Note: if you’re watching on Roku, Community is mislabeled as New Year’s Day.
Fear Itself is an anthology horror series that aired on NBC in 2008. It came out of the Showtime Masters of Horror series after Showtime decided not to fund a third season. Lionsgate stepped in with the budget and the series found a new home on network TV. Each hour long episode is an original horror story directed by a famous or emerging horror director in whatever style they choose to work in.
Bobby and Tracy decide they’re going to move into an idealistic gated community called The Commons. It seems like a dream. These people support each other in everything. This includes knowing everything about everyone else and maintaining justice through the support of the community. There are consequences for breaking the social contract that must be dealt with in public. This includes a young couple’s decision on when to have a child.
Community is directed by Mary Harron. She is a wonderful independent filmmaker whose focus is human psychology regardless of genre. Her work is driven by a deep exploration of individual characters and how they fit into society. Her best known film is American Psycho, which is more than enough to justify her inclusion among the masters of horror. I recommend checking out all her feature film work, especially I Shot Andy Warhol and The Notorious Bettie Page.
This leads us to a point of discussion about this entire franchise I’ve been waiting for since I started this series. Why did it take three seasons of a TV show dedicated to celebrating the work of great horror filmmakers to have a woman direct an episode? Why is there only one episode out of 36 directed by a woman?
There are so many issues at play in this discussion that go beyond the scope of the series that reflect on the horror genre. The genre is still largely a boys club and women and gender nonconforming directors tend to not easily get a second chance at success regardless of the performance of their first film. Still, plenty of male directors featured on this series gained attention for one film and were given the opportunity to direct an episode of Masters of Horror or Fear Itself.
Other than George A. Romero having to pass on that season one zombie episode for scheduling conflicts, we don’t know who else was reached out to and couldn’t participate in the series. We don’t know if they tried to get directors like Mary Lambert, Lynne Ramsay, Katherine Bigelow, Angela Bettis, Claire Denis, Marina de Van, or countless others with similar track records to the male directors featured on the series. It just feels like an odd oversight for a series that booked such a great cross section of new and established directors from around the world.
Community is the kind of episode that showcases how Fear Itself could have succeeded as a network TV show. This is a disturbing and highly psychological horror story that doesn’t need to rely on gore or shock value to deliver scares. The one moment with visible gore is carefully placed, shocking, and not lingered on in place of actual substance. This is a clear horror story of societal overreach told with great style.
Brandon Routh and Shiri Appleby lead a wonderful ensemble cast as Bobby and Tracy. The couple do the heavy lifting of watching their dream crumble in front of their eyes as the true nature of The Commons reveals itself. The rest of the cast has to balance that image of the dream community with the cruelty and fear that secretly drives daily life in the community. It’s a very nuanced exploration of performative roles in civil society and it’s scary.
Mary Harron’s Community is an episode unlike any other in the Masters of Horror/Fear Itself series. No other episode has society as the villain. While there are a few episodes with a larger cast, none have so many clearly defined characters. The shifts in tone and style create a subtle build of tension that eventually reaches a tipping point of suspense that you can do nothing to stop from escalating further.
content warning: gore, violence against women
Up next: S1E08 “Skin and Bones” from director Larry Fessenden.