“Firing on all cylinders” is not a phrase that I use often, but when the shoe fits, it fits. “Basic Sandwich,” the second half of Community’s fifth season finale, was all the things fans of the show love it for: absurd, poignant, metatextual, layered, and deeply funny. It was also unabashed in relating its central plotline (the search for Greendale’s founding dean, Russell Borchert, and his treasure, whatever that meant) to Community’s continued existence as a television show.
Dan Harmon has never exactly shied away from meta commentary about the show through a given episode’s central premise, but at times during “Sandwich,” the line between the players and the audience was gossamer thin, especially during Abed’s spinoff rant to Annie: “This show, Annie ... it isn’t just their show. This is our show, and it’s not over. And the sooner we find that treasure, the faster the Jeff-Britta pilot falls apart.” I half-expected Ron Howard to then voice-over, “Please tell your friends about this show.” That speech certainly puts a pretty fine point on it, and additionally makes it clear that the Jeff and Britta pairing from “Basic Story” was Harmon’s wink to all of us, as if to say, “You wanna cancel this show? How about a spinoff with these two?” It felt like Michael Scott negotiating the sale of his paper company to Dunder Mifflin: “If tomorrow, my company goes under, I will just start another paper company, and then another, and another, and another. I have no shortage of company names.” And while I and a lot of others would certainly miss this specific character grouping, there’s no doubt that Dan Harmon has no shortage of company names himself. But as the Dean pointed out, this wasn’t an hour-long episode of The Office (even though there was a B.J. Novak cameo). Ultimately, Abed’s right: Awfully Wedded / Tying the Not, while funny in this context, would be lucky to last six episodes, and far more painful to watch than any of Community’s most lukewarm offerings to date.
Metatext aside, “Basic Sandwich” was just a whole lot of fun. Every character had at least one moment to shine, and there was the added bonus of seeing Chris Elliott (whom I barely recognized behind the beard and the nasal, high-pitched voice) as Russell Borchert. If season six does happen, he’ll fit right in as vice-Dean (as Annie said, “Look at him. He’s one of us.”), so here’s hoping Mr. Elliott is onboard (I don’t see why he wouldn’t be; according to IMDb, the only other thing he’s working on is a CBC Comedy called Schitt’s Creek, which ... groan). “Sandwich” sent up classic heist- and treasure-hunt-movie tropes with Community’s trademark agility, like with the gang looking too hard for clues (“X marks the spot.” Nope. “Wait! The sparks may be spelling out the next clue!” Also no.) and narrowly escaping the bad guys (Carl and Richie from the school board; that’s right, they have names ... and apparently some psychic abilities). On the path to Borchert, as they left “no pet rock unturned,” Jeff and Britta bickered constantly, underscoring what a disaster their marriage would be.
It was a smart and funny episode to cap off an uneven season, and it left me wanting more. At the end of season four, I was hoping NBC would mercy kill Community, and I’m glad they didn’t.
Last week, I briefly mentioned Harmon’s Story Circle idea, and for those of you who are unfamiliar, it’s essentially an 8-point checklist for story development. (Read more about it in this Wired story.) Virtually every Community episode honors it, and it’s typically applied to at least one character (usually a few, sometimes all). But this season, Harmon made the entire show his protagonist, and why not? It’s fitting, given the circumstances surrounding the fifth season’s existence and how prone Harmon is to self reference. Let’s test out my theory:
1. A character is in a zone of comfort. Our character, Community, has not only survived the chopping block (itself a familiar situation), but returned from a bizarro, undead, gas-leak season that barely resembled the original beneath the surface, with Dan Harmon back as showrunner. Sounds pretty comfy.
2. ... but they want something. They want to tell a story. They want to fill thirteen 22-minute blocks with their trademark brand of hilarity and poignancy, in a way that doesn’t feel too showy or like it’s taking too large or pointed a dump on the previous season. They want a return to glory, to the way things were, but with forward motion.
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation. Enter the Save Greendale Committee. Exit Pierce and Troy. Enter Professor Jeff Winger and Professor Hickey.
4. They adapt to it. Speaks for itself.
5. Get what they wanted. The gang remains largely intact, and Greendale (acting as proxy for the show itself) is essentially saved (renewed?). It’s a viable property now. So viable, in fact ...
6. Pay a heavy price for it. Subway returns to buy the campus (eat fresh), and Richie and Carl (they have names) from the school board steal the money they were going to use to not only take the campus back but presumably fix it up even more. Following the Greendale-as-proxy logic: The show gets a sixth and final season, but the satisfaction of that is sapped by the network forcing budget cuts and over-the-top product integration.
7. Then return to their familiar situation. They return to the cafeteria at the end of the episode, mostly triumphant (at least in terms of saving Greendale from the yellow and green talons of the Subway corporation; not so much in terms of not letting Chang make off with 2 million dollars for diamond fronts), surrounded by fellow classmates and a boombox-toting Starburns. Maybe the school board represents the network; the gang’s triumph is the show’s ability to remain fresh and funny despite the challenges of a reduced budget and contrived product placements. Chang is ... the advertisers? Is this falling apart? Doesn’t matter; I’ve gone too far ...
8. ... having changed or being capable of change. The Save Greendale Committee (Dan Harmon himself?) succeeded in its goal to fix up the school (clean up the messes from season four and return the show to an even better state) even as it lost some if its own along the way (Pierce, Troy; most of Harmon’s previous writing staff), but the Subway situation (the prospect of another season, the renewal bubble) arose so quickly they were never able to enjoy the spoils of their labor. The change is that they now have a pride and confidence about Greendale that they didn’t before (because the show didn’t end with season four?).
(A stretch? No, right?)
However, Annie’s speech about respecting one another and letting each other “want what we want, no matter how transparently self-destructive or empty our desires may be” hit home with Jeff, who is still the group’s de facto emotional leader (he gets the big emotional moment of the episode, forcing Raquel to open the door with his big man feelings [seemingly inspired by Annie, not Britta; naturally, the Dean thinks it was all him]; he gets to present Borchert to the board, thus saving Greendale for real this time; he’s also the guy responsible for the Save Greendale Committee’s existence), so perhaps another shift is that the group, if given the chance, will follow Jeff’s lead and perhaps be a bit more tolerant of each other’s choices.
Of course, if Community is given yet another season (and/or a movie), a more open-minded study group (or Save Greendale Committee, or whatever rose-by-any-other-name moniker the gang chooses) might not give us the conflict we need to get to the kinds of stories we like, so hopefully the communal forbearance will be short-lived. Or maybe we’ll just get a whole season of no stories.
Of course, my theory is just that: a theory. I could be full of it, or looking too deeply into it, or not deeply enough ... but that’s the fun of Community. Well, that and Abed breaking the fourth wall.
Some other thoughts and highlights:
- I know I'm not the only one who thinks Annie was about to start a "kiss lean," as Abed put it. Maybe she was thinking about his Don Draper and Han Solo impersonations ...
- "Secret trap door!" "Booyah!"
- Abed's Dead Alewives T-shirt is a shout-out to the now defunct Milwaukee-based comedy troupe by the same name whose most famous skit is about a Dungeons & Dragons game. Oh, yeah: Dan Harmon was a founding member and wrote the D&D sketch, naturally.
- "Who's got rope?" "I'm offended by that question." I’ve really enjoyed Jonathan Banks this season, and here’s hoping he can find time to return when he’s not filming Better Call Saul. Knock wood.
- The whole "Sssshhhh!" bit got me chuckling, especially when Abed joined in right after pointing out that it's just as loud as any other noise they could be making.
- "Donald Sutherland."
- "Just like any other dungeon, it's only as dangerous as whoever invited you." Oh, Dean.
- "Don't cry. The importance of lumbar support hadn't been established ... "
- The number 127 is not, in fact, a palindrome when represented in binary (it's 01111111), but it's funny that Annie was still in the Jeff Goldblum–in–Independence Day random-connection puzzle-solving mode when they reached the jukebox. Abed's Occum's Razor solution for opening the secret door ("The song title is 'Open the Door' by the Secret Doors") was right on, as was the P-Funk-style song that accompanied it ("Specially timed to the duration of the opening process ... "). It was a nice touch to have Jeff and Britta release their hands when the door opened, and was kind of like watching Marty's family disappear when that one guy cuts in on George and Lorraine at the Fish Under the Sea dance.
- Jeff knocking Borchert to the ground was awkward, physically. There must have been a take that worked better. It looked like Jeff just touched him lightly; if that was the joke, it didn't work, but that’s a minor offense in an episode full of things that did.
- Richie Countee had some real gems tonight: "That was hot lava? Dumb." "This pickle's a magnet!" "Don't worry, I've been drinking." "Not to throw anyone under the bus, but ... he'd be the one."
- Thankfully, Chang was not overused, and his "I think I'm just mentally ill" epiphany was great.
- It seems the comments section of almost any online video can devolve into rants about Obama or 9/11 being an inside job, but the following blink-or-you'll-miss-it exchange on Britta’s kitten video was amazing: "Your [sic] both puppets of the Zionist Occupation Government" "I've got a balls occupation for your mouth government." "LOL! ROFL!" indeed.
- From the continuity department: Did anyone else notice that the fake overgrown fingernail on Borchert's left hand kept appearing and disappearing?
- The school board has global headquarters in both Kuala Lumpur and Berlin? Okay!
With any luck, an asteroid won’t wipe out all human civilization, and maybe Community can come back once more and celebrate some specific holidays with confidence.