A month ago, one of my favorite episodes of television — ever — was effectively erased.
Community's season two episode "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" is one of the most tightly scripted showcases of the beloved TV show's roller-coaster run of brilliant successes and ambitious failures.
Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is worried that "Fat Neil" (Charley Koontz) — a nerdy classmate with a love for role-playing games — is feeling suicidal, so he invites Neil to partake in a bout of Dungeons & Dragons.
The episode was removed from streaming services last month. Netflix struck first and Hulu followed soon afterward. It was because of the whole blackface thing: 30 Rock, The Golden Girls and Scrubs had episodes removed for the same reason.
Blackface — the practice of non-Black performers wearing crude black makeup — calls back to one of the most incredibly ugly parts of history, where White performers used racial stereotypes to solidify White supremacy in Jim Crow-era America.
But in context, Community isn't minstrel-show blackface. It's closer to Robert Downey Jr.'s blackface method actor in Tropic Thunder — about showing a weirdo so overly committed and self-absorbed to his role that he doesn't understand that his makeup is racist.
Ben Chang (Ken Jeong), the unhinged Chinese-American Spanish teacher, shows up to the D&D game dressed up as a Drow Elf, the evil and, uh, Black race in the Dungeons and Dragons universe.
And immediately, Shirley — played by Black actress Yvette Nicole Brown — calls it out: "So we're just gonna ignore that hate crime, huh?"
The joke isn't that blackface is acceptable. The joke is that it's not — and that Dungeons & Dragons' world was sort of racist itself. And no, the joke doesn't quite work. Yet the archives of Netflix and Hulu are brimming with plenty of TV shows and movies that are filled with racism, sexism and transphobia.
The solution isn't to delete all the awful stuff — it's to grapple with it. Frat guys generally don't show up to Halloween parties in blackface because they saw it on TV; they do it because they don't fathom the offensive history.
So I offer a compromise: Bring back "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," but append a disclaimer like Warner Bros. has with their racist Looney Tunes cartoons. Better yet, record an intro where "Abed," Danny Pudi's TV-obsessed character on Community, delivers a brief explanation on the history of blackface.
It's either that, or elect Chang the governor of Virginia.♦