IMAGE: Community (Sony/NBC)
At the end of last year I wrote about the upcoming, as-yet unseen season four of Community with a kind of mournful hope (here). The mystifying firing of creator, showrunner, and guiding auteur Dan Harmon was looming large over the production, and fractious behind the scenes conflict with the notoriously irascible Chevy Chase had put the production under a cloud. However, while things seemed irredeemably grim, the series had developed a tradition of repeatedly proving itself capable of exceeding dire expectations time and again.
It was a show that lived under the perpetual shadow of cancellation and reduced budgets, but each week fought on bravely, continuing to tackle daunting narrative conceits that have bewildered multimillion-dollar films. It had, after all, managed to repeatedly legitimise seemingly impossible shifts in theme and genre and tone: from jumps into clay animation, to exploring alternate dimensions through the delivery of a pizza; from making a pitch-perfect Ken Burns documentary around an intractable pillow-fort conflict, to building the gravity of a Law and Order murder case around a sabotaged yam. A tenacious, ingenious mockingbird, Community had masterfully weathered countless storms, continuing to offer television’s most consistently rewarding and rich examination of a group of beautifully broken characters who realised they needed each other to survive.
And so, having now watched season four (in which new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port faced the program’s most daunting prospect: continuing on without the voice that has defined and guided every moment of its brief span) I’d like to look back upon this final, truncated season and explore how these episodes fit into the larger structure of a show that I have spent the last few years dearly, deeply, and almost irrationally, loving.
And sadly, the most revealing way to start is by flashing forward to the end…
We ended on a dream. With the prospect of the show never returning for a season five, the show decided to end on an episode that took place primarily in the confines of dream, localised in the mind of the central protagonist.
Frequently considered one of the laziest, most undercooked scriptwriting conventions in television, ‘It was all a dream…’ has become a cliché for hackneyed narrative twists. From the writers of Dallas retroactively abolishing a year’s worth of sticky narrative, to MacGyver travelling to King Arthur’s court, to Rosanne throwing the whole reality of her show under the metatextual bus for a trite farewell, while there are, of course, exceptions*, too often ‘It was all a dream…’ exists as a rote means of granting writers free license to indulge their fancies with the logistical and consequential conventions of narrative abandoned. Romances can suddenly blossom between characters without the sacrifice of their sexual chemistry back in the ‘real’ world; central players can die while being free to over-emote again once the dreamer awakes; irrational tales can be played out with no need to clean up the resulting mess; the dream episode asks its viewers to detach themselves from their investment in the logic of the fiction, and to follow the writer on an excursion into the inconsequential vagaries of ‘What if…’
Which in this instance, given the significance of the day and episode in question – central protagonist Jeff Winger’s graduation from the community college around which the show is centred, and the potential finale of the series – is asking rather a lot. This is the last time that these characters will be depicted relating to each other on an interpersonal level, and we are asked to spend that time lost in the transom of fantasy.
Even more unfortunately, Community’s finale not only relied heavily upon the whimsy of its absurd premise – alternate versions of the Greendale gang are imagined crossing over into the real world to prevent Jeff from abandoning his original dickish, self-involvement – it is also designed to be a half hour of uninterrupted pandering fan-service, with every second line operating as obscure call-back to gags and subplots and asides from the first three years of the show. From Abed’s obsession with The Cape, to the fake-Dean, to the Starburns memorial, to paintball, to the words ‘Six Seasons and a Movie’ scrawled on a background blackboard. The show was so busy recalling all that it was, literally losing itself down a fantasy of recollection, that it forgot to ground itself in the interactions of these characters – the glue that has defined the show from the beginning.
In the first episode of this last season, ‘History 101’, the writers made a big point of how the show was going to ‘change’. It was the primary thesis of the episode, and voiced to be the guiding principle of the season – a mission statement that literally declared the show was going to grow and evolve in new and exciting ways. Abed even leaned into the show’s fourth wall until the supports groaned and gave a speech about it:
‘I was trying to hang on to this moment because I was so afraid of the future. Then I realised: all of this was once the future. And it was completely different from all I’d known before. And it was all happening so fast. But in the end – or in the now, I guess – it turned out great.’
The show promised – both to characters and audience – that even though the past was great, even though the show would necessarily be different without Dan Harmon at the helm, good things can come from change, and emotionally, ideologically and textually, the show had to move on to new great things and find its own fresh groove.
And yet how did they use the season to build up this promise of a new bold vision for the show? By spending every episode referencing what once was: the darkest timeline; the air conditioner school; a Dr. Spacetime convention; the Dean’s wardrobe obsessions… on and on and on.
And seemingly every time they tried to expand upon the fertile but unexplored ground Harmon left tilled they underplayed the possibilities there, too… We met Jeff’s dad – in a plot that felt like a B-story afterthought. We had Britta and Troy get together – and proceeded to forget about their relationship for the whole season, until it was expedient to try and milk the breakup as a profound, emotional trial. We actually remembered that Pierce now has a half-brother with whom he might cultivate a newfound familial relationship – and had him appear for only ten seconds one time, never to be spoken of again. And we’ll still have Leonard. And ‘Pop-Pop’ Magnitude. And Other Annie. And Fat Neil. They won’t do much, or contribute anything. But they’ll be there because… well, whatever. Why not, right?
Indeed, looking back on this season, the only new, ongoing concept I can point to that these episodes contributed to the canon was ‘Changnesia’, a concept and execution that has made me long to erase the whole character of Chang from the show. …That’s right. They turned me against the sublime lunacy of Ken Jeong because the way his arc was handled was riddled with inconsistency and wasted potential. Beyond immediately blowing the reveal that he was faking his memory loss the whole time, truly: where did his entire storyline go? His scheme to help the villainous Dean of City College just cut off midway through, no mention at all of how it apparently resolved, or where it was supposed to be going.
Perhaps the only real highlight of the season was the episode penned by Jim Rash (Dean Pelton), ‘Basic Human Anatomy’, a riff on Freaky Friday, in which Abed and Troy pretended to switch bodies so that Troy could avoid the uncomfortable duty of telling Britta that their relationship was over. On the plus side (unlike every other episode this season) Community superficially sounded like itself again – the characters (with the rather unnerving exception of Britta) felt reinvigorated, and had dialogue that snapped and crackled with energy; there was a lovely absurdism rumbling away in the background of Greendale once more (the Dean channelling Jeff’s personality; the conclave of murder-mystery janitors; even the return of the anti-Die Hard waiter (damn that guy!); and there was a depth and intelligence in the spine of this script.
Having Jeff and Britta tandem unlocking the code of Troy and Abed’s regressive fantasy, talking to one character while actually tapping into the fears of the other – was admirably ingenious, and went a long way to justifying the leap asked of the premise. Jeff’s final advice to Troy – that trying and failing is still an act of bravery – was a welcome nod to the emotional gravitas that this show once made look so effortless. It was an episode the was worthy to stand beside those written under the guidance of Harmon (and I can offer no higher praise, given the context).
However, this welcome return to a more polished script and dialogue could not disguise the extreme logical and thematic jumps that the narrative asked of its characters and audience in order to try and achieve its intended emotional denouement. Trying to manufacture strain in a peripheral romance Z-plot (even to the point of bending space-time: they were dating for a year?), and leaving Britta to be resignedly cypher-dumped by Abed were jumps that completely disrupted the suspension of disbelief, and rather undermined her character.
Rash’s script did try to paper over this rift in Britta’s behaviour by having her firstly, numb with surprise, and secondly, coming to understand that she had ‘always’ been aware that what drew her to Troy – his innocence and immaturity – was what would ultimately doom their relationship (and to her immense credit I feel Gillian Jacobs tried to sell it that way in her delivery). But ultimately this is meeting the show way more than half way, because the framework for such a realisation was not established at all, merely regurgitated in a glut of exposition. Simply put: the rest of the season didn’t support this premise enough for it to work. It was a lively, imaginative script, but the story it tried to tell had not been nurtured, or really even established enough by the season-running plot to land as it should.
Ultimately, though, the episode that I found really weirdly irked me the most was the penultimate episode, ‘Heroic Origins’. Effectively ‘part one’ of the season finale’s ‘Greatest-Hits’-remember-when-athon, the audience was invited to explore how each of the characters unknowingly influenced one anothers’ lives before they had even met, once again using this as a thin pretext to call-back on all the gags that couldn’t be crammed into the finale…
Remember Troy’s keg-flip? Remember how Annie freaked out and ran through a glass door? Remember how the Dean once said ‘I hope this doesn’t awaken something in me…’ Yes? You remember it all clearly and don’t need to be reminded in such a shameless way? Well too bad, because here you get to see it all. Even to the inanity of discovering where Magnitude got his catchphrase, or where Annie’s Boobs the monkey originally came from.
The episode was, as it declared itself to be, an ‘Origins’ story, an excuse to flash back on everyone in the year before they decided to come to Greendale – comical dental-gear, letter jackets, Obama t-shirts and all. And wouldn’t you know it, the story reveals that each of these characters all unknowingly influenced each others’ existence in profound, life-altering ways: Jeff’s life choices impacted upon Britta; Shirley was an influence on Abed; Annie made a difference to Troy; Pierce was… apparently already being written out of the show. Round and round in a neat ouroboros.
Indeed, the episode eventually declares that their friendship was inevitable, that they were all bound together by some unknowable causal web, an interdependence from which they could not disentangle themselves, even if they tried…
Except you know what? To hell with that.
To hell with suggesting that these seven misfits were always bound to be thrust together no matter what – that they have no free will, and that the universe knew what was best for them, bringing them together no matter how hard they fought against it.
For its first three years of life, the most precious, spectacular thing about Community (for me, anyway) was the revelation that no, these people did not, and do not, have to be friends. Nothing is forcing them. The universe isn’t holding a gun to their heads. At any moment, any one of them could get up from that table, walk out the door, and never come back. Indeed, that premise – that realisation that what they have is transitory; that it needs to be cherished and protected – has been the driving force of a good number of episodes in which it truly did seem that the group might implode: that Pierce was leaving; that Jeff had screwed them all over; that Abed might just be too alien to be accepted…
And what was always most important about that concept, what was reiterated again and again in every narrative that mattered, was that their friendship was based upon a choice: a profound, beautiful, messy, and scary choice.
They agree to try.
They choose to fight for something impossible and special; to believe that there is something worthwhile in struggling to remain friends, even in spite of all their disparate life experiences, even in the face of all their internal squabbles, their fears of exposure and rejection. They agree to do the difficult, complicated thing, and keep coming back to that table; to keep sitting down in that shared space and allowing themselves to be open with each other.
To become a community.
…But no. ‘Too bad; it was fate’ works too, right? Really captures the poetry of it all.
And now, after fighting so impossibly long to stay on the air, it’s over. (Probably.) And we got a season that by any other program’s standard would be solid, but by this one’s heritage was anodyne. There was one standout episode (I would have loved to see a Rash script in an earlier season), but the rest of the season, despite spruiking change, regressed into trading on nostalgia with nothing new to say.
So, instead of celebrating what was most unique and central to the show, the showrunners this year chose to overload the episodes with rehashed reminiscence. We sure were great once, they seem to be saying. Remember that joke we said that one time? Remember how we laughed? But in spending all that time looking in the rear view mirror they forgot where and why they were driving the car in the first place.
How such a majestic, quirky, loveable show could be turned into something so conventional (not bad, I should add, just bland), has, as this rant no doubt makes clear, made me quite sad. Despite the exceptional work of its extraordinary actors (with the possible exception of Chase, who really did seem to be phoning it in this year) and the devotion of its talented staff, I guess ultimately I will have to accept that, for me at least, Community ended in season three.
While there were moments that fleetingly reignited the spark of its greatness, by abandoning its most precious truth for a needless self-referential illusion, this final season revealed itself to be just well-produced fan-fiction that has perhaps overstayed its welcome; the metatexual fever dream of a dying series watching its own life flash before its eyes.
IMAGE: Community (Sony/NBC)
* As a random aside, I would gladly offer Batman The Animated Series’ ‘Over the Edge’, and Angel’s ‘Awakening’ as fine examples of how one can use a dream to great effect.