I’m not quite sure how I feel about the news that Community’s looking to cast someone who just finished a jail term to teach the study group’s biology class next year. According to TVLine, “The show’s casting department is looking for an African-American male in his late 30s or early 40s to fill the role. He’s said to be an ‘imposing,’ sometimes scary guy who has just been released from jail — but is actually a darn good educator.'”
Now, I tend to think Community does racial humor fairly well. But the show’s done a more uneven job of dealing with the things that actually brought the characters to Greendale. Shirley may be taking classes so she can start a small Internet business, and the show occasionally alludes to how she wishes she had more time with her sons, but we never really see her having a hard time financially. Troy seems to have accustomed himself to not having an ongoing football career, but we don’t really know if there were things he would have wanted out of going to a bigger and better school other than the chance to continue playing. The tension between Abed and his father vanished early in the first season, and we’ve never really had a plot about the family’s financial needs and their business again. Annie is one of the only people where we actually see how difficult her life is outside of school, when Troy and Pierce visit her in her mediocre apartment in a bad part of town.
And so I sort of worry how the show’s going to handle a character who served a prison sentence. The incarceration rate for black men isn’t something comedic and wacky, like claiming your degree from a Colombian college was from Columbia University. If they ignore this new character’s background, then he risks being a stereotype. And if they explore it, I’m not really sure how the jokes are going to work. I have a lot of faith in Dan Harmon and his writers’ room, but this is an issue that’s worth taking some considerable care with.