Community 104: Seasonal Retrospectives for Beginners

QUICK SCHEDULING NOTE: I ended my last post on this blog discussing the shows I hoped to cover in the near future. Well, as you can see, a few weeks later, none of them have been covered, due to reasons too boring and plausible to mention here. Hannibal and True Detective are coming at some point, eventually, but the two House of Cards series probably aren’t. Updates will be back to the usual once-a-week-ish from now on, promise.

Now back to your irregularly-scheduled programming.

 

This is the fourth in a series of posts on this blog about the critically-acclaimed American sitcom Community. The first blog post is a general introduction to the show and its characters. The second blog post is a list of the series’ best episodes so far. The third blog post is a review of the first four episodes of the recent fifth season. This post will be a look back at the entire fifth season.

Oh, by the way, Community season five is airing in the UK on the Sony Entertainment Television channel (no, I’ve never heard of it either) Thursdays at 10pm.

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Three months ago, expectations were high. The man responsible for one of the most ambitious, creative, clever and just-bloody-hilarious sitcoms ever made had miraculously returned to his pride and joy to try to steer it out of the slump which it had found itself in after he was booted away from it for a year. But would he be successful? Would he return his show to its former glory?

In a word: Yes.

In a few more words:Yes, yes, absolutely, yes.

Before the fifth season premièred, Dan Harmon promised that the show would return to being more grounded and character-focused, in the vein of Community season one. This was welcome news after the embarrassing imitation-Community of season four and the fun, but utterly bonkers, season three, where the plots became crazier and gimmick-heavy and the characters became increasingly one-dimensional.

To some extent, he was right. Community’s fifth season arrived with a double-bill of episodes that reintroduced the characters after a time-skip and gave them all a credible reason to return to Greendale, then focused on Jeff becoming a teacher and Abed taking a film class. Plots in later episodes revolved around school textbooks, organising the next dance, a teacher working with other staff members to get a noticeboard put up, and Jeff helping his colleague Professor Duncan get a date. No gimmicks, no high-concept parody, just simple, school-focused storylines where the group bickered and bantered and dealt with life at Greendale. Very season one.

But to some other extent, that promise went out the window after episode two. This season has had some of the weirdest episodes of the entire show. Almost half of the fifth season’s episodes had some sort of high-concept element to them. The serial killer/David Fincher episode, the episode where a game of ‘The Floor is Lava’ turned the campus into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the episode where a social networking app turned the campus into a futuristic dystopia, the second Dungeons and Dragons episode, the second bottle episode, the animated ‘G.I. Joe’-style episode, etc.

Normally, this would be a cause for concern. Committing to a different theme, or ‘gimmick’, for a full episode, for several episodes in a row, has been hit-and-miss for the show in the past. Fortunately, the ones this season were almost-universally great (the exception being the serial killer episode, which I wasn’t a big fan of) and did what the best ‘gimmick’ episodes do- use a fun set-up to explore the characters and make a lot of great jokes.

The lava/post-apocalypse episode created an entire mini-civilisation, with its own made-up back-story and lore, impressively quickly, and featured a fantastic send-off for Troy. The future dystopia was quite possibly the maddest episode the show has ever made. It examined what happens when the idea of likes/retweets/upvotes/reblogs/etc is applied to real life, wrapping a parody of futuristic sci-fi movies around a witty satire of Internet culture and a conflict between Jeff and Shirley.

Particularly impressive were the sequels to two of the show’s most popular, critically-adored and highly-praised episodes, ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ and ‘Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’. Going back to an extremely successful idea and deciding to do it again can be very risky. Everyone’s expectations are sky-high, and the episodes could have ended up seeming like pointless rehashes that should never have been attempted.

However, the show has done sequels to similarly-adored episodes in the past, and they became some of the best episodes ever. The one mis-step, the fourth (!) documentary-style episode, was from the Harmon-less fourth season. Harmon’s back in control now, so it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that ‘Calligraphy”s sequel managed to surpass the original, while the second D-and-D episode came very close to topping the first. But it was a surprise. A wonderful surprise.

The most ambitious episode of the season was “G.I. Jeff”, an homage/piss-take of a beloved 80s cartoon (and its adverts) that also attempted to explore Jeff’s dissatisfaction with his life as a teacher. The show turned all the characters animated for an episode, and used the fact that they were animated as an important part of the plot and to show that one of the characters was having severe mental issues. Again, this is similar to a popular episode from Community‘s past – the claymation Christmas special, just replace ‘claymation’ with ‘G.I. Joe cartoon’ and make Jeff the character with mental issues instead of Abed and you have “G.I. Jeff.”. Though it isn’t quite as good as the claymation episode (which gets directly referenced at the end of this episode), it’s still a lot of fun and works well even if you’ve never seen an episode of the cartoon it’s spoofing.

So what you get, then, is a season which was completely unpredictable, bouncing wildly from grounded realism to utter insanity and back again within a matter of weeks, combining the school-focused storylines of season one with the most high-concept high concepts of season three, and in the process ending up like season two.

This is a very, very good thing. Season two was similarly unpredictable and also combined gimmicks (Zombies! Space! Claymation! Paintball western!) with more ordinary Greendale antics (Birthdays! Pregnancy! Anthropology classes! School dances!) on a weekly basis. It was also the best season of the show. It contained a few mediocre-to-bad episodes, but it also had several classic episodes that saw the show at its most ambitious, moving and hilarious. Some of these classics came in a staggering 6-episode run of incredible episodes that was the highlight of the season.

Season five doesn’t really have an equivalent to that run, but it does hit the same heights, and dares to try to better some of the classics season two gave us. It also doesn’t have any episodes that are anywhere near as unfunny and dull as the worst of season two. The David Fincher episode may not be great, but you certainly can’t say it’s not funny, or dull. The two-parter that concluded the season was an odd mix of grounded (Greendale is threatened with closure…) and wacky (…so we’ll save it by finding buried treasure!) that wasn’t as good as it could have been, but it still had some fun moments and great jokes.

The character work in these new episodes is just as good as the work done in Community’s best season. Season four, and to some extent season three, turned the characters into cartoons with one personality trait (Jeff sarcastic, Britta useless, Troy stupid, Abed robotic, Annie naive, Shirley religious, Chang insane, Dean likes dressing up, etc).

Season five does a great job of reversing this and turning them back into real people. Jeff wants to be helpful, Britta is useful and proactive again, Abed became more than a reference-spouting robot, Annie grows up, Shirley deals with her preachiness, and Troy gets a chance to mature before he leaves. Chang is still a bit nuts, but this season has been more about his loneliness and goofiness rather than how crazy he is, and – thank God –  he’s been used sparingly, making his appearances funny and welcome, rather than annoying and tiresome. Professor Duncan returned after a three-year absence. The Dean has returned to being a nice guy with good intentions who is genuinely trying to run a good community college -and failing- rather than a flamboyant guy who wanders into the study room in a silly costume to flirt with Jeff. The Dean walked into the study room wearing a stupid costume precisely once during the entire fifth season, and it ended up being a highlight of the entire series. Clearly, less is more.

Even Professor Hickey, the season’s best new character, got a lot of development and depth, as well as some really funny lines. Pairing him with different members of the Save Greendale Committee (formerly known as the study group) lead to a lot of fun episodes and some interesting character conflicts, especially with Abed and Annie, as his gruff cynicism collides with their optimism and imagination.

In retrospect, it seems like that promise of a more grounded, character-focused show came true after all, and you could make a strong case for season five being the best season of the show since season two, possibly even better. It has fewer episodes, and not a single one is wasted. There is no room for mediocrity, certainly no room for rubbish.

It still has a few flaws, though they are mostly caused by restrictions out of the writers’ control, such as the number of episodes in the season and the length of the episodes themselves.

I would have liked a few more ‘normal’ episodes in between the wackier ones to space them out a bit more (with a bigger episode order this almost certainly would have happened) as too many ‘zany’ episodes in a row can lead to fatigue. Rather than thinking, ‘Oh wow, this is different! This’ll be great!’, it can lead to me thinking ‘Oh, another one? Already?’.

I also would have liked a bit more of Jeff as a teacher, as we saw him teach in one episode and then it was rarely mentioned again, let alone shown (though, again, with more episodes this almost certainly would have happened).

Some of the gimmick episodes, especially the social-media/future-dystopia one, would have benefited from having more time, even becoming a two-parter (though with more episodes this almost certainly would have happened- are you seeing a pattern?). Some episodes went through so much in such a small amount of time that everything felt a bit rushed, and the episodes had plenty of great material that could have been explored further in another part.

Jonathan Banks is returning to his role as Mike in the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul later this year (yay!), which means that he’ll probably be too busy to play Professor Hickey again in season six (boo!).

Anyway, these are minor quibbles. Despite extremely-high expectations and a high possibilty of failure, Dan Harmon returned to Community and managed to save it, return it to its former greatness and get a sixth season.

Hard to believe that Community‘s wit and creativity is so consistently high-quality, five years into its run. Even harder to believe that the ‘six seasons and a movie!’ joke from the first clip-show episode is slowly turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy for this show. Welcome back, Dan Harmon. Welcome back, Community.

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