Harmonic Sentimentality Part 2: What is Harmonic Sentimentality?
Although Dan Harmon’s oeuvre is varied and extensive, I’m going to focus solely on what many consider to be his masterpiece, Community. The first three seasons are more than enough to validate the potency of Harmonic Sentimentality in terms of what it does for the transition between postmodernism and post-postmodernism.
Harmon has created a story template, a circle actually, that he’s been using for years now, experimenting and perfecting it along the way (more on this later). And within his circle lies the inevitable existence of Harmonic Sentimentality. Examples of H.S. appear occasionally in his previous work but aren’t nearly as potent as they are in Community. You can argue that this is because Community has enjoyed the flexibility to slowly hash out characters through season long stories, or you can argue that it’s just the nexus of Harmon’s abilities. Either way, the frequency and intricacy with which he implements H.S. makes Community the go-to example for any argument about the emergence of post-postmodernism.
Harmonic Sentimentality can be defined as using sentimentality in an otherwise cynical landscape to show the value of sentimentality to those who are otherwise deemed cynical. Harmonic Sentimentality has three parts:
1) How a person is being cynical.
2) The cynical person witnesses, is subjected to, or interfaces with at least one act of sentimentality (or occasionally cynicism outside their own) that affects them.
3) The cynical person has a realization that changes them from being cynical to being sentimental.
It is extremely important in terms of the transition between postmodernism and post-postmodernism that the sentimentality the cynical person experiences and then realizes is related, informed and thus contained by their cynicism. The person may witness an act of sentimentality that on the surface has nothing to do with them, but more often than not, the cynical person is able to strip away the initial obfuscation and find their own meaning within the act before them. Because of this containment of sentimentality within cynicism, H.S. can be considered a form of irony. Let’s take the 22 minute sitcom format, for instance, and break it up into three acts. A typical H.S. will have the cynical person being cynical for all of the first act and the majority of the second act which will probably end having the cynical person being affected by a sentimentality. The third act will then address how the cynical person has changed into a sentimental person in context of the story. In this structure, the cynical aspect of H.S. is far more heavily weighed than the sentimental aspect in terms of exploration and time dedicated to hashing out the details and impact it has on the story and other characters. Because of how cynical characters appear to be, to the point that that is now a permanent character trait they exhibit, their sudden change into being sentimental as the result of an event or dialogue is completely unexpected and is therefore considered to be ironic in the sense that it is completely contrary to how you would expect this particular character to act given the preconditions presented to the audience in the first two acts of the show. Using a type of irony to emphasize a type of sentimentality is what makes H.S. relevant to the transition between postmodernism and post-postmodernism.
Now that the third act of the show is so suddenly saturated in sentimentality, it is easy to see how H.S. proves the importance of sentimentality within a cynical world. Sentimentality is such a powerful human condition that it dwarves any type of irony or cynicism that precedes it. Ask any fan of Community what their favorite episode is, and then ask them why it’s their favorite episode, and their answer will almost always explain that they were able to relate to the show because of its heart, because of its sincere, sentimental moments. I’m no exception. My favorite episode of Community isn’t a high concept, genre breaking, experimental endeavor– it’s Ep. 210: Mixology Certification. What attracts me to this episode is one of the final scenes where Troy convinces Annie that she’s awesome. It’s an incredibly down to earth, powerful scene that was necessary in the friendship between these two characters as well as to the safety of the insecure Annie. The episode is loaded with cynicism and selfish acts up until this point where Harmon drops the sentimental hammer. Gets me every time.
So, then, if Harmon is able to create characters whose natural tendencies tend to be cynical, so much so that H.S. relies on them acting cynically, what impact does H.S. have on its audience? Like I mentioned before, Community isn’t heralded as a mainstream attraction, but instead, it appeals to an extremely loyal and rabid fan base who is willing to go to unimaginable lengths to keep it on the air. The type of people who are attracted to Community are the ones in my generation, people in their 20’s who were raised by the likes of MTV and Seinfeld. By nature, we are a generation of cynics. A very distinct sect of the fan base consists of people who were bullied or tormented growing up. They could most readily be described as “nerds,” the ones who received “purple nurples” and “swirlies” (I remain skeptical of the actual frequency of “swirlies” given, and received, in real life. It always seemed incredibly impractical to administer, let alone brutally dangerous. I don’t doubt that some people fell victim to the vortexed tides of the porcelain, but I can attest that I have never witnessed nor been subjected to this form of adolescent torture, thank God. I opine that its use was overblown by the media propaganda and after school specials of the ’90’s) from the more unabashed alpha males of their class. In short, they were victims of bullying. The natural defense mechanism that most people employ to this behavior is misanthropic. It’s bitterness and distaste towards most things people. It’s cynicism. Cynicism is an easy thing to hide behind. It gives the cynic a sense of hierarchy over everyone else. It’s ironic that the victims of bullying often become cynical themselves. This group of people, people who have found sanctuary within cynicism, are what make up most of Community’s audience.*
If this is the audience that is attracted to Community then why even bother putting in any form of sentimentality? Why not just play into their hand and roll with the relentless cynicism and skewer anything that you think needs to be skewered? It sure would be easier, but where’s the fun in that? It would just be another instance of irony feeding on irony and solving nothing. So why not do the hard thing since all difficult things are better, like carrying a disease or holding in a fart right now. And what can be more difficult than proving to a generation of cynics that sentimentality is much more important than cynicism? That is the raison d’être of Harmonic Sentimentality. To show a populace of the most cynical people, a generation of people who feel no remorse when they completely abuse a particular blog post or YouTube video with their most scathing insults and mockery, that even though they have been raised on cynicism and, consequently, have embraced it fully, they can still become sentimental. If Dan Harmon, a product of the postmodern world, can accomplish that and ingrain it in the minds of the next generation of creatives, it will allow them to usher in the post-postmodern world by embracing new forms of sentimentality and undercut the cynical ironies so deeply rooted in our society.
*It should be noted that I find myself amongst this group of people. I was the victim of bullying and cynicism throughout my adolescence, stories of which would be too long to relate here. Nevertheless, I most definitely ventured the way of the cynic in high school and the beginning of college, leaning heavily on a general apathy towards humanity. I was commonly called “grumpy” by my friends which wasn’t terribly far from the truth but wasn’t near the whole truth. Today, I’d like to think I’ve made strides in being a better, more empathetic person, but I occasionally find myself regressing.
It should also be mentioned that a fair amount of Community’s, and therefore Harmon’s, audience leans towards being Aspergian. Not only is it accepted that Community’s Abed exhibits traits related to Asperger’s Syndrome, but the syndrome itself is an often discussed topic in Harmon’s podcast. Because of this, Community tends to attract a crowd that is heavily populated with people who exhibit Asperger’s Syndrome. A common trait of the syndrome is having serious difficulty in social situations. I don’t find myself exhibiting traits of Asperger’s, but I do find myself having some social anxieties. I am absolutely an introvert and more often than not find myself preferring the company of my own inner monologue/dialogue to the company of other people. Because of the difficulties I have with socializing, I find Harmon to be endearing in his candor and willingness to admit, discuss, and explore social anxieties. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most of his audience, the “nerds” if you will, probably will agree with me and can relate to the anxieties I exhibit in social situations.