One of my favorite TV shows of recent years is the perennially troubled Community. For those that may not watch, it’s a show set in Greendale Community College, which hosts a variety of wacky rotating characters, as well as a relatively stable set of around 6-8 characters that appear in nearly every episode.
It’s easy to see why the show would be off-putting. It’s a bit ridiculous. Plots have included a zombie invasion, the school being taken over, a cult-like air conditioner repair school, and (on more than one occasion) enough paintballs to supply a literal small army. However, the very thing that makes the show off-putting it also what gives it its charm. Watching Community on Thursday nights feels a lot like sitting down to watch cartoons on Saturday morning felt growing up, especially shows like Recess and The Weekenders, but also campier cartoons, such as Transformers and G.I. Joe. You know you are going to see something somewhat realistic, but blown so out of proportion that it becomes ridiculous. At more than point in this season, the ridiculous proportions become the object of the show’s meta-humor, as when Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash) explains after the school tested an app that allowed them to rate people, which created a futuristic society based on a caste system, “I think we’re all pretty embarrassed after what happened this weekend and agree never to speak of it again.”
It’s a show that doesn’t take itself seriously, which delights its core fans and frustrates those that might otherwise enjoy the main characters and their relationships. Chevy Chase, the biggest star attached to the show, didn’t feel like he was in on the joke. Chase played Pierce Hawthorn, billionaire heir to a moist toilet company and bigot. Chase didn’t find Pierce funny, which led to conflict with the show’s creator, Dan Harmon. Due to an indiscretion on Harmon’s part, playing a private message from Chase to a public audience, Harmon was canned from the show to appease Chase at the end of the 3rd season.
The 4th season is what the show might call a darkest timeline. It was funny, but Harmon’s devotion to the show’s divisive tone was gone and the story line became mainstream. The quirks that devout fans loved were markedly absent, but those that it now might appeal to had long ago written the show off. Despite Harmon’s absence, Chase left the show as did fan favorite Donald Glover, who I believe left because writers not named Dan Harmon didn’t know how to write for his charmingly innocent man-child like character. The main conflict of the season was a relationship with Troy (Glover) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs), which did nothing interesting with either character, and graduation. The fear of leaving Greendale was as real as to the characters as it was the fans.
However, the show was picked up again and Dan Harmon was too. With Chase gone and only one other show retuning on Thursday, NBC decided they still wanted more Community. Fortunately, NBC picked up some even worse new shows and when they failed, Community got its chance to shine. The show immediately began apologizing for the last season and delivered some episodes that lived up to the first three seasons. The former students return as the “Save Greendale” committee, as determined to save the college as the actors and writers were to save the show.
The entire season had a meta-narrative of saving the show running through it. The characters actions the previous season were attributed to a gas leak in the university in the first episode of this season. The show was able to say goodbye to Pierce, who in many ways was a source of enmity from within the study group, just as Chase was in the show and gave a fond farewell to Glover’s Troy Barnes, who might be back next season (please Donald!).
The real battle for the show’s soul came in the season’s two part series finale. The group tasked with saving Greendale has completed their job, but find that they have made Greendale profitable and that the city of Greendale intends to sell the community college to Subway (yes, the restaurant).
In saving Greendale, they find they have doomed it. The study group is torn. Two members of the group, Jeff (Joel McHale) and Britta have decided that it’s time to move on from Greendale and get married. Meanwhile, Abed (Dany Pudi), Annie (Alison Brie), and Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) try to save the college through any means necessary, resulting in a Goonies-like treasure hunt.
What’s really at stake here if again, how the fourth season relates the rest of Community. Abed is thirsty for some sort of story to break out after everything seems to be resolved. Jeff tells Abed to let there be no story, exclaiming, “This is the most boring thing that’s happened here since Troy dated Britta,” a callback to a main story in the fourth season. However, this also highlights the current “love” between Jeff and Britta. Jeff has taken Troy’s place, igniting a doomed relationship with Britta. This is not just a callback to the fourth season, but also calls to mind more boring sitcom story lines.
Those in Greendale were faced with a choice. They could adopt boring lives or try to save the college. This is the same conundrum that faced the writers of the fourth season. They could either make the show a more standard sitcom, which might bore its core audience, but might also help save the show. Of course, by saving the show, they would also be selling it out, just what happened to Greendale.
Or, as this season did, they could attempt to save the show by going deeper into the show itself. The treasure that saved Greendale was deep within the school, hidden away with the creator of Greendale, Russel Borchert (Chris Elliot). The answer to saving the show wasn’t in appealing to a broader audience, but in going into what fans of Community love about Community and giving the reins back to its creator, just as having the deranged computer scientist founder of Greendale take the reins of the college prevented Greendale’s sale to Subway.
Of course, as the group discovered in the depths of Greendale, they had to bring back the original creator of the college in order to save it. This creator has been living in the basement with his love, a computer (did I mention that the show could be off-putting?), since the late 1970s. He’s unkempt, possibly crazy, difficult to understand, possibly a genius, and out of touch with pop culture. When they bring the founder back up to the surface, Subway doesn’t want to work with him and backs out of the sale.
At this point, Community has given up on subtle allegory. The only way to save the show was to bring back its irritable, divisive, potentially genius creator, Dan Harmon. Community spent what might be its last two episodes (we’ll have to “see what fails,” as the end tag suggests) telling NBC, “I told you so,” and rejoicing in the fact that the show has, somehow, lasted five seasons.
It’s a masterfully told and wonderfully entertaining lesson in writing meta-humor. The plot is bizarre enough to stand on its own, but is a wonderful, and satisfying, potential farewell to a loyal fan base that watched the show on different nights, at different times, and no matter when it premiered from its first episode, until the world is potentially destroyed by a giant asteroid.
Because that’s canon.