Over the five seasons he wrote Community, Dan Harmon has proven himself to be adept at giving us what we need instead of what we want. Or giving us what we need and part of what we want simultaneously. Nothing is more emblematic of that then the dense, multi-faceted relationship between Jeff (Joel McHale) and Annie (Alison Brie). Depending on the way your easy chair is angled, you can see them as star cross’d lovers, sibling-close friends, an unlikely mentor and apprentice, fans of arm-taking chivalry or two people separated by age growing further and further apart. Or, uncomfortably, all of the above.
Yet in the season 6 finale – the sixth straight closer that could act as the series’ final chapter – Harmon manages to give us what was both a momentous, loving kiss and a farewell note. This came after a season where no real advancement in their relationship took place beyond the typical lessons learned and winks winked. For fans who have wanted to see the two get all Ross and Rachel, it must be at least a little frustrating, but it comes from a place of honesty that’s unusual for long-running TV shows where the will-they-won’t-they impetus is on They Will.
Before the season aired, Harmon commented on the difficulty of approaching the non-platonic heart of the show:
I’m very precious and anxious about the romantic stuff. Annie herself is the whole ballgame that has to kind of be played in that you’re watching a young woman go from being a little backpacking school girl to being an actual woman, and just watching that happen changes everything. I honestly wonder sometimes if the grown-up version of Annie is remotely attracted to Jeff.
With “Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television,” Harmon has stuck the landing by recognizing that Annie probably isn’t attracted to Jeff beyond her childish initial crush. Maybe Jeff is genuinely in love with her, or maybe it’s his manchild id projecting his need for youth onto her pheromone glands. Whatever the case, it’s given Brie and McHale some of their best moments, and it’s kept the show surprisingly chaste when compared to other sitcoms.
It’s also a minor miracle that NBC didn’t throw Jeff and Annie together with gusto after firing Harmon. It undoubtedly, as in a billion sitcoms before, ballooned the audience and given us something we (maybe) thought we wanted at the time. Why the network didn’t do this is baffling, but I’m really glad they didn’t.
After all, the focus of the show isn’t whether two people will hook up – a sentiment oddly elevated by how many characters have kissed or slept with each other over the years with a Changnesiac impact – but on a group of friends that’s strong and elastic enough to survive the natural ebb and flow of people into their lives. That’s also the great fantasy element of the show. It is the thing we hope more than anything to be true despite its rarity in the real world. There are dozens of elements that prove Community’s friendship logic to be flawed – most of all the warm embracing of Chang into the group after he terrorized them and literally took over the school as a mad villain – but as an artifact from Televisionland, the structure of the group isn’t as important as what each person is willing to do for the other at any given time.
The command to grow up and let the kid stuff go is fascinating following season after season of that theme’s mine-deep exploration. My complaint following last year’s finale was that the show had burrowed too far into its own self-awareness, that Harmon had imbued his show with too consistent a worry about being canceled and forgotten and unloved and unwanted. He’s never shied away from his psyche being on display in the show’s storylines, so it’s likely that the entire closing speech about letting go aimed at Jeff was really aimed at Harmon himself (aided by a bit of role reversal and a signal that Annie has matured). It’s a bit uncomfortable to get a clear view of that theme for the hundredth time, because if last season’s finale was overwhelming in its meta cancellation parable, this season’s finale is so far up it’s own ass that it’s emerged from the mouth to stare right into another asshole. With the opening credits on repeat and each character offering their vision for the TV version of their lives, it’s an aggressive fourth wall breaker. At this point, everyone is willing to play along with Abed’s signature delusion.
Weirdly, the concept works this time without being grating because it’s marked with a sentimentality that was absent before. That may sound strange since the show almost always comes with a heavy side of aww-shucks togetherness, but that group hug in the study room felt like the closest thing to an ending that we’re likely to get. Last year’s finale (let’s call it the NBC Finale) felt smarmy, like a middle finger to the network for firing Harmon in the first place, facilitated by their hiring him back. It was a high five after a victory lap, whereas the impossible sixth season’s end (let’s call it the Yahoo Finale) felt like a creator genuinely accepting the end of his creation. Whether or not Yahoo renews the show, and whether or not the gang makes a movie together, and whether or not Harmon wishes to continue with these characters, it’s obvious that he’s now more comfortable envisioning a future without them.
All it took was publicly envisioning the possibilities for a seventh season. As a dedicated fan who has watched the show morph from a combustion engine to a warm security blanket, this was a beautiful episode that said goodbye as well as it could until the next time it says goodbye.