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Community’s Abed - Live Like You’re On TV

Community‘s Abed Nadir is all about “parasocial” relationships, in that he’s deeply attached to his favorite TV and movie characters. This kind of obsession looks bad at first glance—but what if it’s actually a lot healthier than you think? Here’s our Take on Abed’s way of life and what’s so great about living like he’s on TV.

TRANSCRIPT

Community‘s Abed Nadir uses the fantasy of TV and movies to understand his reality. This aspiring filmmaker demonstrates the concept of a parasocial relationship. First coined by psychologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in 1956, the phrase refers to a deep, emotional attachment to media personas and fictional characters, whether they’re superheroes, dashing rogues, time lords, or even xenomorphs.

We’re used to seeing the fandom-obsessed geek depicted as a developmentally stunted outcast who’s unable to function in the real world. And in movies like Misery, Perfect Blue, and Ingrid Goes West, the parasocial relationship has even been portrayed as dangerous, an obsession that spirals into a full-blown delusion. But in recent studies, psychologists have suggested that these kinds of relationships can actually be beneficial. And that’s exactly what we see in Abed. His pop-culture comparisons help him better understand himself –

Abed Nadir: “I’m more fast-blinking, stoic, removed, uncomfortably self-aware type. Like Data or Mork or HAL or K.I.T.T. Or K9 or Woodstock and/or Snoopy.” - Community 2x19

– and guide his friends to actualize more truthful versions of themselves. He becomes closer to other people not in spite of, but because of his obsessions.

The question of what roles these attachments play in our lives feels especially urgent in today’s age of binge-watching, as many of us spend more time with our fictional friends than our real ones. So here’s our take on how Community’s Abed Nadir shows us the positive side of the parasocial relationship.

Intro to Finding Yourself

Abed Nadir is socially awkward. He has difficulty reading the room, picking up on sarcasm, and understanding other people’s emotions. He struggles with expressing his feelings. Community deliberately avoids diagnosing Abed’s specific condition, but as creator Dan Harmon has acknowledged, Abed has resonated with many viewers on the autism spectrum.

Dan Harmon: “They considered him a refreshing portrayal of someone with their so-called disorder. He was what he was and he was okay with it.” - Kevin Pollack Chat Show 4x8

In fact, Abed isn’t just okay — he’s incredibly confident, but he doesn’t get how to connect socially without a pre-scripted framework. His only knowledge of how people interact comes from pop culture. So when Abed wants to, say, woo a love interest, he channels Don Draper. When it’s time for the big paintball match against City College, he becomes Han Solo. When Abed needs to figure out who ruined his limited-edition Dark Knight DVD, naturally he turns to Batman.

Abed: [Batman voice] “You know what I came for, scum. Where is it?” - Community 3x7

This is more than just the usual roleplaying: by inhabiting these characters, Abed is emboldened to become an actor rather than an observer in his own life. He creatively adjusts to each particular moment, shifting the narratives he references to select which ones are most useful for exploring the themes and questions at hand.

Writing for The British Psychology Society, Boston Globe columnist Robin Abrahams suggested that, when it comes to the kind of people who form parasocial relationships,“both temperament and upbringing play a role.” Abed is not only neurologically atypical, he’s also the child of a broken home. His mother left him at a young age. A soured relationship with his father caused Abed to retreat, with fictional characters becoming his most constant companions — and his role models.

Abed: “My dad never wanted to watch anything, so I was kinda raised by TV.” - Community 1x8

Yet, parasocial relationships enable Abed to reconnect with his dad. Abed turns his life into a movie, which allows him to confront these issues in a safe, fictional world, without the risks inherent in the real one. He’s able to use film’s veneer of unreality to uncover an unexpressed pain about his mother leaving. And this movie version of Abed is able to tell his father what he cannot.

Gobi Nadir: “I never said I blamed you for her leaving.”

Abed: “You never had to say it.” - Community 1x3

Abed’s growth mirrors a 2014 study conducted by researchers at York College of Pennsylvania, which found that parasocial relationships can foster “self-expansion” — the ability to envision a better version of ourselves through fiction. Movies and TV help Abed understand how other people work, how the world works — and ultimately, how he works. And they enable him to do many things he might otherwise find impossible.

Advanced Communications

As an avid TV watcher, Abed has developed unusually shrewd observation skills. On Community, this becomes an especially meta-joke, as Abed often behaves as though he’s aware that he’s on a TV show. He’s frequently breaking the fourth wall, and he discusses both himself and his friends as though they’re TV characters.

Abed: “Jeff and Britta is no Ross and Rachel. Your sexual tension, lack of chemistry are putting us all on edge, which is why ironically, and hear this on every level, you’re keeping us from being Friends.” - Community 1x23

Abed’s hyper-analytical nature can get on the others’ nerves. But it also gives Abed a framework to bond with the others — using his parasocial relationships to form social ones. Abed’s friendship with Jeff is based on Abed instinctively orienting everything around Jeff’s role as the “leading man.” He reframes Jeff in the vein of other TV protagonists—like Hawkeye on M*A*S*H*—then casts himself as the helpful sidekick.

Abed: “Call me Radar?”

Jeff Winger: “When you’ve earned it.” - Community 1x13

It helps their communication that Jeff gets most of Abed’s references, and Abed draws on this mutual understanding of idealized fictional characters to call out Jeff whenever he fails to live up to those standards. But over time, their hero-and-sidekick dynamic blossoms into the respectful give-and-take of a genuine, egalitarian friendship.

Play-acting is also at the heart of Abed’s other closest relationship. Outwardly, Troy and Abed aren’t obvious candidates for best friends. Abed seems to be the typical geek, while Troy is the popular jock. Whereas Abed has trouble expressing his feelings, Troy seems to be overflowing with them. Still, Troy has his own experiences with parasocial relationships, as evidenced by his feelings for Star Trek star LeVar Burto. And this side of Troy creates a natural chemistry with Abed that’s defined by a shared sense of whimsy and a mutual love of sci-fi and action movies.

More than anything, Troy and Abed are brought together by play. Whether it’s constructing blanket forts, pretending to co-host a TV talk show, or acting out wild fantasies in their virtual playroom, the Dreamatorium, by losing themselves in fictional worlds, Troy and Abed are able to escape a real-world that normally keeps the jocks and the nerds apart.

Abed shows that play-acting can also be very romantically appealing. Annie, who doesn’t seem like an obvious match for Abed even as friends, finds herself attracted to him when he’s playing certain roles. And over time, play solidifies their close friendship, allowing the typically uptight Annie to lose herself in fun and to explore her own one-sided relationships with fantasy figures—specifically her sublimated, schoolgirl desires for alpha males.

Abed’s romance with Rachel is entirely predicated on acting out pop culture tropes, something she loves just as much as he does. At first, their parasocial relationships threaten to get in the way of a real one. But by following the examples he’s seen in countless fictional romances, Abed is successful at wooing Rachel –

Rachel: “So, would you like to go out sometime?”

Abed: “I would like that.”

Rachel: “Do you want to pretend like you’re just going out with me on a bet?”

Abed: “Ooooh I’d like that very much.” - Community 4x8

– and even winning her back after things go awry. The presentation may be fiction, but for both of them, imaginary scenarios foster a growth that is entirely real and a bond based in uncomfortable truth.

Abed: “There’s not a huge amount of people in my life that haven’t eventually kicked me out, and I don’t always see it coming… I don’t want it to happen with you.” - Community 5x9

Teaching Growth as a Second Language

Parasocial relationships are inherently internal, allowing a person to work through issues pertaining to their own identity. But Abed shows how they can also be used for teaching others how to self-actualize. As Psychology Today notes, therapists will sometimes integrate superheroes and fantasy characters into “therapeutic fan fiction,” allowing patients to explore their personal stories through the prism of comforting narratives. Abed does something similar for his friends, crafting fantasy scenarios through which they can work toward personal revelations, or uncover their deepest fears.

Abed uses the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons as a tool to allow his friends to become characters who are far removed from their normal selves. This becomes a form of play therapy. A session organized for their friend Neil not only pulls him back from the brink of extreme depression; it also discovers the true source of his pain.

Pierce Hawthorne: “That’s right, Neil. Your new best friend, Jeff Winger, coined the name Fat Neil.” - Community 2x14

Plus, it exposes the harsh truth behind Pierce’s pattern of insensitive behavior.

Jeff: “I pity Pierce.”

Pierce: “Knock it off!”

Annie Edison: “Yeah, you really outdid yourself this week. There’s a lot of pain in you… I seriously feel bad.” - Community 2x14

Abed elicits a similar breakthrough for Jeff using My Dinner with Andre—engaging Jeff in a simulation of that film’s frank, philosophical discussions that ends up uncovering some very real truths. Jeff’s insecurities are also brought to the fore by Abed’s sci-fi film, Chief Starr and the Raiders of the Galaxy, where Jeff’s disappointment over losing his big scene stems from a much deeper fear — that he’s not the leading man of the story, like Abed has made him out to be.

Jeff: “The part I accidentally got the most excited about is the seven minutes we can cut. I finally know in my heart, that I will literally be the last one of us here.” - Community 6x8

Troy also agonizes over other people’s perceptions of him, and his roleplaying with Abed is a healthy step toward letting that go. Tensions arise whenever Abed tests the limits of that roleplay, and their often-juvenile behavior complicates Troy’s need to grow up. But when it comes time for Troy to finally leave Abed behind –

Troy Barnes: “Abed, the floor can’t be lava forever. The game’s got to end.”

Abed: “It’s not a game for me, Troy. I’m seeing real lava because you’re leaving.” - Community 5x5

it’s a fantasy that allows them to say goodbye.

Meanwhile, Annie and Abed both have a tendency toward having relationships with imaginary versions of real people.

Abed (as Annie) “We love Jeff.”

Annie: “No we don’t. We’re just in love with the idea of being loved. And if we can teach a guy like Jeff to do it, we’ll never be unloved.” - Community 3x16

This also falls within the parasocial spectrum: As Robin Abrahams noted, “Even in our most intimate personal relationships, we are often interacting with a mental model of our partner or parent, imagining their current state of mind, or how they would respond to whatever situation we find ourselves in.” As a result of this mindset, Annie and Abed try to manipulate how their friends behave, and to plan their lives according to prescribed narratives—but as Annie realizes while journeying with Abed through his simulations in the Dreamatorium, this simply doesn’t work.

Annie: “I was trying to make life go according to some script. I can’t. You can’t. We both need to get more comfortable winging it.” - Community 3x16

While imaginary scenarios can help us understand the roots of our problems, we can’t solve those problems purely by retreating into fiction.

Because Abed is himself a fictional character, we can form a parasocial relationship with him—one that helps us to process our own anxieties and obsessions. It’s arguably the norm today to spend more time watching fictional characters than interacting with real people. We live in the age of the personality quiz, where people look to define themselves by which Harry Potter house they belong to, or which character from The Good Place they’re most like. We “stan” movie franchises and “ship” TV characters, and we use GIFs of imaginary people to convey our emotions. In Abed, we see just an extreme version of the ways in which many of us use pop culture to define our personalities.

But we can take heart from Abed’s example that our deep connection to fictional characters doesn’t necessarily mean we’re dissociating from reality. As media psychologist Karen Dill-Shackleford told New York Magazine, the one-sided parasocial relationship is actually “deeply social”: we empathize with these imaginary creations, but we’re also relating them back to the very real stories of ourselves—a back-and-forth in which we, quote, “explore our own identities, our own understandings of our relationships, our values, what we think is meaningful in life.” In Abed, we see a depiction of the parasocial relationship that reassures us it can be a healthy means of personal growth.

Abed: “I see your value now. It’s a callback to when we met first season.” -Community 5x1

Abed might be made-up, but that doesn’t make his story any less true.