Three weeks ago, Vulture’s TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote about his frustrations with the current season of Community: “It’s still a good show, but it doesn’t give me that anticipatory buzz that defines a really great series, that joyous anxiety born from being continually, often delightfully surprised.” And after the first five episodes, the prevailing sense is that Seitz is very much correct — the show is not as good as it once was. However, what if this season’s fundamental flaws have actually been part of the show’s DNA the entire time but we were too distracted to notice? Are we finally seeing problems that had been there all along?
Each of this season’s five episodes has had a big conceptual hook. In order: Hunger Games/multi-cam sitcom/Muppet Babies parody; haunted house movie parody; fan convention parody; war movie parody; Shawshank Redemption parody. Yet none of them really felt as authentic or was as funny as anything from the first three seasons. It all felt like the writers going, “I guess we’re supposed to parody something — it’s Community, the show that spoofs stuff.” You can blame the new showrunners for oversimplifying, but they needed to hook the show onto something, and it turns out that the characters just weren’t a viable option. The fact is, as is the nature of the medium, a TV character should be so well defined that multiple writers can write for them effectively each week, and as we’ve seen this season, Community has failed that test.
“I’m not digging the Britta-Troy relationship,” Seitz wrote. “I get the feeling the writers and actors don’t have any particular opinion on it, either.” It’s an accurate assessment, but it’s important to remember that the seeds of this relationship were sown during the Harmon era. A romantic spark between the two would appear periodically, but it was pushed really hard in season three and likely would’ve existed in season four regardless. And we probably wouldn’t have dug it, even if Harmon had remained showrunner. Britta and Troy’s relationship feels out of character for both of them. It might’ve made sense in early season one, when both were partly defined by the front they put on (this peaked at the dance recital episode), but that part of each of their characters basically vanished. Britta is someone who’s trying to finally be an adult member of society, while also staying true to her rebelliousness — dating a younger and, let’s say, simple guy like Troy doesn’t fit into that. (Also, Britta is hypothetically about ten years older than Troy. It’s not as creepy as Jeff and Annie, but still.) Maybe it was borne out of that TV trope of putting people together because of proximity and physical attractiveness, but that rings as particularly unambitious for a show that aspired to subvert sitcom convention.
For Troy, this arc feels weird, because it’s weird for Troy to have a story of substance at all, especially one that’s not just something for Abed to bounce off of. (He had that whole air conditioner thing last year, but it wasn’t particularly revealing.) Comedically, Troy’s role in the group is obvious: dumb guy. Every ensemble comedy has at least one. Emotionally, Troy is harder to pin down, because it was never a big part of the show. Every once in awhile, we see that Troy wants to be seen as a grown up; however, it’s a characterization at odds with Troy accepting his more childlike self. It would change by the episode as was needed, because his character was inherently defined by his relationship with Abed and sometimes Jeff.
Worse yet is Annie. As has become painfully apparent this season, there is nothing to her. Who is she? Intermittently type A, she looks like Alison Brie, and she sometimes has a crush on Jeff. That’s it. And this has been a major problem for the show’s entire run. Her pretending to be Jeff’s wife in “Conventions of Space and Time” felt like it could’ve been a C plot in any season, because she hasn’t really changed in any substantial way. Her lack of heft is why Jeff’s recent dad arc came with him being paired with the more developed Britta. Maybe at one point they wanted to explore Annie coming to terms with her sexuality, but that never manifested itself — instead she was postmodernly sexualized as nerd bait. Sure, Brie has been very good in the role, but it now feels just like “funny sitcom character, female.” Harmon did a fantastic job developing Jeff, Britta, and Abed — the three characters he had publically admitted to being most like — and then just coasted with the other four. Things were alluded to and gently hinted at for the rest, but there just wasn’t enough time.
That’s because the show’s most compelling narrative was that of the show itself. Somewhere in the middle of the second season, the idea of how Community was revolutionizing television (which it was) became more important than any of the show’s actual characters. Viewers followed the show to see how it played with the sitcom form each week and less to see what the characters were doing or why they were doing it. This is the “spark” Seitz referred to. The best episodes of season two felt like the concept was in service of the characters, but over time the show felt more like the reverse. With concept trumping everything else, it was Dan Harmon that became the show’s most noteworthy character. We were following Harmon’s ability to one-up himself. It was hard to see the forest for the trees while it was happening, because as Seitz said, we, the fans, were taken by all the smart things that were happening. But now that the dust has settled on that era, we are stuck with tossed-off parodies and characters (save Jeff and Abed) that feel incredibly underdeveloped for a show that is in its fourth season.
Community’s new showrunners were not given an easy task. They were handed a brilliant show that was most defined by its brilliance. No one character was nearly as iconic as the show itself and what it represented. And they’ve done a solid, if not good, job trying to re-create that show. (They even improved on some small parts, namely Britta’s glasses!) It’s just without that intangible brilliance, it’s less of a desirable show than we might’ve thought. Somewhere between the shooting of paintballs and the tossing of a Yahtzee die, the show fell into a state of arrested development. And as a result, this season sometimes feels like they’re starting over again from scratch. They know how to make these characters funny, but they don’t know where they should be going, and maybe that’s always been the case with Community.