So, “Community” Doesn’t Need a Wake, It Needs a Wake-Up Call (and the 20 Best Episodes)
Before actually sitting down to write this post, I had initially planned on going through every episode of this season of "Community" and comparing them to the obvious thematic and/or narrative callbacks from the previous three years. My goal was to show, objectively, how the series had legitimately changed with its new showrunners after creator Dan Harmon was fired - in an attempt to quiet those fans who seemed intent to shout down the negative nellies as being too subjective. After all, I'd been a six-seasons-and-a-movie fan since the very first episode, and have written extensively on the subject here (and here and here and here and here and here). The post wasn't meant to merely bash season four, but to prove it was possible to be open minded and yet remain unmoved by Calvin & Hobbes costumes and felt smiles. But after last Thursday's disappointing and depressing season finale, I just don't have the energy to take on that task. Not only would it have been exhaustive, it would have been exhausting. For everyone.
Season four of "Community" may be its worst, and there are other, better, writers than me who attest to just that, but it was also mostly benign. It seems safe to say now that the new showrunners, David Guarascio and Moses Port, in an attempt to curtail devoted fans' rage and apoplexy over Harmon's firing, steered too hard into the spin. They thought all we wanted was meta-humor and wacky hijinks ensconced in movie references, regardless of character or contextual purpose. Many fans did want that, and they got it aplenty. But there's a difference between doing them just for the sake of it, and doing them so determinedly that they're almost better than the things they're riffing on. Yes, the show was meta, but it didn't go out of its way to underscore it - unless that was the joke, and just saying "meta" isn't it (unless it's in Shirley's Miss Piggy voice). And, yes, the study group got into some crazy adventures, but they always passed the "could this be reported in a local paper without raising too many eyebrows?" test, but those episodes - the best ones, at least - weren't about the references, they were about the characters making and inhabiting them.
For the most part, but not all of it, season four wasn't about anyone; it was about the broadest ideas of these characters as people. "Intro to Felt" is the best example of this, wherein the bulk of the episode is structured around the study group retelling an event through the use of Deansigned puppets, which then turns into a sort of Muppets or Sesame Street homage. It's very similar to "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," in that everyone is just buying into the fantasy, so we see it. But the earlier episode was distinctly from Abed's point of view, everyone else is just sitting around the study room table playing along. Whose point of view is the later episode from, Dean Pelton's? Maybe, but he's only the facilitator and plays no central part in the rest of the narrative, so why would we be in his mind? Making the choice not to have one of the seven (or, six, since this was shot after Chevy Chase left the show) main characters be the POV turned the conceit into just another gimmick that panders. It smacks of someone saying, "If they liked the claymation and the video games, wait'll they get a load of this!" Shut up and enjoy the puppets, you say? If the songs had been any good, maybe I would have. Remember, Harmon once won an Emmy for songwriting - that won't happen here.
More than just feeling gimmicky or pandering, though, much of the season just didn't have the same passion behind the scenes that it obviously once did. Whatever you think of Dan Harmon, it was apparent that somebody working on "Community" loved it and demanded it be as close to ideal as possible. That's why we got the 22-minute action movie in "Modern Warfare" or the treatise on multiple realities and choice in "Remedial Chaos Theory" or the pitch-perfect parody of "My Dinner with Andre." With Harmon out of the picture, it was all too easy for the single-take homage of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope to fall by the wayside after the first commercial break in "Intro to Knots." Series writer Andy Bobrow even copped to this on Twitter, lamenting that the episode likely would have aired differently under Harmon's overbearing eye. Without Harmon, "Community" is good enough. With Harmon, "good enough" never seemed to cut it.
I'm not entirely done with "Community," now that season five is actually going to be a thing, because I actually found several episodes of the Port-Guarascio run more than competent in their ideas and their execution. But I'm no longer as excited to watch every single episode as I once was. For three seasons, I sat on the edge of my seat, expecting "Community" to fail and blow up in its writers' collective face, because nobody can walk that tight of a rope and not eventually fall. Whether the show played it safe or without a net this year is hard to say, but without its ringmaster it tumbled back to earth like Dick Grayson's parents, only repeatedly. If the writers play to their strengths next year -- as in solid, character-based sitcom ensembles ala "Happy Endings" -- the series could become legitimately exciting again. After all, there was nothing wrong with season one of this show, either.
Steven got it right when he said the show had fundamentally changed without its mad genius at the helm. But Courtney got it right, too, when she said there was still a show worth watching somewhere in all the mess, especially if you viscerally enjoyed that mess.
So instead of rambling on any further about the sense of woe this season may or may not have caused, I would rather spend the rest of this post celebrating the greatest episodes the series had to offer. Because, in the end, when it was good - and it was for the majority of its run - "Community" was the best damn thing on television. How many showrunners, writers, actors, directors, set decorators, extras, prop masters, or even networks can plausibly say that?
Many of these episodes were culled from Dustin's best-of SRL during the series' Caesar salad days early in season three. Enjoy!
Intro to Statistics (Episode 7)
Debate 109 (Episode 9)
Physical Education (Episode 17)
Contemporary American Poultry (Episode 21)
Modern Warfare (Episode 23)
Epidemiology (Episode 6)
Cooperative Calligraphy (Episode 8)
Mixology Certification (Episode 10)
Advanced Dungeous and Dragons (Episode 14)
Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking (Episode 16)
Critical Film Studies (Episode 19)
Paradigms of Human Memory (Episode 21)
Remedial Chaos Theory (Episode 4)
Studies in Modern Movement (Episode 7)
Virtual Systems Analysis (Episode 16)
Digital Estate Planning (Episode 20)
Introduction to Finality (Episode 22)
And, yes, Season 4
Herstory of Dance (Episode 8)
Basic Human Anatomy (Episode 11)
Heroic Origins (Episode 12)
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He absolutely does not believe the rumors of Dan Harmon's imminent return.