The Infantilisation of Community’s Troy Barnes

When Community airs on the “new and improved” youth-targeted SBS2 from April 1, of course most local fans will bunker down to re-(re-re-re)watch, but let’s not lie: we’re all up-to-date with season four, the first since infamous creator and showrunner Dan Harmon was fired. Because what the show’s fanbase lacks in numbers, we more than make up for in fervour: commenting endlessly after recaps, attending specialised Community conventions, or joining social media campaigns to save our beloved show (#sixseasonsandamovie).

I consider myself a fan of the series. I carry my Greendale tote bag with pride each day, and each night fall asleep spooning the show on my Macbook. I like Community not only because it taps into my nerdy sensibility, but because I feel respected as a viewer (clearly Harmon’s aim). But unlike more vocal members of the Community community, I don’t partake in the prevalent online discussions, because, well, I’m a lurker. After each episode, I creep around forums and lose hours inhaling recaps while silently speculating, agreeing or conspiring with commenters without typing a peep.

But I’ve recently noticed that something which was irking me had also been bugging commenters and commentators alike: the re-infantilisation of Troy Barnes.

The Battle Of Troy

Played by actor/musician/comedian/writer/all-round-babe Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino), Troy Barnes is a central figure in the Greendale Seven study group. And like any relatable and enjoyable character, he has encountered challenges and grown as a person, coming of age over three-and-a-bit seasons.

In the beginning, Troy came to Greendale Community College a letterman jacket-clad football star, brimming with cocky arrogance. Two episodes in, the chemistry between Troy and Abed (Danny Pudi) was cemented with the La Biblioteca rap tag: they became the best TV bromance that horrific term has ever borne.

Their friendship, key to Community‘s success, has altered Troy’s personality; ironically, “computer” Abed humanised jock Troy. Over the series, Troy has ran the gamut of emotions required for him to put his high school football star past to rest, and embrace his inner nerd (in fact he goes from denial to acceptance in one episode alone: season two’s ‘Epidemiology’).

There’s a new childishness in the once-brutish Troy; he may still be prone to emotional outbursts, and he can be dumb, but through his relationship with Abed, Troy’s cocky ignorance has turned into an adorable all-dogs-are-boys-all-cats-are-girls innocence that showcases Glover’s comedic talents, while complementing his character’s more serious aspirations.

Since his 21st birthday (when he discovered that everyone is not ten for two years), Troy has purposefully been striving toward adulthood, directly challenging arrogant lawyer and group messiah Jeff (Joel McHale) for alpha male status: Troy is like Jeff, without the cynicism. But the progression Troy made in ‘A Few Paintballs More’, and throughout the (flawed) air-conditioning school storyline, has been undercut by a few recent moments of cluelessness, which have rendered him severely infantilised.

Now I’m aware that Troy is obsessed with Levar Burton and PBS children’s program Reading Rainbow; that he and Abed dress in matching pyjamas and play imaginary games in their Dreamatorium. But he is also the first to band the group together (captaining their space simulation shuttle if you will), to pull them up on their misguided ways. This is Troy’s dual coin: it’s a humorous and complicated dynamic that works.

Yet in recent episodes, his base immaturity has been taken to cartoonish extremes. The most recent Halloween episode, ‘Paranormal Parentage’, bears a striking example of this intense regression, particularly with his relationship to sex. In the episode, penned by Community fan favourite and Harmon alum Megan Ganz, Troy slid away from his maturation, past his obvious penchant for “butt stuff” (a recurring gag), and back to having less knowledge about sex than the penis and vagina kid from Kindergarten Cop.

To be clear, this is not a deliberate pre- and post-Dan Harmon showdown; I don’t intend to join in on that ubiquitous debate (I’m saving my ammo for when a paintball episode is attempted). Troy’s elemental regression can be charted through previous seasons and, as The AV Club recently noted, Community does not have a magical elixir and is inevitably aging like other sitcoms; it’s not impervious to change (or Chang, it seems). But the way Troy was depicted in this particular episode was so inconsistent it was frustrating.

Innocent Or Indecent?

One of my favourite sight gags from ‘Paranormal Parentage’ was seeing Troy’s face while aboard Pierce’s (Chevy Chase) sex swing. Troy’s obliviousness to the true purpose of the “special gym” – “What are all these collars for? Secret dogs!?” – was in keeping with his goofy, cute naivety. Coupled with Glover’s talent for facial expression, the episode had all the makings of a comedic win.

But Troy’s dumbstruck reaction to anything sex-related (the Britta-and-Troy-don’t-do-those-things dynamic set up in the opening sequence) under the influence of Shirley’s (Yvette Nicole Brown) matronly slut shaming bothered me. Shirley’s attempts to protect Little Boy Troy from Britta’s corrupting “womanly ways”, and Troy’s wide-eyed bewilderment, were both completely overcooked.

I’m not an anti-Britta-and-Troy shipper, but these interactions too obviously contradicted Troy’s overtly sexual character. In the past, he’s adopted a sexy-Dracula look (no shirt, toilet paper cuffs) to attract ladies (‘Epidemiology’, S02E06), enquired after the cleanest toilet to take the girl on his back (‘Anthropology 101′, S02E01), and pocketed a string of condoms before a date with Randi (‘Home Economics’, S01E08) – and not only was he mesmerised by Annie’s boobs in ‘Accounting 101′ (S02E02), he didn’t hear what she said after uttering the word “suck”. (And at the beginning of season three, he named his pet monkey ‘Annie’s Boobs’ – “after Annie’s Boobs”.) The whole thing gets even weirder in a couple of episodes when it becomes evident that Britta and Troy are sleeping together.

Fans have speculated whether Troy is playing up the innocent card because he’s overwhelmed and slightly embarrassed by his new relationship. But he’s shown significant emotional maturity coming to terms with his crush on Britta, understanding that her self-loathing means she’ll only like men who treat her badly (‘Origins of Vampire Mythology’, S03E15), something Britta struggles to identify herself. Troy’s significant regression just doesn’t fit.

How far can a character regress before he disappears? How far back will Troy be thrown? WithAnnie similarly reverting to childhood, was the recent ‘Greendale Babies’ joke actually a programmed prophecy?

Troy’s sexless innocence becomes even more interesting when considering Donald Glover’s growing celebrity. Cultivating an image that’s both suggestive and sweet, he interviews as a well-rounded young man who, surrounded by foster siblings, was humbled by his upbringing. Since graduating from New York University, Glover’s achievements are well documented: he’s produced albums and comedy shows, toured Australia as Childish Gambino and worked as a writer for 30 Rock. And while Troy was being neutered, Glover featured as Hannah’s fuck buddy on Girls and left us all with the weirdest boner.

Troy is still an enjoyable character – I would bound out of bed at dawn to watch Troy And Abed In The Morning if it existed – but Community is beginning to lean on him being too dumb or pre-sexual far too often. As he finished up season three, he had sacrificed himself for his friends and been made a more reliable centre than the gravity pull Jeff once had. Troy Barnes is more than just an enjoyable sight gag.

Originally published on Junkee.

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