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Community Season Finale Recap: Let Us Remember the Good Timelines

COMMUNITY -- "Advanced Intro To Finality" Episode 411 -- Pictured: (l-r) Joel McHale as Jeff Winger, Jim Rash as Dean Pelton -- (Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC)

Goddammit.

I don’t know what to say about “Advanced Introduction to Finality.” I’m not speechless, exactly. It’s more of a case of not having anything nice to say/not saying anything at all. After writing my Point/Counterpoint with Margaret Lyons yesterday and listening to Alison Brie on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast today, I was really rooting for Community to pull off a fantastic season finale. I was let down.

“Advanced Introduction to Finality” rolls into town like an estranged father, grasping at vague memories of what he imagines might interest his now-grown child. “You used to love science fiction storylines, right? Well I got you a science fiction storyline!” And we, the audience, avert our eyes, embarrassed. “Dad, this plot is a mess. Did you write it on coke or something?” It was as if Mickey Rourke’s character from The Wrestler wrote this episode for his long lost daughter. It echoed the way things used to be, but in a perverse way that suggested the damage done might be irreparable.

Here’s how I know the episode was in trouble: As the Darkest Timeline unfurled, I crossed my fingers and hoped that in the end, the entire story was all a dream. And nothing is better when it was all a dream except for Newhart and the first line of “Juicy” by the Notorious B.I.G.

I probably sat for twenty minutes with the single word “goddammit” in my Word document as I resisted the temptation to write a barely coherent, caps lock screed on the final half hour of Community’s fourth season. There’s no joy in that for me, though. The kind of review that takes pleasure in eviscerating its subject always makes me feel bad for the hard work that went into the project in question, even if the result is the kind of horror you might expect from putting a brothel atop an Iroquois burial ground. Every madcap, delighted panning I read makes me think of some poor guy slapping together entrees in the back of Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar in Times Square, unaware he’s lurching towards a merciless slaughter at the hands of a (talented and no doubt accurate) food critic.

I want to like things. I’m an A for effort kind of guy. Maybe it’s my background as an early childhood educator, where I learned to praise the positive and offer gentle criticism when I’m disappointed. It’s possible my years as a preschool teacher have left me soft, unable to righteously condemn that which I know should have been better. Or maybe it’s just that this could be the last time I ever write about Community, and what kind of monster airs grievances during a eulogy?

“We used to love grandpa, but he became kind of a rambling mess towards the end. Some family members think we should have canceled him after that last episode a year ago.”

Gross.

I think the time has come to gloss over the show’s flaws (scattershot storytelling, frantic pacing, the thinning out and broadening of jokes) and enjoy it in the warming glow of our era’s bent towards instantaneous nostalgia. So while I acknowledge this week’s imperfections (the wildly illogical plot, the foregrounding of Jeff at the expense of the other characters, the nebulous reintegration of Chang/Kevin into the fold), I’d rather dwell on what will be thrown away if Community is not renewed for a fifth season.

Without Community, we’ll miss out on an ensemble cast full of talented performers who brought humanity to an assortment of characters who could have easily become caricatures. The core of the show was how much this group of randomly assembled oddballs came to love each other, which is a rarer and rarer trait as television gets meaner and more joke-driven.

With the cancellation of Community, we would also lose an outlet for skilled writers to attempt wild and creative tangents from week to week. Maybe the pressure to show and prove this season caused the show to cave in on itself. Maybe the new writers and producers didn’t have exactly the creative touch that Dan Harmon and his staff brought to the screen. Maybe it was just a learning curve. Still, I’m glad that season four's staff maintained the ambition that birthed “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” and “Heroic Origins,” among others.

Some would probably argue that I’m eulogizing the show a year too late, that it hasn’t been itself since the end of season three. I think this season was a worthwhile experiment that yielded some positive results among the … other stuff. Maybe season five would be an opportunity to scale back the madness and push the characters forward. Maybe it would be an uneven set of barely related stories. Who knows? Time will tell. Or it won’t.

The final scene of “Advanced Introduction to Finality” was a classic example of a series in limbo. Pierce graduated as Chevy Chase made his exit. Jeff departed Greendale, but left the door open for his continued presence at on campus. Maybe he’d be the school’s in-house legal counsel, staying on past graduation like Screech in Saved By The Bell, The New Class. (Okay, bad example.) In an ideal timeline, we’d see the rest of the study group evolve as they approach their own commencements. Britta would find a cause she can commit to that incorporates her knack for therapy. Troy would figure out how to feel fulfilled as an A/C repair guru. Shirley would translate her sandwich business to the outside world. Abed and his lady friend (remember her?) would live a life of contrived yet poignant adventures. It’s a testament to the show’s strengths how clearly I can see it play out.

We may never witness the culmination of any of these story arcs. It’s unfortunate. Over four seasons, we’ve grown attached to the characters. Their vivid, distinct outsider personalities have resonated with us. Their adventures have captivated us. And the beauty of a Netflix/DVD world is that the episodes we didn’t like, we never have to watch again, while we’re free to enjoy our favorites in perpetuity. No one is strapping us to chairs and pressing “Play All” while we Clockwork Orange our way through the series’ low points. What’s done is done. I’d rather dwell on the successes than the failures at this point.

All that said, if Community does come back for a fifth season, I would like to be on the record as saying that the finale of season four was a mess. Watching it, I wasn’t sure that I wanted more.

But, like with most turbulent relationships, with a little distance we’ll remember the good timelines, and forget the darkest.

Photo: Vivian Zink/NBC