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Friday, April 18th, 2014

Bearing Down on 'Community’s Triumphant, Challenging Fifth Season

Community’s return this year was one of the most anticipated comedy events of the season. The theme of redemption (always a deep part of the show) seemed especially prevalent, as this season had the tall task of establishing why this show still needs to exist. That it deserves to return after a lackluster (by previous standards) fourth season, that Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna returning as showrunners would be able to steer the show in the right direction, and that a Pierce and Troy-less Community wouldn’t feel like an imitation of itself; that this wasn’t a Scrubs season 9 sort of situation. Not only did the show stand up to all of these challenges, but it also managed to become even more confident and daring in the places it chose to go, giving it arguably its most ambitious, consistent season to date and the perfect "return" we could have asked for.

While much of this season (and the series as a whole) has been about maturing and moving on, one of the smartest things the fifth season does is also embed the topic of Harmon’s return into the show’s DNA in an organic way that largely provides the first half of the season with the tonal grounding that the show needed after such a confused previous year. Harmon’s return is subtly reflected through each character’s reactions and relationships. To lose your creator (or God, or lover) is traumatic, and to then have them come back to you is a complicated thing to try and process, for them and for us.

Dan Harmon’s other series Rick and Morty has a moment in one of its episodes where there is a television channel (albeit from an alternate reality) with us on it, and not unlike that idea here, we too are students of Greendale; afraid and excited about what it means to get back something we have already mourned. It’s remarkable that the first few episodes of the season don’t fumble more as they try to process this feeling. The only reason it even attempts such a radical thing is because Community understands that every show we let into our homes becomes a part of our family (or study group), like a living entity that can change us. Harmon is Greendale, we are the Save Greendale committee, and each member of the committee represents our emotions, and is calling us to come together and succeed through this year. We have returned to a place where we know we are loved. This Mk-II study room table isn’t just a table; it’s a time machine.

The idea of stasis vs. change is also more prevalent in this season than any other. It’s a fundamental concept of sitcoms in general, but narrowed down, do we want the old Community back, or a new Community? And this is by definition a very new version of Community. Perhaps the largest initial obstacle this year was figuring out how to jump back into this world after everything that had changed, and re-acclimating everyone to these characters and Greendale as a whole. Harmon and McKenna being back on board continued to prove its worth with their approach to the fifth season’s premiere, which was basically to treat it like it was a pilot for an entirely new show that could be understood independently of Community if you’d never seen the show before. While the machinations behind this shift may have not pleased all of the audience (Jeff being teacher for instance is something that’s barely had an impact on the show), it was a necessary thing to do.

Creatively, Harmon and crew were approaching the writing process differently too, breaking stories for the entire season first before writing, as opposed to breaking and writing concurrently. At the same time, the show’s writers’ room was turning into somewhat of a murderers’ row of talent that Harmon and McKenna knew exactly what to do with, with many of McKenna’s previous writing staff from American Dad!, many faces from Rick and Morty’s crew, and writers from Key & Peele migrating over to staff the new season. Everyone was working at peak conditions to churn out the best stories possible, and you could feel a new sense of urgency as Harmon figured out how to navigate through a thirteen-episode season for the first time, and make each of these episodes count in a way they haven’t before.

While Community is often elevated above the rest of its ilk due to its Abed-level attention to themes and the nature of television, none of that matters if it isn’t funny. And this season is very funny. At times, verging on the funniest it’s ever been (which may seem like a bold thing to say, but this is also the season that provided us with the Dean’s pay day rap and Jeff’s standup routine about 2s). One of the largest complaints of the “gas leak” season was that the show often felt like a parody of itself, and that jokes stemmed from an overreliance on callbacks and the characters feeling too broad and unfocused. The callbacks have returned to being intelligent first and gratuitous second, if at all (calling back to Britta’s iPod Nano from season one’s "Art of Discourse" and the Dean’s subtle wedding ring from the pilot are two of many great examples), and the cast has never been more articulated and defined.

It was of little concern that Community’s signature wit and niche-appeasing nature would be back, but with such large changes to the cast, people had a right to be skeptical of certain dynamics being off. Everyone is performing with a reinvigorated energy that only does favors to the already strong material (Shirley is still being slighted, but the show at least is developing a sense of humor about it). Added to the cast is a much welcome increased presence by Professor Duncan, and Professor Buzz Hickey (with Jonathan Banks doing wonderful, varied work in the role), more or less filling in the hole left by Pierce. Hickey is integrated beautifully into the Save Greendale committee by seemingly being paired up with a different cast member each week, rotating around and giving him a chance to mesh with everyone individually to therefore better seamlessly fit with the cast as a whole. Every cast member brings out a different side of Hickey, and it’s shocking how over the course of half a season not only how fleshed out he’s become, but also how aptly he’s helped fill the absence felt from both Pierce and Troy leaving.

While discussing the topic, Troy’s departure definitely hits hard and "Geothermal Escapism" is wise to use a concept episode that forces Greendale into a post-apocalyptic scenario as its framing device, as to the cast, and to us, Troy leaving is "literally" the end of the world. But beyond the merits of this individual episode, the show has Troy’s departure lingering and rippling even episodes later. Small moments like Abed looking at Troy’s empty chair silently, or storming the halls of Greendale in Kickpuncher garb by his lonesome (an image which is suddenly a lot more pathetic without a partner) keep Troy’s presence very much alive in the proper way.

Britta stands out as this season’s overall MVP and has a wealth of already-classic moments (available as a GIF near you!), but Abed’s been given the most interesting journey as a result of Troy leaving. The majority of Abed’s plots this season have been stories that would have been impossible to do if Troy were still around. Positioning Abed in these new roles has pushed his character in exciting ways that are giving him some of the most depth we’ve ever witnessed in the character. Watching his relationships with both Annie and Rachel (one of the few things that survived the gas leak) slowly and naturally grow have been a highlight, but there are definite moments throughout the year where Abed seems downright pissed off too ("Cooperative Polygraphy" in particular). Taking him to a bitter, somewhat selfish position feels like a realistic choice for the character. He’s having a hard time with the change, and whether he’s telling you or not, it’s all over his body language.

It doesn’t seem like there’s been much debate over whether Community’s humor is in need of repair, and while there may have been too many concept episodes for some, the show also tapped into moments of intense emotional rawness that have matched and even surpassed those that set the bar in earlier season episodes like "Mixology Certification" and "Critical Film Studies." For instance, Abed and Hickey’s revealing scene in "Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality" as the former has been handcuffed by the latter for wrecking his duck drawings, is an amazingly honest scene for both characters that provide the reasons for why we return to this show. Hickey screams at Abed that he watched his third wife die while he made blanket forts, as Abed shoots back that Hickey’s comics are "monuments of joylessness" and that he’s "furious at people for being creative because you want to be able to create." It’s an incredibly heavy scene, let alone for a sitcom.

Not scaling back on the ambition this year (or the guest stars, and managing to fit in over twenty notables in a natural way deserves praise on its own), the season has explored a number of weirder stories like the frenetic absurdity within "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" or the dystopian future social commentary played with in "App Development and Condiments." The latter being an incredibly prescient piece of television exploring the idea of "man vs. system" and how having such an instantaneous and specific way to criticize others (MeowMeowBeenz) will cause individuals to stop making decisions out of fear and these rigid systems begin to set in. If you listened to what every online comment about how something could be better, you’d never get anything done.

There’s also been a number of "sequels" to many earlier season episodes (a technique that Parks and Recreation has been employing to some degree this season too, but to more diminishing returns) with a real sense of a reinvigorated Community this year that’s almost saying, "Take that!" to its greatest hits. "Oh you liked season two? I’ll show you season two. You liked 'Dungeons and Dragons?' Well then check out this." The show follows up "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" with "Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," "G.I. Jeff" is essentially Jeff’s equivalent to "Abed’s Uncomfortable Christmas" (even down to them both being the only episodes penned by Dino Stamatopoulos), and one of the series all-time best episodes "Cooperative Calligraphy" receives its spiritual successor with the bottle episode "Cooperative Polygraphy," a more than fitting goodbye episode to Pierce Hawthorne that many considered not only to be one of the best episodes of the season, but the series as a whole.

It’s a shame to think about that with the laser focus that Harmon and crew have had with these thirteen episodes, what could have been if they had a full season to play around with. There likely wouldn’t be such an uneven balance between concept episodes and "normal" episodes, and certain developments like Jeff being a teacher at Greendale, or the absolutely perfect "Chang is a ghost" storyline hopefully would have gotten more time. But in spite of the crunched order, the show still managed to fit in fulfilling Easter eggs such as what Troy has been up to after leaving ("Levar Burton and non-celebrity companion captured by pirates in the Gulf of Mexico," if you believe the news) and hilarious set pieces like Abed’s Nicolas Cage breakdown, Annie and Abed’s "Pile of Bullets" battle, and the too perfect trailer for "Koogler."

All of this culminates in the crazy ambitious, even by Community standards, finale, whose story (at least in its first part, "Basic Story"), is that there literally is no story. An insurance appraiser is coming to look at Greendale.

That’s it.

Granted, larger moves are happening and gears are turning (particularly with Abed), but on the surface level, that’s it. And what’s beautiful about this lack of story occupying what is typically one of the series’ busiest episodes, is that it’s exactly because of the busyness and what these characters have gone through that got them to this point. By helping and mending Greendale through the various episodes of the season, they’ve effectively killed their show. There’s in fact so little going on that the camera must resort to following strangers doing nearly nothing.

It’s the sort of story that challenges the nature of sitcoms in general and again forces the audience to ask the question of what do they want from a sitcom, stasis or change? It’s no coincidence that Harmon’s seven-step story circle is visually hidden several times throughout the season. But there’s a real feeling of Greendale functioning as a sitcom pseudo-purgatory. Dante isn’t mentioned in the finale for nothing, and the amusing tag "A Show Set In A Community College" that sits under the Community logo in the animated "G.I. Jeff" episode can read a lot more like a condemnation than a joke.

This finale forces the question that if these characters continue to change and mature, or, by proxy, if Greendale fundamentally changes to something that is so un-Greendale, then the show’s over. The change has been pushed so far that the result is stasis, with all of this saying some tremendous things about the nature of storytelling at the same time. What’s so fascinating here though is that they force a story. Abed seemingly wills hidden buried treasure into existence and saves the worst from happening. He specifically talks about how this would be the type of story they would have to force, but that it’s fallen conveniently into their laps this time. However, it stands much more to reason that it has been forced. Buried treasure is mentioned, and by the end of the episode its equivalency has been found. It’s almost dream logic. Perhaps because this show is so sitcom-savvy it has the ability to transcend past this into something more self-aware. In the second half of the finale, when the "story" finally does kick in, it’s almost a parody of finales. Arrested Development experimented with this an awful lot, particularly in the final days of its (then) final season, but never as deep as Community is going here. They blow up the model, and then force the pieces to keep moving. Because we do need this show to exist. We need it to exist in order to show us things about sitcoms and change that we didn't know we even wanted. We want stasis in shows to help us in an ever chang-ing world. This show isn’t just like other sitcoms; it’s not just some hour-long episode of The Office.

In "Analysis of Cork-Based Networking" Annie and Hickey have the desire to change things for the better, but in the end they must compromise through favors to make that change happen; Sure, it’s okay to have a nice dance, but it’s even more enjoyable to go crazy and riot. Here, Community is the dance, Harmon is the Save Greendale committee, and we are the Greendale population waiting for the slightest thing to go wrong so we can freak the hell out and enjoy every second of it. Harmon, someone frequently obsessed with telling stories about "man vs. system" is the perfect person to be experimenting with this challenging approach to a sitcom.

But since the Save Greendale committee (and Harmon) have returned to Greendale, they offer the audience a place that we want to go back to. But then, in a quest to create a true utopia and "save Greendale," all is lost. This is because we want to have conflict in our lives.

Human nature is conflict.

Television is conflict.

We work to improve our lives, but without conflict we grow bored. The two riots that break out this season on the show (one over minuses, the other over a bear dance) begin with Garrett yelling a lone fact, and then all of Greendale erupting into madness because the constant wacky adventures have created a micro-society with a hair trigger for drama (HIGH on our OWN drama!?!). This all follows the same basic whirlwind process of set-up/heightened conflict/immediate resolution that Professor Hickey’s Jim the Duck comics also respect. Panel 1 has everyone learning that minuses are fake; Panel 2 has a riot erupting; Panel 3 "What the hell?" as the dust settles…

When the events of the finale’s second half are resolved and Subway has eliminated themselves as the obstacle, it’s absolutely intentional that we have a character saying "Subway doesn’t do conflict." Subway doesn’t, but Greendale does, and after all of this dialogue the show is engaging with us about the basics of conflict and story and what is needed to succeed; when the insurance appraiser tells everyone that "This property has value," you can’t help but see it echoing reality where Community too suddenly has renewed worth. Abed assures the audience that "We’ll definitely be back next year," and in the midst of NBC’s slaughtered and struggling comedy lineup (and the tag at the end of the finale even pokes fun at this), it seems likely to survive and prove that it has merit, in spite of everything else ("NBC: Depends on what fails!"). On the other hand, you also have someone saying that Greendale "is still unmarketable. And it is still on the permanent chopping block of anyone who has any say in its future," which is certainly true of Community’s run as well. There’s still that asteroid looming over everything, threatening to destroy humanity.

When Abed comforts Annie in the finale, a scene that is much more plausible now after the bonding they’ve experienced over the season, she actually brings up the idea of which Greendale they’re going to end up saving, into the conversation. Abed talks about people’s need to force change and "spin-off" and "develop" into new entities when they feel that things are coming to a close, because that’s what television and people do. When Abed tells her, "This show. It isn't just their show. This is our show. And it's not over," he’s also talking to the audience, and whether Community returns for its sixth season (and inevitable movie) doesn’t even matter anymore (although it would be nice). Nor does it if you view it as the same old Community or something new and different, because it’s still the most ambitious, intelligent, challenging sitcom of all time. Only now Harmon has made all of this mean something again. He’s restored its value. He’s saved Greendale.

Now let’s just wait for the next riot for the right moment to celebrate.

 

Daniel Kurland is a writer and comedian out of Brooklyn, New York.

Tags:

community, nbc, reviews, tv