Chevy Chase’s hatred for his job on Community as Pierce Hawthorne, an aged millionaire taking classes at Greendale Community College to make up for his empty personal life, has become the stuff of entertainment industry legend, as well as continued proof of Chase’s unpleasantness. But his latest meltdown raises larger questions than ones about his ego or his poor relationship with Dan Harmon. As Deadline reported over the weekend, “People close to the situation say that Chase had been increasingly frustrated and uncomfortable with the direction of his character, Pierce, who is a bigot. After getting fed more lines he found offensive during a scene yesterday, I hear he snapped and launched the tirade, airing his frustration and suggesting that the way things with Pierce are going, he may next be asked to call Troy (Glover) or Shirley (Brown) the N-word.” The meltdown raises an interesting challenge not just to Community, but to shows like Ryan Murphy’s Glee and The New Normal, which rely heavily on Pierce-like characters: how do you write an interesting bigot.
Community and Glee use their heavily-prejudiced characters to complimentary ends. On Community, Pierce’s racism and sexism are the clearest manifestations of how generally annoying he is. He’s the kind of person who, when Shirley accuses him of sexual harassment, declares “Sexually harassing? That makes no sense to me. Why would I harass someone who turns me on?” He’s the kind of guy who’s clueless enough to pull himself out of an existential crisis by telling himself “Well, I do have a young, African-American friend now.” Pierce is oblivious to how he comes across, but that’s in part because his bigotry doesn’t really appear to have an impact on anyone around him, and as a result, he doesn’t suffer much in the way of consequences. Periodically, Pierce gets isolated from the group, as he did at the end of Community‘s second season, but that’s generally due to broader incompatibility with the group’s younger, kinder members, rather than because he deeply wounds anyone or says something that the other characters on the show deem completely beyond the pale. His racism and sexism are the way the show demonstrates his disconnect from people in general, rather than a way to illustrate the power of ideas like the ones he espouses. At its best, Community captures the way that bigotry can isolate people from the connections they genuinely crave. But often, Pierce is merely a crank, without that level of interiority.
On Glee, Sue Sylvester is similarly harmless. She exists mostly to coin catchphrases for the show, and to create a baseline in which her occasional moments of behaving like an actual human being seem surprising and emotional. Sue’s occasionally a proxy for interesting ideas, like the war on public arts funding. But mostly, she’s not even specifically prejudiced. She’s just mean.
Murphy’s done a more interesting job on The New Normal. As I wrote before the television season started when a Utah NBC affiliate decided not to air the show:
What I think is narrowly effective about The New Normal, and that might make the affiliate’s audience most uncomfortable, is that it shows bigotry as directly hurtful to the people in range of it. For most of the pilot, Jane (Ellen Barkin), an older divorced woman, is an outrageous caricature of a biased person, who speaks aloud what for most people is subtext or subconscious fear, rather than having her anti-gay views and her racism subtly inflect her thinking, bubbling up in surprising ways that leave everyone around her on edge. But the people around her do a nice job of acting out the pain her outrageous statements cause them. She acts as a roadblock in her daughter Goldie’s (Georgia King) efforts to better herself the one way she believes she can—Goldie is a young single mother—by carrying another couple’s child for a large, one-time fee that would allow her to attend law school. Jane is mean to the gay couple (Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells) who choose Goldie to be their surrogate. Even when she doesn’t mean to, Jane inadvertently ends up coming across as racist to one of the men’s assistant (Nene Leakes). Jane’s views are more disruptive and hurtful than the act of two men building a family together.
There’s a fine line to walk between marginalizing characters who espouse bigoted ideas, and acknowledging that power that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of hatred still have in the world. The New Normal falls down when it has Jane say outrageous things that are meant to be points at which we see her as hilarious and marginal, but end up just sounding offensive and flat. And Community can sacrifice moments of interesting development by failing to pursue the consequences of some of the most terrible things Pierce says, coasting on joke construction. I can see why Chase would get uncomfortable playing a character whose racism, sexism, and homophobia go less questioned than he wishes they would, mining ideas he finds abhorrent for simple laughs—whatever you think of him personally, he’s a long-term, outspoken liberal—and who doesn’t have much of a shot at growth or reckoning. These are difficult balances to get right. But as we grow towards a time where people like Pierce and Jane are more genuinely marginal in the real world, these are kinds of characters it’s even more important to try to get right.