Dean, or a pair of state auditors come to slash the budget, they are quickly dissolved into the group dynamics where their supposed authority is made ridiculous. Often, these characters with authoritative titles are presented as the most foolish as if to compensate for their structural clout. The ability of communitas to whittle away authority is perhaps exhibited best in The Good Place, in which even Ted Danson’s Michael, a literal demon with plans to torture a group of humans for eternity, quite quickly ends up not only abandoning these plans but joining them in their attempt to overthrow the corrupt structure of the multiverse.

Beyond even authority, the individual cannot dominate in communitas. Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic play, No Exit, depicts the hell of the atomized individual who has lost any ability to dissolve into a group. Communitas, on the other hand, offers the lost heaven of the collective. Community, given its name, is perhaps the most self-aware of the meaning and importance of its characters’ bonds. Jeff Winger’s (played by Joel McHale) series-long tug-of-war between individuality and being a part of the study group drives much of the show. It is a textbook example of communitas’ struggle towards homeostasis.

Still, personality dynamics are bound to play themselves out even within the anti-structure, resulting in The Office‘s prank war between Jim and Dwight, the endless bickering of Jeff and Britta, and the entire Parks and Rec. department’s antagonization of Jerry. For communitas does not mean constant, tranquil harmony, but it does present a collective homeostasis and exerts pressure on the individuals who threaten this balance. 

Some characters seem to find a more natural fit within the collective, while others buck against it, and this tendency can make for series-long character arcs. Parks and Recreation presents us with Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), a deeply libertarian individualist who fights like hell to remain aloof and standoffish but fails repeatedly. The Office’s Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) always appears at his most miserable when making his too-cool-for-this appeals to the camera and happiest when participating fully with the group: organizing the Office Olympics or returning for Dwight’s Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas, to name just two. “Among themselves,” writes Turner, “neophytes tend to develop an intense comradeship and egalitarianism. Secular distinctions of rank and status disappear or are homogenized.”

 There are constant self-realizations and growth followed by back-sliding and falling off the wagon, but Community‘s Jeff Winger feels the importance of communitas most clearly after he experiences the world outside of the group, as in Season 3 Episode 1, “Biology 101”, wherein he returns to the study room, pleading to the group over the table where their relationship formed:

The table is magic. As someone who has been on the other side, I can tell you it has been a scary, lonely…world out there. And sure, this group has sprouted some legs, but why are we in such a rush to leave the tide-pool when the only things waiting for us on the shore are the sands of time and the hungry seagulls of slowly growing apart?

Cue the group hug, a silly joke to undercut the sentimentality, and repeat in the next episode. This formula, while solidly heartwarming, offers diminishing returns. No show can run on it forever, just like no anti-structure can last forever. Eventually, it must plug back into the structure. It must end, but when there is nothing to plug back into, what can we do but return to the beginning and start rewatching the show from Season 1?

While communitas offers the only opposing force to the alienation of today’s structured society, the second phase of the ritual is not meant to last in perpetuity, for “man is both a structural and an anti-structural entity, who grows through anti-structure and conserves through structure,” writes Turner. This means communitas, in itself, is not the end goal, only periodic access to it. It is meant as a temporary waystation, a place for participants to gather themselves, learn, transmute “me” into “we”, and find meaning in their place in society as they prepare for reemergence into that society. What is needed, then, for a society to function adequately is periodic access to anti-structure for each of its members, or, in other words, a dialectic between structure and communitas

 Structure, however, recognizes the dangers of anti-structure. Structure, by definition, favors stability and the status quo, while these attributes are antithetical to anti-structure, killing the old and ushering in the new. Therein lies the problem: while we still have rituals, our rites of passage have been largely colonized by structure and seem to lead nowhere. Whether through atomization, secularization, transactionalization, or the rise of spectacle, the meaning encoded in formerly life-affirming milestones has been rendered anemic. 

Social critic Stephen Metcalf writes that the last several decades of neoliberalism has sought to reshape society into a universal market and sees “human beings as profit-and-loss calculators (and not bearers of grace, or of inalienable rights and duties).” Under such a regime, rituals have been largely gutted, mined for their financial potential, and there is widespread failure to encode society at large with the moral value necessary to bestow within its citizenry personal meaning.  

With such a bleak structure, it is no wonder people are seeking anti-structure in whatever form they can, for communitas offers the only opposing force to the alienation of structured society. When its real-world experience remains out of reach, witnessing it secondhand in the form of a television show can offer a sort of watered-down balm. But such can never be enough, as made evident by the hordes who must tune in every night, after long grating days of alienating work, to try and attain some ethereal communitas in the glowing blue light. This, however, creates an even more dangerous situation. Turner writes that “exaggeration of structure may well lead to pathological manifestations of communitas,” meaning that the current sapping of anti-structural supply vampirically from television might be greatly overshadowed by future “revolutionary strivings for renewed communitas.”

Works Cited

Daniels, Greg, director. “The Dundies.” The Office. Season 2, episode 1. NBC. 20 September 2005. 

Metcalf, Stephen. “Neoliberalism: The Idea That Swallowed the World”. The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Aug. 2017.

Russo, Anthony. “Biology 101”. Russo, Anthony. Community. Season 3, episode 1. NBC. 22 September 2011. 

Turner, Victor W. “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology”. Rice Institute Pamphlet – Rice University Studies. 60, no. 3 Rice University. 1974.

Turner, Victor W. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Routledge. December 1995.