The End May Not Be Nigh

Community was going to be in a lose-lose situation no matter which way you look at it.

On the one hand, it could try and be the same show we’ve all fallen in love with for the past three year (though, not really – more on that in a bit). If it would try to do that, it would undoubtedly receive flak for trying to ape a stylistic approach that simply cannot be duplicated without Dan Harmon’s unique and twisted mind. The alternative, then, is to try something radically different – at which point it would be criticised for not being “Community”. For the most part, new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port chose to go with the former approach. They have received the appropriate “unreplicate-able” flak, too. Not all of it, though, deserved.

Community fans are a difficult lot, you see. I’m not talking about the casual “catch an episode when its on” crowd, but rather the obsessive, goatee wearing, six-seasons-and-a-movie hashtagging lot. They (or, rather, we) love this show. Probably too much. It doesn’t help that the show is treated as the whipping boy of network sitcoms. In its three seasons it has gone on two undefined hiatuses and been threatened with cancellation after every single. It lost its showrunner and creator in a big, dramatic kerfuffle, and there’s been lots of buzz around the Harmon-Chase feud. The show’s fans love to feel victimized (and just read the headline of any article dealing with the show) by this constant mistreatment. This also leads to a lot of doom-and-gloom attitude towards it. People are all but certain that this season will be the last. This may or may not be true. I’m inclined to believe it will be the last, but I don’t share the sentiments of dark existential dread I’ve read online.

What I’m trying to get at is – the season premiere was good. I laughed. Which, when all is said and done, is the point. Sure, the episode didn’t crack the high echelon of the best Community has to offer (namely – “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “Modern Warfare”). That is not to say that it scraped the bottom of the Greendale barrel. Naturally, with new people taking over, an adjustment period is in order. The majority of the first season wasn’t anything like the show is now. For me, personally, it was only around “Contemporary American Poultry” that everything clicked. That’s only five episodes from the end of the season. There were a few good ones before that episode, but that one showed me just how good the show can get. Unfortunately – the fourth season doesn’t have that much time to get there. We’ve only got 12 more episodes to determine the fate of the show. All the talk of change and senior year and endings in the premiere seem to indicate the folks holding the pens are well aware of this fact. Hey, we already know the last episode is called “Introduction to Finality”. So why bother? Maybe the nay-sayers are right, and the show is doomed.

I say bother. Bother very much. If anything – it means we get 12 more episodes of Community to enjoy (or not, depending on how things shake out). It could very well be that with every episode the show becomes more and more a husk of its former self, throwing out random meta and pop-culture jokes just for the sake of making them. Much more likely, however, is 13 episodes on a varied scale of entertainment value. Some better, some worse – that’s what a TV season is. And to be perfectly honest – Community at its worst (first half of season 1 notwithstanding), is still leaps and bounds better than most of the current crop of sitcoms.

As for the episode at hand – like I mentioned before, I liked it. I do think it tried to cram a bit too much into it, and had it been more focused it could have used its elements to a greater effect. By my count we had Hunger Games, Inception, general 3-camera sitcom tropes, “turn the cast into baby” cartoon (Muppet Babies being the obvious nod) and a college-hijinks movie. That’s a bit much for a 20-minute episode. I feel the element that worked best is the 3-camera sitcom angle. It touched on all the classic tropes of the genre including my personal favorite – the random, unexplained, never-mentioned recast of a main character. The fact that the supposedly always cheery sitcom turned just as dark as the real world (a theme that Scrubs also played on) is just Community doing what it does best – teaching us to accept the darkness. The Hunger Games elements were the ones I feel like could have best been served for an episode dedicated to them. There’s a lot to play with here, and I feel the show could have done a lot more with it. As it stands, it was pretty much background element and it didn’t really land as well as it should have. The tango scene was golden (mostly thanks to Jim Rash), but didn’t really feel earned as it would have been after a whole episode more dedicated to Jeff’s lack of emotional commitment. The Annie-Shirley plot line is the one I believe hurts the episode the most. It mostly covers ground we’ve already covered in two way. First – the college antics plot was done way back in season 1, with Abed & Troy’s “college experience bucket list”. Secondly, Annie has issues letting go and being loose, we know. This didn’t really further anything on that count and the plot didn’t really resolve anywhere. It just sort of ended.

All said and done with, I look forward to this season. Hopefully, with experience and time, the show will hit its groove sooner rather than later. Sure, the harbingers have called for the show’s premature death. They have gazed upon the premiere and pointed their thumbs downwards. But I have faith. Or maybe I just like liking things.

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Seasonal Observations: Community, Season 3

The Makings of a Study Group

Cellular mitosis is a process in which a cell duplicates its innards. It’s not the complete split of the cell into two identical ones, but rather the lead-up to the split. At the end of mitosis you’ve got one cell, but with two nuclei and all the other inner bits of cells. Anyone familiar with Community and the amount of work that goes into every detail of the show will know that the term wasn’t chosen by random out of the Big Book o’ Biological Terms. This process describes exactly what the past season of the show has been about.

Throughout the entire season, Harmon and crew have been chipping away at the Greendale seven, pushing at the borders of this cell of friends. The end result, as the wonderful montage at the end of the final episode shows, is that the group may split, but they carry the important stuff of their friendship inside them. The nucleus that holds them together has duplicated itself seven times over and while Troy may be off to Air Conditioner Repair School, he’s still part of the group. These are seven people that have been through the best and worst together, and their stuck with each other no matter.

The whole season examines the bonds of these people from the get go. The first episode throws the first obstacle in their way – there are not enough spots open in Biology class for all them. At first, Jeff claims this isn’t a problem, and they’ll manage to be friends despite the separation. While this may be true for the group now, at season’s end (and I think next year they might do away with the single shared class), it was not so initially. Once he’s on the out Jeff realizes this, and fights tooth and nail (and makes the ultimate sacrifice) to rejoin the group.

This point is revisited several times through the season’s first few episodes. In “Competitive Ecology” the group is split once again, this time within itself – and it proves futile. Professor Kane’s punishment – that the group shares a desk, a microscope and all their grades – only serves to highlight the need these people have for each other. At this stage, still relatively early in their relationship, they are still one cell, with one nucleus. They still need the cohesion of the group to function.

Things begin to break in the soon-to-be-seminal “Remedial Chaos Theory”. This episode, by far the season’s (and possible show’s) best, looks at how the group functions once it’s missing one of its key components. In a wonderfully written tour de force of an episode, we are introduced to the various timelines wherein each member of the group goes to fetch the pizza, and the repercussions of that absence. I could spend the next 5,000 words dissecting and analyzing each of the timelines (and its something I might do someday), but for the purposes of this piece, I’ll keep it short and say that each member of the group provides an important component to the functioning of the group as a whole. Much like, (and I promise I’ll try and keep the cellular analogies down from here on out) the nucleus, mitochondria and other elements are necessary to a cell’s survivor. This examinations continue in the following episode, Halloween’s “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps”. While “Chaos Theory” examined the group from without, as they are separated by external elements, “Horror Fiction” examines the group from within. As each of the seven tells their variation on the horror story, they reveal their opinions of the others in the group and, more importantly, of themselves in the group. In this way we can see that Abed sees himself as the voice of reason and logic, not as an emotionless computer. Annie thinks of Britta as loose, but sees herself as timid and helpful (with a much darker underbelly). Again, a full piece can be dedicated to an analysis of each of these stories, but the bottom line is that these two episodes show exactly the inner workings of the group. Like a clockmaker, these episodes pick the group apart, separate the individual elements, and see what goes where. Unlike clockwork, however, these people do have the capability to function autonomously, they just need to learn how to “borrow” the pieces they don’t have from the others. This is what the latter two thirds of the season is about.

Nearly every episode in the next stretch separates the group into different storylines. “Advanced Gay” has the Pierce/Jeff storyline and Troy’s first forays into the A/C Repair School. “Studies of Modern Movement” has four distinct plots. “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” goes all out and, with the exception of Britta and Troy, sends each member of the group on an individual journey of self-exploration. “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism”, likewise, has two concurrent storylines – Jeff and Shirley and the Annie/Abed/Troy trio. While “Regional Holiday Music” does bring the group together again, it’s only through pop-music inspired brainwashing that the seven get on a stage together. Initially, the group discusses their different plans over Christmas. This trend continues (I’m ignoring “Contemporary Impressionists”, the season’s worst episode by far) until it reaches it’s inevitable conclusion in the pillow fort two parter. While the divisions in previous episodes allowed for self exploration and a deeper understanding of the true elements of friendship in each pairing/triplet (whether it be Jeff and Shirley’s shared past, or Annie’s sincere apology to Abed/Batman), “Pillows and Blankets” brings us division for division’s sake. It’s not just any old division, it’s Troy and Abed, without a doubt the group’s strongest pairing. If Jeff and Pierce would lead opposing camps, it would mean much, as the two always go head to head. Troy and Abed, however, are something else. These two are so closely entwined, it’s almost like they’re one person in two bodies. Until now, that is. While the two make up (and the scene where they keep hitting each other because it’s the last thing they’ll do as friends is one of the best the show has to offer), it’s not the same. There is a rift now that can’t be repaired. This episode begins the separation process. It’s not all bad though, as it entails a process of understanding. Both Troy and Abed walk away with understanding of each other and of themselves. Troy sees himself not only as Abed’s friend but as his caretaker, the one who can control Abed’s more irrational tendencies (something that started in “Contemporary Impressionists”). Abed, on the other hand, allows this. He lets Troy be his social lighthouse, pointing out the apparent dangers the Abed would ignore.

All the poking and prodding and breaking off reaches it’s pinnacle once the group is removed from the place that brought them all together. Once the seven are expelled, they are back together again. It’s a wonderfully subtle statement – these people could, hypothetically, go their separate ways. Their expulsion could have been the catalyst for their destruction, they don’t have a reason to hang out together anymore. Except, of course, they have every reason to hang out together. These people are no longer students at the same school, but are invested in each other and in their general wellbeing. So, after a long stretch of episodes apart – we have the group together again working together to first attempt to “fix” their friend (who, it turns out, doesn’t need fixing) then help another and finally – save the world. The limited world that is Greendale, that is. Part of what makes the heist episode great is that in order for heist films to work, you need a group of people who are so in tune with each other – they can operate together down to the last detail. Elaborate heists are usually so complicated that they require a near hive-mind like entity to pull off well. Everybody needs to be on point and in step with everybody else, with very little communication, as the environment is usually hostile. And the group pulls it off, because now – they are this nigh-unstoppable unit. This cohesion is what allows Troy to go off to A/C Repair School, it’s what allows Jeff to represent Shirley against Pierce and just say the hell with it all at the end. The group is now enmeshed in each other. They each have a bit of Shirley’s optimism, of Britta’s sincerity or of Jeff’s cynicism. They’ve taken those qualities of the others they need, so they can carry them with them wherever they go. The mitosis is complete and now they can be divided, physically, but they will still remain the group.

That’s the direction I’d take if I was writing the fourth season. I’d use the season to illustrate that these people are so strong as a group that they can stand anything that’s thrown at them. I’d make the season about surviving despite being separated. Like I said earlier, I’d drop the shared class, it’s not something these people need anymore. Maybe have the Dean convert the study room to a porcupine petting zoo or something. Take that away from the group and show how resilient they are. Whichever way the new showrunners decide to go, they’ve got an uphill battle. The Community fanbase is strong and fanatic (present company included) and Dan Harmon did not go silently into the night. The show’s fanbase is like an honorary eighth member and we underwent the mitosis process with them, so there’s a little of Community in each one of us. It’s where our passion comes from. They’d be fools to try and make the same Community the past three years gave us, but they’d also be fools to try something completely different. I’m interested to see what September brings, but I am not without trepidation.