When Community first strolled onto television, there was only a hint of the kind of show it would ultimately become. There was a smooth-talking ex-lawyer trying hard to romance a woman who looked like Elisabeth Shue, a ragtag bunch of people who argued like they were on a sitcom, and in any other show, Abed’s insistence of injecting pop culture ephemera and contextualization would have melted into general Wacky Neighbor behavior.
But it didn’t melt, and Abed eventually became the watchword for the show. Throughout the first season, he was indulged in all sorts of movie and TV tropes, but there were also many standard sitcom signposts along the way. Read any of the first season’s episode descriptions, and it could be talking about almost any recent comedy, but then “Modern Warfare” introduced us to how Greendale plays paintball.
It was the kind of television moment that was difficult to understand. The promise of a show revealing itself by planting a massive freak flag in the middle of our foreheads. A rare episode that simultaneously made us excited for a second season and terrified that any minute NBC would realize they’d accidentally put something innovative on the air and call to correct their mistake.
The second season gave us a stop-motion Christmas, Abed channeling Andre Gregory and a Western send up with more paintballs. The third season pushed further with a bigger adventure arc as Chang grew into his natural role as insane supervillain, but midway through, Community became two shows. We’ll call them Community and The Dan Harmon Show.
One was starting to overshadow the other, and the original program – with well-established meta obsession – began mirroring the creation of a television show and the fear of cancellation that comes with it.
Community had always been a personal project for Harmon, built from his own experiences taking community college classes and connecting with a randomized group of personalities. With the third season rating-fueled hiatus, fan campaigning, the foolish release of angry phone messages, stories of dysfunction and then Harmon’s firing from his own show, the themes of loss throughout the second and third seasons began to be colored by the politics of prime time. Abed’s consistent meta reminders that they were all on a TV show only added self-aware fuel to the fire.
Greendale became a clear stand-in for the show itself, and the group’s fear of splitting up grew as the show progressed. The first season subplot of needing a new class in order to remain friends soon paled in comparison to large story arcs of saving Greendale and hoping they could all still be together after the summer. “Endings” became the most often explored theme as individual characters learned to cope with change on a near-weekly basis.
Looking back, the moment where the fear of cancellation and the characters’ fear of losing Greendale became eerily paralleled was in “Curriculum Unavailable.” In it, Abed and the gang are forced to see a psychiatrist (John Hodgman) after being banned from Greendale while an impostor Dean runs their school. Months later, on the real-life Dan Harmon Show, Harmon would be expelled from Greendale so that David Guarascio and Moses Port could run his show for its fourth season.
Thus, a third version of the show was born: Fauxmmunity. It looked like Community, had the same opening credits and actors, but it didn’t feel right.
Its run was marked by two showrunners in an impossible situation who split the difference between aping Harmon’s style to diminished effect and injecting the program with their own standardized sitcom exuberance. Unlike The West Wing – which eventually recovered from losing creator Aaron Sorkin – Fauxmmunity never got its sea legs, nor showed promise that it could. Everything was a fax of a fax of a fax, exposed most during the Comic-Con flavored “Conventions of Space and Time,” an episode that showed veins straining too hard to prove it had geek credibility. Harmon’s greatest strength in crafting his pop culture-fueled world was a genuine passion for pop culture. Everything about the Comic-con episode was too obvious, the studio version of what sci-fi/fantasy fandom is supposed to look and feel like. While Harmon could make a study room feel geeky, the new showrunners sent everyone to a geek convention and still couldn’t manage the same levels.
What’s more, the fourth season of Community/only season of Fauxmunnity signaled a profound misunderstanding of how to treat a show with a small, dedicated fanbase. Like people thinking they can make a sequel to Spring Breakers without any of the ingredients that made Spring Breakers. Of course, that misunderstanding was tacitly admitted to and theoretically righted when Sony brought Harmon back to run his show again.
Before the fifth (and what appears to be its final) season, Harmon spoke about his return to the show like a lion tamer who’d already been mangled.
“I’m not worried about getting fired anymore and I’m not worried, therefore, about ratings and I’m not worried about pleasing anyone in a suit. I’m not really worried about the fans or the critics. Because I watched them watch season four. I watched the world go on without me. I watched that nightmare happen and came back into it not more confident but definitely less prone to define myself by how other people perceive me. Now it’s just me and a room full of writers going ”what’s funny what’s compelling what’s sad?” By and large I think it was a lot of unhealthy stuff that got expunged by that experience and I think everyone’s going to win in the end.”
Finding this quote after watching the fifth season was surprising because of how much the last 13 episodes have felt like a victory lap taken at a jog. Harmon returning was the best possible thing for a program that NBC didn’t have to renew past its third season, but the show had lost a lot of other important personnel, including two main character in Troy and Pierce whose exit created more opportunities for episodes about Endings as well as genuine holes in the original chemistry.
But even beyond their departure, almost every episode seemed to deal with loss or life changes or moving on or endings. Jeff (like Harmon) has to cope with coming back to Greendale in a different capacity, Pierce dies, Troy leaves, Abed breaks mentally with a game of “The Floor is Lava” to keep Troy around, Jeff hallucinates a cartoon world (Abed-style) because he’s afraid of getting older, and more than half the season takes place within the framework of the gang saving Greendale by making it profitable again.
A lot of it worked, but while the laughs were there, they never seemed as powerful. That’s generally unsurprising for any TV show rounding its 90th episode, but several episodes (“Geothermal Escapism,” “Advanced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” and “G.I. Jeff”) felt a bit like Harmon being asked to play all his old hits at Madison Square Garden.
The show was also muted by its preoccupation with not existing. In direct opposition to Harmon’s quotation above, season three felt like he swung for the fences without fear of cancellation while season five made it seem like he and his staff could think of nothing else. Like they’d returned to the study room to put on one last show before turning off the lights.
Because of that, the characters suffered a bout of inertia. Jeff graduated to teacher in a cosmetic change (making him the Screech to everyone else’s Saved by the Bell: The New Class), Abed got a girlfriend who we saw a couple of times, Britta was Britta, Annie continued her infatuation with Jeff and grew in her leadership skills, Shirley was seen from time to time. All of these micro movements were burdened by fixing Greendale, so all the characters were wrapped up so much in metaphorically saving the show they were on that they forgot to do almost anything else.
Which is fine. Plenty of shows are designed to be enjoyed without plot momentum, and Community definitely had the great hallmarks of arrested development that made it possible for the gang to stick to each other, dust off the absurdity from the week before and get back to running on the treadmill of local higher education.
Plus, maybe that staring-into-the-abyss sensibility comes because separating Community from The Dan Harmon Show is impossible. We as an audience are too aware of the business machinations behind keeping something we love on the air. It’s difficult to follow The Dan Harmon Community Show this closely, and not feel the echoes of his personal/professional situation in the art he created. We watched the show deal with losing Greendale while knowing the distinct potential for the show to be cancelled. We watched the gang clean up the campus even as ratings slipped lower than they’d ever been.
The fifth season of Community was a gift. Hell, the third season feels that way, too. In fact we’ve probably all felt since the first paintball episode that Community wasn’t long for this world, and after three season finales that doubled as potential series finales, we finally have closure in a cancellation that everyone saw coming from miles away. It just took longer to get here than we thought.
Yet watching the latest finale (“Basic Sandwich”) again after the show’s cancellation turns it into an amazing exercise in self-awareness. It’s not simply watching Abed break the fourth wall as he promises that an earth-destroying asteroid is the only reason they wouldn’t return in the fall, and it’s a lot more than the occasional wink or jab toward a meta reality.
Abed explains Jeff and Britta’s engagement directly in terms of the safety of a spin-off show when a TV series is threatened with cancellation. Annie mirrors Community’s personnel shifts by asking what Greendale they’d be saving if they succeed, and when they do succeed, they’ve placed Greendale back into its rightful place on the chopping block of anyone with the power to destroy it. You don’t even have to listen hard to hear the characters say “Community” instead of “Greendale” when talking about losing the thing they love.
In hindsight, it feels overwhelmingly like a kind father preparing his children emotionally for when they’ll have to euthanize their sickly (yet wildly creative) Labrador Retriever.
As of this weekend, it’s very likely that NBC has caused all of humanity to be killed by an asteroid crashing into earth. Netflix has already said they won’t pick up the show as Sony shops it around, and even Harmon is lukewarm about returning to see his characters through more adventures. As a fan, so am I. I’d much rather be thankful for the impressive, improbable amount of episodes that we got than mourn an imaginary future show where the magic might not be as potent. To appreciate that Community and Greendale were (and will always be) glorious bastions for weirdos.
I’m also pretty sure the show is really just sitting in a lava lamp waiting to be vaporized in the Temple of Renewal.