Thursday, July 20, 2017

Jimmy Fallon, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Archer: A Look into Community

Last year, the NBA Finals saw one of the greatest victories in recent history. The Cleveland Cavaliers, led by the one and only LeBron James, pulled out of a 3-1 deficit to pull off an almost impossible victory. I can still vividly see James rocket-propelling himself, seemingly from half-court, to block a lay-up, which was easily the play of the game. It was like that moment in Space Jam when Michael Jordan used cartoon powers to stretch his arm and complete an impossible slam dunk.

When victory finally came and Cleveland could call themselves champions once more (after a dearth of any major sports championship victory in Cleveland for over fifty years), I turned to my right in the bar my friend and I had watched the game in to behold an old man weeping. Behind him, his daughter, trying to calm him, repeated, “Dad, it’s alright. It’s alright.” It was the sort of crying one would expect at a wedding.

And it wasn’t until that moment that I realized the gravity that sports has in people’s lives.

Compare that moment to the words of one of my coworkers. “I’m on the team. I’m one of the Cavs,” he said. He wasn’t even in the US when the victory was won, but, out in Greece with his travel companions, he wore his Cavs jersey as he listened to the victory over the radio. And the victory, despite happening hundreds of miles away, felt just as much like his victory as it did his team’s victory.

Look! There he is! Just down there, to the left. Source.
Now, sports are one thing; FX adult cartoons are another. My favorite happens to be Archer. For those of you not in the know (I've found at least three people in the last few weeks that have never heard of the show, something that strikes me as odd, but hey, whatever), Archer follows the exploits of Sterling Archer, the spoiled, immature, playboy spy from ISIS (the International Secret Intelligence Service, not the Islamic State ISIS). The agency is run by his utterly stuck-up mother Malory, and also employs a rogue's gallery of people who are all terrible in their own ways. From sex addiction to alcoholism to a fetish for physical and emotional abuse, the characters of Archer could each give a psychologist a run for his money. However, after all the missions they embark on (for good or for ill)--which are usually a combination of dangerous espionage, petty drama, and crackpot motivations--the team finds themselves on top. They're not wiser or even particularly benefited from their "victories," but Archer and the gang do manage to keep surviving, episode after episode, to run the gauntlet again the next time, with more jokes and more displays of deplorable human behavior.

The series’ use of comedy is a mix of running jokes, clashing personalities, and spoofs of the more serious depictions of spy stories, such as the Bond movies or the Mission Impossible series. And at certain points, the jokes can almost become predictable. But they aren’t unenjoyable for that reason. Much like a character-driven drama, the point of the show isn’t seeing Archer or any of his cohorts help complete a mission, it’s seeing these people act the way they do. Even if you can guess how a character might respond to a particular development, the joy is in seeing them act in the way you know they will. There are pleasant surprises, and the show manages to keep itself fresh each season (I’ve just started into season five myself, the Archer Vice season), but the point of the show, one realizes, is in appreciating the characters.

And appreciate them I do.
And, like a good show (or any sort of fandom) does, Archer can quickly become a weird sort of ritual. Consider this Huffpost article by Zach J. Hoag about his sacramental watching of Jimmy Fallon. He uses the late night comedy talk show as a form of catharsis, of letting himself feel happy. Jimmy Fallon’s demeanor, his approach to comedy--these create a sense of inclusivity. Jimmy Fallon makes you feel like you belong. Kate Shellnutt, in an article for Christianity Today, puts it like this:

Fallon is a different kind of comedian from Jay Leno, David Letterman, or the host who started it all, Johnny Carson. Instead of insults, we get impressions. Instead of sexual innuendo, we get slapstick silliness. Instead of condescension, we get music parodies. Television critics have noticed that while other late-night comedians try to make fun of people, Fallon simply tries to have fun.
The point for Fallon is to draw his audience into his comedy without doing so at the expense of anyone else. And it works.

Now, Archer is not that sort of comedy. A lot of the jokes come at the expense of a lot of people on the show. Every other joke (which may not be an exaggeration) is a dig at another character. However . . . I can’t help but feel, at the end of each episode, that I’m part of the crew. It's no longer that I’m just watching characters interact with each other and the episode’s plot; I’m watching people I’ve come to know. My ritual of watching the show (although it’s hardly ritualistic in that I very irregularly watch it, sometimes three nights a week, sometimes one night every two weeks) becomes not just about entertainment but about, dare I say, identity.

Unlike my coworker’s connection to the Cavs, Archer does not offer any real-world connections. I will never find Sterling Archer no matter how bad I want to watch him down a bottle of vodka just before storming a foreign embassy. But similar to my coworker’s insistence that he is a part of the Cavs, I feel a part of the show. I’m not, obviously, but the subconscious sense of community is still there.

See? Community!
Like Jimmy Fallon, there’s a sense of belonging, even if the characters are fictional, even if I have zero participation in the show’s events. Psychologically, humans are prone to joining communities that provide certain psychological needs. This article from The Community Manager, by David Spinks, outlines what those psychological needs are.

Now, while a real human community is much better at providing these things (and can actually be interacted with), the subconscious isn’t always aware of what the conscious is aware of. My conscious mind, when watching Archer, knows that I’m just watching a TV show. The characters aren’t even real people. They’re not even physically real people, save for the voice actors that provide their lines. But my subconscious mind and those of literally millions of other people don’t always register those facts. What they do register are those psychological needs to be met by community outlined in the article: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection.

All of these (yes, including membership) can be pseudo-gained by watching a TV show. And of course this extends beyond Archer. Lost, Supernatural, Orange Is the New Black, The New Girl--I mean, name a show that features recurring characters with even mildly complex emotions, and you’ve got yourself a pseudo-community. It’s why people call themselves Whovians or are registered members of Starfleet: they feel connected. They feel pulled into something bigger than themselves.

And oftentimes weirder. Source
So next time you find yourself watching one of your favorite shows, be it an innocent cartoon, a raunchy comedy, or a police drama, ask yourself these questions:

1. Do I feel like I’m a part of the "team"?


2. Do I draw a sense of identity from some of the shows I watch?

You might surprise yourself with the answers. It's only human to want to belong, and television has made that easier than ever.


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