It was just revealed (to the surprise of many) that Community would be renewed for a 5th season. For me this news was a huge disappointment After creator and show runner Dan Harmon left at the end of Season 3, Community has become a watered down version of a once great half hour of television. Seasons 1 – 3 of Community were not always perfect but they were consistently ambitious, wildly imaginative and most importantly, they had heart.
As demonstrated in Season 4, without heart Community is a half hour of hollow silliness. Character relationships that had been intricately developed over three seasons are played broadly for laughs in Season 4. The most obvious example is how Troy and Abed’s beautiful and nuanced friendship is pillaged for easy punchlines. Just look at their costume choices as Calvin and Hobbs in the Halloween episode. Troy and Abed would never choose these costumes; Troy would never be caught dead in a stuffed tiger outfit. The costumes were chosen for an easy laugh. They were chosen so the study group could make fun of them for wearing a “couple’s costume”. This season, most of Troy and Abed’s interactions involve gags like this, searching for laughs by suggesting they are gay in shudder inducing wink-wink-nudge-nudge sorts of ways. Besides the obvious problem of turning sexual orientation into a gag, Season 4 seems to be saying that two men are incapable of having a deep and loving friendship. Did the writers not watch the first three seasons?? I could go on and on comparing pre and post Harmon Community, but I think the best comparisons can be found in the Season 3 and Season 4 finales.
For all intents and purposes Season 4 of Community was thought to be the show’s last. This assumption is obvious in the final episode of the season which plays out like a series finale. Jeff is graduating from Greendale Community College bringing to a close his character’s major arc of the series. The episode begins in the law office of his former partner who is all but cramming a fancy partnership (complete with “a corner office and three secretaries”) down his throat. Jeff’s major conflict is whether or not to abandon the values he has spent the last three years building at Greendale to become a scummy lawyer or to remain true to his friendships with the study group and to what he has learned from them. This conflict plays out in an elaborate daydream sequence in Jeff’s subconscious. This daydream is the start of the many problems with the season finale. By having the bulk of the episode take place inside Jeff’s head, the other characters are his own creations and have no life of their own outside what Jeff conjures up in his mind. The characters he creates are even more hollow and stereotyped than they have been all season. I’d like to pause briefly here to mention how incredibly talented the actors on the show are. Joel McHale, Alison Brie, Yvette Nichole Brown, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi and Gillian Jacobs work miracles with what the have been given this season, often giving their characters subtlety and nuance that is clearly not in the writing. Going back to Jeff’s daydream: Jeff imagines that the study group has evil counterparts living in the darkest timeline who want him to take the scummy lawyer job and leave the study group forever. What follows plays out like a flashback episode in that the more popular elements from all four seasons are crammed into the finale. A mishmash of paintball guns, the Doppledeaner, evil-Chang, The Darkest Timeline and more are thrown at us to help convey Jeff’s fear of graduation. While in previous seasons these elements were wonderfully whacky storytelling devices, here, with no context, we are left with a bunch of silliness for the sake of silliness. There is no heart to bind everything together. This lack of heart is immediately clear when, post daydream, Jeff decides to graduate and the show attempts to move us with his graduation speech. When he addresses the study group with, “What you have done for me is indescribable and my love for you is immeasurable [. . .] As long as you guys are with me, I have everything I need to graduate,” the tears falling down everyone’s faces seem like a cheat. Season 4 has failed to demonstrate the group’s love for each other and the entire speech feels tacked on and manipulative.
The finale of Season 3 is the way I choose to believe the series ends. It is Dan Harmon’s final episode and a perfect sendoff to him and the characters he created. Where Season 4 used gags and silliness to create story, the first three seasons rely on the six lead characters and the silliness springs from their wonderfully idiosyncratic interactions. The Season 3 finale shares many elements with the finale from Season 4. Jeff is facing a similar internal struggle. He must decide whether to defend Shirley in Greendale court or throw the case to guarantee himself a partnership at his old law firm. There is a fantasy element in that Abed creates his alter ego Evil Abed to cope with loss of Troy to the air-conditioning school. The creation of Evil Abed still left room for the other characters to be themselves as Abed was the only character participating in the fantasy. The other members of the study group were able to move through their own arcs with the tools they have been developing throughout the series. In my favorite example, Pierce demonstrates how much he’s learned, not only by dropping the lawsuit against Shirley but when Alan calls Jeff “Gay,” Pierce pipes in with, “Hey don’t use Gay as a derogatory term. Booyah: good person.” Jeff’s closing speech echoes many of the sentiments of his graduation speech but the effect is moving rather than manipulative. It is a tad heavy handed to be sure, as he persuades, “Do something good for someone else and you can change the whole game with one move. Helping only ourselves is bad, helping each other is good.” I was moved. Besides, the series thus far has earned this bit of mushiness and I will take sentimental over hollow any day of the week.
I’ll leave you with the final montage of the episode which makes me teary (and giggle-y) every time. Another thing I love about Community in Seasons 1 – 3 is that it makes fun of television tropes (like cheesy closing montages) but it also effectively pays homage to these tropes by using them effectively. Community (seasons 1 – 3) loves TV as much as we do.