‘Community’s Fourth Season: Time to Graduate?

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So here we are, waiting to hear if there will be a fifth season of Community, or if last night’s “Advanced Introduction to Finality” was the final episode of the series, and not knowing which scenario we prefer.

I don’t blame Andy Bobrow, Megan Ganz and the rest of the writing staff, because they were put in an incredibly untenable position when Sony fired Dan Harmon, just like I don’t feel any anger towards Moses Port and David Guarascio for trying to pull off a job far more challenging than they ever could have realized. It’s possible that it didn’t matter who was running the ship this season. Think about the originality and ambition that came out of this series since the last batch of episodes of season one, and how we underestimated how hard it really was to balance the absurdity with reality, the subtext to the text, while still caring about the characters. How long can you maintain that?

There were times this season when Community dipped into the multiple timelines and Abed’s multi-cam shows in his mind with a strong danger of never coming back from those potentially fun but ultimately pointless worlds. It also seemed like Abed was spewing a lot more exposition than in seasons past to set these up. Would a certain former showrunner have stopped that from happening? We’ll never know.

What we do know, with the wonderful gift of hindsight and the blessing that is not having to do the work ourselves, is that if the writers played it safer and attempted instead to tell simpler, less ambitious, but character building stories like in season one, there would be far less of a chance to go off the rails and get consumed in lofty but faulty concepts. Instead, Annie Edison reverts right back to her helpless, juvenile freshman self while the unwieldly Inspector Spacetime convention swallowed “Conventions of Space and Time” whole. Troy and Britta’s relationship never went anywhere as Jeff played a Dean Pelton-run Hunger Games and Abed was living in Greendale Babies, then it was ignored, and then suddenly terminated. Pierce might as well have not been there, but that one’s on the actor. Abed was off in his off-ness, acting more like a human TVTropes.org instead of an individual who happens to know a lot about the conventions of television. His “Herstory of Dance” story with the cutest sarcastic coat check girl in Colorado, Brie Larson, was a welcome exception, not to mention really damn cute, but the intriguing possibility of an Abed dating a female counterpart wasn’t explored further than that one episode1. Abed also not revealing a secret in “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” was just plain strange.

And we expect more from our Community than that. The magic of it was character growth came with the intelligent meta commentary. The more we respect our characters’ motivations, the funnier the words out of his or her mouth will be in a series in its fourth season. Troy can be as dumb as he wants, but what made the runner about his continuous — and kind of alarming — ineptitude in remembering the damn soda in “Finality” was how upset he was at himself. Andy Dwyer can play Bert Macklin, FBI on Parks and Rec, but if he doesn’t also whine about not making it as a cop from time to time, we start to remember that he can be awfully broad and not sophisticated enough for me to care.

What’s truly frustrating is that the writers know these characters2, and that wasn’t more evident than with Jeff Winger’s arc this year. Everything from Winger wearing his father’s boxing gloves for Halloween, with the knowledge that back in season one’s “Comparative Religion” Jeff needed to be taught by Troy how to box, to the Thanksgiving episode when he revealed to pops how hurtful his absence really was, including the reveal that he had been texting nobody all along. And Jeff did graduate, just like we were promised.

In regards to courageous, inventive, meta storytelling, it’s possible that The Office ended up being more successful in this television season than Community, and yes, I am factoring in Andy Bernard and Brian the Boom mic operator. In its final season, The Office decided to write the documentary crew into the story. Initially, it was poorly received, because Greg Daniels, Paul Lieberstein and company decided to have the boom guy to have a crush on our Pam Beesly. But once the characters discovered that the documentary was soon going to air on television, things got very interesting. Big words like diegetic start to get into the mix. Universes collapsing onto itself. Television characters were reacting to a television show that exists solely in their world that is about themselves, without an Abed in sight. It’s a lot different from April 21, 2011, the night that Community came up with “Paradigms of Human Memory,” a clip show filled with clips of brand new scenes3. An hour later, 30 Rock looked very old and unhip when it aired it’s 100th episode, featuring scenes from actual old episodes from the show.

But I’ve already spent a lot of time and energy writing about why season four — eight out of thirteen episodes in — was all wrong about six weeks ago, so I’m not going to spend this entire review doing that again (even though it was a great read!). Instead, let’s look at the things that were done right this season. As I mentioned before, “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations’” A-story worked with Jeff visiting his dad and half-brother. (Meanwhile, Abed and the others had a Shawshank Redemption thing going on in Shirley’s basement, which sounds great on paper, but…) Adam DeVine’s jealousy was funny, as was Gillian Jacobs’ boombox-aided celebration. Yvette Nicole-Brown’s facial expression to the thought of Britta dancing is fantastic.

“Herstory of Dance” and “Economics of Marine Biology” were the two episodes in season four that were structured and written like a season one episode, mostly situated entirely at the college. While “Biology” is only memorable to me with Jeff’s momentary kinship with Pierce, “Herstory” was a great example of what alternate timeline keep-it-simple season one could have been: it was funny, Pierce was involved without insulting a race, and the aforementioned all-too-brief romance.

“Basic Human Anatomy” was my favorite of the season, which happened to be written by Oscar award winning screenwriter Jim Rash. The Troy and Abed Freaky Friday switching bodies conceit was kind of scary at first, until it was established that reality wasn’t being ignored. Instead the two men young adults roommates were helping Troy avoid the emotional conflict with Britta in a strange but funny manner. It was classic Community, toeing that line between crazy and heartfelt. Jim Rash’s “when Jeffrey was inside of me” gag somehow got progressively funnier the more he continued to say it.

I did not hate last night’s season finale as much as some others did. While there will never be a time when the audience is tricked into believing that what they are seeing turns out to be a character having a very elaborate dream sequence isn’t lame, it’s very believable that Jeff would feel very anxious about finally leaving Greendale, and at some point it was decided that the coolest way to act out Winger’s uneasiness would be with a good vs. evil showdown, to pacify fans who missed the alternate timeline stuff and paintball. Of course, it just underlined Todd VanDerWerff’s theory that season four was focused way too much on what Community fans want as opposed to what the show needed. And “Introduction to Finality” already is a thing that exists.

Soon, possibly today, definitely by Monday when NBC announces its fall schedule, we will know if Community will be back for a fifth season. The highest expectations at least will be significantly less than they were last October January, and perhaps, in spite of, or because of Chevy Chase’s departure, it will get better. If that’s the case, there is a distinct possibility that the ratings will increase, thanks to a cable deal with Comedy Central that’s been scheduled to start this fall for awhile now. Friends who never found the time to watch will start finding it at various times on different days, probably catching a mini-marathon on a weekend afternoon. They’ll announce on Facebook that they discovered this great new show, where old men reconnect with long lost brothers and lose an inheritance over an 8-bit game, college kids cope with their parents not having time for them over the holidays by living in a Rankin/Bass production, and man it will be annoying. A few will even remark that a season four episode is great, and that might make you downright apoplectic.

Maybe Community will become whatever the definition of a really successful network comedy show is these days. Maybe you’ll like that. Maybe you’ll hate that something you once loved won’t go away and you don’t appreciate the constant reminder that everything you hold dear is ephemeral. Or maybe NBC doesn’t think it’s worth the deal Sony is offering them to help get the show more syndication money down the road, and would rather cancel Community entirely. Comedy Central’s reruns will run, and your friends will talk about the time their new favorites all played Goodfellas with chicken fingers, or the time they played Dungeons & Dragons and made it seem cool, like they know, but they don’t know. They weren’t there to suffer through all of the doom and gloom ratings announcements, and they didn’t enjoy all of those easter eggs other committed fans found, and all of the tweets from the writers and that lunatic original showrunner that gave you a little too much access to the behind the scenes stuff. Maybe this season wont be viewed as harshly as it is now, and time will illuminate its hidden genius, or at least free it from its shadow to give it more proper perspective. Maybe I can’t think of a decent ending for this piece. Maybe there’s some irony in that.

1Possibly due to the shortened 13 episode order, or to Brie Larson’s availability. One thing to look forward to for a fifth season. Also that entire City College revenge story.

2And really care. Bobrow and Ganz in particular tweet often during episodes. Ganz — who now is employed at Modern Family — was apologetic months ago about the unenviable task of editing down the potential series finale to 21 minutes, and during the west coast airing last night tweeted out deleted lines from the shooting script. I wish Abed said this.

3While as far as I know that was the first live-action show to produce a fake clip show, Clerks: The Animated Series beat Community to it by almost eleven years.