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Community: The Problem with Pierce

Viewers of Community have embraced the NBC comedy's ability to explore the boundaries of the single-camera broadcast comedy format, gleefully embarking on adventures involving zombies, outer space, chicken finger-hoarding mobsters, pen-stealing monkeys, and much more.

But what some viewers have had a hard time doing is offering a hug to the show's most dastardly character, Pierce Hawthorne, played by veteran Chevy Chase. In the first season of Community, Pierce often acted as a personification of the study group's id, a childlike man who frequently expressed the things that each of us progressive, modern people have sworn never to think, let alone say out loud.

The problem with Pierce in many ways is that it's become difficult at times to separate Pierce Hawthorne from Chevy Chase. Both men appear to be loud, loutish, and disruptive, prone to being an attention-stealer who often engages in pratfalls in order to grab the spotlight away from one of his costars. (If you've ever attended one of Community's panels, either at the Paley Festival or Comic-Con or the Television Academy, you know exactly what I mean.)

This season, Pierce has been put through the wringer a bit--his mother died, he was injured in a freak trampolining accident, and he became addicted to prescription painkillers--all seemingly in an effort to make the audience sympathize with a character who is so self-centered that he willfully disrupts a suicide-prevention-based game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Given his disruptive influence and ill manners, Time's James Poniewozik pondered why the group continues to spend time with Pierce, saying, "I can deal with it by remembering that the answer is, 'Because Chevy Chase is a cast member on this show.'"

There's a certain kernel of truth to that, all the more fitting because this week's episode ("Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking"), written by Megan Ganz and directed by Joe Russo, utilized the mockumentary style of Modern Family and The Office (and to a lesser extent, the Russo Brothers' work on Arrested Development) to create an aura of docudrama-style reality around Pierce's hospitalization. (You can read my pre-air thoughts about this week's episode here.)

Because Community is meant to be inclusive, there's always been a place at the study room table for Pierce, just as there has been for the socioeconomic and racial diversity at play within the series. Community colleges, after all, represent students from a wide walk of life: young and old, wealthy and poor, black and white. It's a cultural hodgepodge that functions more or less as a microcosm for society itself. Which is why it's fitting that there would be a character of advanced age within the group, even though his presence is often barely tolerated by the other characters.

Which, one could argue, seems to be the case on stage with the cast members and Chase himself. Just as Pierce seemingly loves to destroy the brief moments of camaraderie or happiness among the group, so too does Chevy Chase seem to relish throwing a spanner into the works every time there's harmony in a public forum. Both men can't seem to help themselves, and there is something quite sad about seeing a grown man behave like a child begging for attention. Which is why I can't help but wonder whether the show's writers haven't imbued Community with this sentiment, pushing Pierce to behave more and more outrageously, all in an effort to garner attention from a group of people that don't seem to like him very much.

Scroll down through Twitter and you'll see more than a few people bashing the character of prickly Pierce Hawthorne. Last week's scene with Pierce lying inert on a park bench after an overdose of prescription medication seemed to act as a bit of wish fulfillment for the contingent of Community viewers who want Pierce to keel over. Which made me wonder whether this was just another case of the Community writing staff employing a metatheatrical context to explore the audience's depth of feeling toward this character... or, in fact, the cast and crew's own feelings towards Chase. (Is this episode an outward manifestation of what it's like to work with Chase on a regular basis? Is Pierce's role the very same as that of Chase's on set?)

Despite the issues that Pierce has faced this year, the audience has largely had a hard time feeling sympathetic towards him. Despite the emphasis on his feelings of exclusion this week, trying to find an emotional connection to Pierce is a bit like trying to wring blood from a stone. It's just not going to happen, but in the grand scheme of things and in the emotional world of Community, that's okay.

Pierce as a outward villain has been something that we've seen more of in Season Two of Community than in the show's first season, where the role of the group's antagonist was performed by Ken Jeong's Senor Chang, a malevolent presence who seemed to exist to make their lives hell. This year, with Chang now sidelined as a figure of authority, that role has fallen to Pierce largely and the conflict the group has faced this year has largely been internal in nature, thanks to Mr. Hawthorne.

I would argue that, while I have no love for Pierce (though I did enjoy his brief foray into breath-operated wheelchairs), he's a necessary evil, the mirror that the writers can hold up in front of the characters in order to make them face their innermost fears and insecurities. This week's episode, which found Pierce bequeathing last gifts unto his study partners in a game of "psychological vengeance" forced them to face up to some hard truths. Despite the fact that he's often overlooked, Pierce seems to know the study group better than they know themselves at times.

(I was reminded briefly, of Baudelaire's le flaneur, the detached observer. While that seems a role more well suited for Danny Pudi's Abed, who the episode sets up as the literal eye of the piece (hence the documentary camera), Pierce's insight here into the unseen inner struggles of these characters sets him up as such an observer, though his interference in their lives, via those "gifts," disrupts any detachment he might have. Pierce is determined, it seems, to be not on the outside but the focal point of everyone's attention.)

After all, Pierce's gifts do peel back a layer of onionskin of these characters: he's able to bring to the surface Shirley's insecurities and her holier-than-thou attitude, Jeff's nascent daddy issues, Annie's elitism, Troy's fear of disappointing his idol (pitch-perfect LeVar Burton), Britta's secret selfishness. His "bequeathings" are crucibles by which to test the strength of these individuals. Does the heat make them stronger or do they crack?

Pierce provides a valuable role within the group, therefore. It may not be an honorable one or a particularly sympathetic one, but there's a reason why the show needs someone like Pierce in the mix. While external conflicts can bring a group together, internal conflicts are divisive and damaging. And that, at the end of the day, makes for good television. There's something to be said for not finding each and every character a paragon of virtue, or even someone you'd want to spend time with.

The fact that Pierce's presence has irritated some viewers (even me at times), that he's such a trouble-maker and an antagonistic presence, makes Community that much more naturalistic, in the end. Every rose, after all, has its (Haw)thorne.

Next week on Community ("Intro to Political Science"), Greendale holds student elections in preparation for a visit from the vice president, as Annie, Jeff, Leonard, and Star Burns against one another; Abed befriends a Secret Service agent (guest star Eliza Coupe).

Comments said…
You didn't mention Peirce's irony of the suicide prevention show. It was the best game the gamer had ever played.
Sean Sakimae said…

That was an excellent write up of not only last night's ep. of Community, but of Pierce and his place in the group (society?).
I think last night's episode did a great job of continuing the sentiment brought forth in the Dungeons & Dragons ep. "well, if you're going to hate Pierce, we're going to make you HATE him". Pierce does his best (worst) King Lear by testing the members of the study group with their "bequeathings". As Jace pointed out (via twitter) this was an excellent Britta episode, without centering on her. The initially tender moment of Britta reaching out to Jeff, as his father, quickly reverted to the competitive nature these two share (also true feelings blocked by a wall of false-confidence?)
As with almost every episode, my favorite character was Troy and his acting (in)ability when he's bequeathed a visit by his hero, Lavar Burton. Donald Glover has really burgeoned into a breakout comedic actor, and last night was his Hanks-in-Castaway performance. Most of his screen time was spent conveying emotion without dialog (which I view as extremely difficult-- as I see most acting as REacting). When Troy was talking, it was spent having emotional breakdowns-- a release that he's had several times this season-- which I view as his character growing up (something Jeff and Britta are hesitant to do).

Wraping it all up was the (mostly) unseen Abed documenting this episode. Doing this episode Mockumentary-style brought me great joy. Other shows skip having to explain a difficult story by having the characters talk directly to the camera (which is no fault of theirs-- as most people just don't seem to have the ability to follow smart writing, when it's easier to laugh when prompted) Community gives those shows a solid nudge in the ribs by having the characters make sure to emphasize the numerous ways a show can be edited/shot to take away most of the work of the storytelling. **(Though Arrested Development was shot that way, they never talked to the camera crews. Plus, the narration was pointed out as being a crutch, by the narrator.)

**special appreciation for what Megan Ganz called (via a tweet to me) nerdy "Low-hanging fruit", in the form of a FIREFLY shout out.

@snapthejap on twitter
Ask Rachel said…
Having attended a Community panel, I know that Chevy Chase can be a real ass and am sure that some of that is used for Pierce's storylines in the show but I agree with you that Pierce is a necessary evil. Especially now that Chang no longer wields power over the group. Great write up!
Anonymous said…
Well said and very very true.
Merve said…
Excellent write-up. I completely agree about Pierce's narrative purpose on the show, that he can hold a mirror up to the group and expose their flaws.

Unfortunately, the show has to operate on several planes, and right now, the show is violating its own internal logic. Pierce and the rest of the study group continue to mistreat each other, but Pierce still sticks around. So, while I see the narrative purpose of Pierce's behaviour, I don't think it fits with the show's interpersonal dynamics.
JC said…
Absolutely brilliant analysis and review. Thanks for writing this!
Diane said…
Really great piece. It seems like Pierce has become more annoying and more cartoonishly nasty in season 2 (his "Dungeons and Dragons" behaviour was extremely hard to understand, even for him). I don't really like him as the evil clown, but I feel like Chevy Chase probably does, and your analysis of him sounds spot-on. (I've never seen him on a panel, but I can imagine, based on TV interviews with him).

It would just be a shame if more episodes were based around him — he's the least funny character, as well as the hardest to like.
Anonymous said…
I like Pierce.
Paul Azadian said…
I was searching for a psych assessment on the Pierce Howthorne character. Your article was the only one I have found thus far, and I enjoyed reading it!

My "problem with Pierce" is that during his childhood, he was openly scorned by his father (the Hawthorne Wipes commercial shoot as one example). Yet he always sought his approval - even into adulthood. We see more of this in the gay party episode where Hawthorne is pressured by his father to disassociate himself from the gay community.

This could be partially explained by his potential ascension to the Hawthorne Wipes empire on the passing of his father.

However, the fact that Pierce, at the age of 66 lived with his mother suggests he favored her as a parent. It's reasonable to suggest his father repulsed him and his mother should have influenced him to a greater degree.

Instead, we have a character who's a 21st century version of his dad. It seems incongruous to me. Surely Pierce would have associated negative emotions with his father from an early age. If he possessed even moderate intelligence, surely he'd know that friendship (or even just acceptance) with others would only be possible if he distanced himself from the influence of his father.

We also know that Pierce had seven failed marriages. So are we to assume he's just a slightly dimwitted guy who never learns anything in life?

So the foundation of his character doesn't quite ring true to me.
Anonymous said…
I've always thought he was the best character on the show
Anonymous said…
he's the funniest character and 3rdeasiest to like after Annie and Troy. Annie (Alison Brie) is the most beautiful woman on the planet today

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