Posted by on September 10, 2012 in Blog

By Vieshnavi Rattehalli

2012 Fall Intern

The fourth season of Community, an American sitcom created by Dan Harmon, is set to premiere in just over a month on October 19th. Much awaited by its small but avid cult-like following, Community represents the best of American television for many reasons. Aside from being a witty and sophisticated show that successfully employs meta-humor and frequent pop-culture references, Community displays progress in American television depiction of Arabs in America.

Set in Greendale, Colorado, Community follows the story of seven students, Jeff, Abed, Britta, Troy, Annie, Shirley, and Pierce, who find themselves in a study group at the fictional Greendale Community College. Abed Nadir, a Palestinian and Polish-American, has enrolled at Greendale to take classes to help his Palestinian father’s falafel restaurant, though he truly wants to study film as he excels at analyzing people. It is refreshing to see the portrayal of an Arab American student as something other than the stereotypical overachieving immigrant studying engineering or mathematics.

Over three seasons, Abed forms a tight friendship with Troy, an African-American student in the study group, and the show’s writers take care to characterize Abed and Troy similarly: they are slightly eccentric boys who enjoy watching movies, making up alternate reality scenarios in their “dreamatorium” and eating pizza. There are few references to Abed’s ethnic or religious identities. Whenever Pierce points outs that Abed is an “A-Rab” or attempts to characterize Abed as different from the group, it is largely ignored. Abed’s actions, interests and interactions with others portray him as socially awkward and heavily reliant on pop-culture to relate with the others, but he is in no way the stereotypical bad-guy Arab. He’s just another student at community college.

When Abed’s ethnic and religious identities do come to the fore, the writers heavily employ meta-humor, exaggerating stereotypes for effect. Abed’s father has a thick accent, decries American decadence, and ends up in an argument with Britta, a feminist c student in the study group, on how Abed should be raised. When Abed’s cousin visits from Gaza – a scene requiring some suspension of disbelief, since Gaza is blockaded – she’s covered head to toe in a niqab. Again, the show does a fine job of characterizing her as a carefree and inventive teenager who takes advantage of Abed’s father’s argument with Shirley, enlisting the help of Shirley’s children who dress up in her niqab while she goes to jump around on the Moonbounce at the fair.

Despite the progressive portrayal, however, one aspect of the Abed character is still truly troubling. Danny Pudi, who plays Abed Nadir and does a phenomenal job in this role, is not an Arab or even half Arab. Danny Pudi is half Indian and half Polish. Abed’s father’s character is played by Iqbal Theba, a Pakistani. While Hollywood’s first concern is likely casting the best actors for the role, this reflects a failure of the system to educate the American populace on the diversity of the Arabs, and to distinguish them from a generic “brown” persona. 

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