by Thom Yee

Community - season 4 front

Community images courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

For those of you who’ve missed out on one of the best sitcoms of all time (and for you, this, then, must be the darkest timeline), Community is ostensibly the story of Jeff Winger, an attorney disbarred for having a fake undergraduate degree who enrolls at Greendale Community College where he ends up forming a study group with six disparate students.  And as the years pass, these disparate students grow closer, as the study group becomes a surrogate family.

Really though, Community is about the conceits, tropes and conventions of mass media — movies and television especially.  Community is a satire of the sitcom genre, an examination of pop culture in general, and occasionally a profound critique of how we are all affected by the mass media we consume.  And it’s one of the smartest and most ambitious comedy series of all time. Or at least it was.

But if I have to tell you that, then this review really isn’t for you.  This review is for the few of us, the brave of us who have stuck with the series until now.  As someone who’s attended three different colleges and chosen very different paths at each (don’t worry; none of them led to prosperity or spiritual fulfillment), I can tell you that over four seasons of study, Community — for all of its comedic ridiculousness and technical inaccuracies — maps surprisingly pretty well against the actual college experience.

Community - Modern WarfareIn its first year, it’s finding out what it is.  It’s a little unsure of itself and maybe trying to be something it’s not. It’s full of good ideas, but those ideas don’t all connect, don’t all hit the mark (but you’re glad it tried), and don’t all make sense given what it’s going for.  Even at this early stage, though, you can tell there’s a spark of genius and genuine inspiration when an episode as accomplished and well-executed as “Modern Warfare” (the first paintball episode) shows up.  Things really started to come together near the end, so much so that you almost couldn’t wait for the next year.

Community - Critical Film StudiesIn its second year, it was flat-out brilliant.  In a lot of ways, this was its best year as it was able to define just what it was there for, while still having enough space to be whatever it wanted.  Probably the best year by far in retrospect.  Just like in the second year of college, it’s all about breaking new ground and really making some amazing progress while being far enough away from reality that it didn’t have to lock down its future path yet.  This is the year that gave us “Paradigms of Human Memory”, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”, and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”.  For me, the standout episode by far is “Critical Film Studies”, the My Dinner with Andre episode.  It’s the kind of episode that earned my eternal devotion for the series by thoroughly convincing me that the show’s writers are better than me (and you can probably tell by my general style and diction that I’m a total d*ck about what a great writer I am).

Community - Remedial Chaos TheoryIn its third year, it managed to go even further than the second, achieving some amazing things.  Even though it may not have been as fun and crazy as second year, it was clearly on its own development path, breaking new ground with episodes like “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “Pillows and Blankets”.  Even as people started seeing how satisfied with itself it had become, you still had to give it to the writers:  they knew what they were doing.  It was an oasis of comfort, a fantasy that can never be captured again — it had learned exactly how hard to work to get the effect it was going for, fully aware of how finite its time in this place was, but never allowing that fact to slow it down.

And then… the horrible… horrible… fourth year.  It really had to start getting its head together, it had to start preparing for the future, and a part of it never wanted to leave this weird buffer zone it had found itself in; it didn’t have the courage and didn’t know how to become something new.  It couldn’t just rely on the old ways that had become stale as it realized it didn’t have any more time.  And people started seeing it for what it may have been all along:  smarter, better, and more ambitious a couple of years ago.  Sh*t got real.

If you’ve been watching Community up till now (and suffering through this strained comparison), you must know that the fourth season is the first year without creator, show runner, and heart of the show, Dan Harmon, a creative force that managed to balance wild, crazy, genre-bending/commenting antics against genuinely emotional character beats with incredible poise.  And while his absence was a huge loss to the show, none of us could have been prepared for the result.

Years one to three were so amazing and unique that they catapulted the show to the top of many television critics’ lists (including mine).

But this is fourth year.  And we’re not all good enough to graduate.

I’ll be grading each episode on a pass/fail basis.  Pass means good.  Fail means not good.  Withdraw means skip entirely.

History 101

Community - History 101The season opener featured Fred Willard (used to ineffectual effect) in place of Pierce during one of Abed’s increasingly common psychological breakdowns.  This time, Abed forms a conventional sitcom version of Community in his head as he psychologically rejects the realization that this will be the last year for many in the study group.  Particularly with the revelation that Jeff had taken summer classes and would be graduating a semester early, Abed comes face-to-face with the fact that everything’s changing and he doesn’t want to leave.

Overall, I’d say this is the first episode that really pushes things on the ridiculous scale too far, with Dean Pelton putting together a gladiatorial faux-Hunger Games tournament to determine which students will be taking the “History of Ice Cream” class.  There’s a careful balancing act that Community has always managed to maintain, one that’s difficult to describe but also one that was totally broken with the over-the-top “Hunger Deans” games.  The way Dean Pelton glides in on a chariot in full drag, the half-naked male models, the dance that paired Jeff with the Dean.  These are all things that we’ve come to expect with the series, but usually not all at the same time and with such an ancilllary connection to the dramatic crux of the episode.

This is also the episode where we learn the Dean has moved in next to Jeff at his apartment complex, which is funny conceptually, but is something the writers never do anything substantial with.

Episode Grade:  Fail

Paranormal Parentage

The Halloween episode for the year, and of course it actually aired on Valentine’s Day.  There’s nothing intentionally funny or meaningful about that, it’s just what happens when networks like NBC don’t know how to program their primetime lineups and push shows from their promised fall debuts into the winter.

(by the way, this promo is easily the cleverest thing from this entire season)

Community- Season 4So in this episode, Pierce lures the study group to his home (the group having ditched Pierce to go to a Halloween party) where he is [fake] trapped in his panic room.  The group arrives in full Halloween dress — Jeff a boxer (as an excuse to walk around without a shirt on), Britta is a ham (To Kill a Mockingbird reference?), Annie is Samara (from The Ring), Shirley is Princess Leia, and Abed and Troy are Calvin and Hobbes respectively — and are soon split into teams to try to find the code to open the panic room door in the haunted mansion.  Of the stories told, the most substantial (and only notable one) is Jeff and Britta’s where we learn that Jeff has located his biological father.

If there’s a part of you that sensed that I was struggling with that last paragraph and just wanted to get it over with, then you’re right.  While I’ve never particularly liked Halloween episodes of any series, I have always thought highly of Community‘s.  But not this year’s.  This is an episode about fathers and sons, Jeff confronting his feelings about his absent father after seeing how much Pierce’s father has controlled him.  By the end of the episode, it’s revealed that the boxing gloves Jeff had been wearing around his neck all night actually belonged to his father (i.e., his father’s absence did have a profound effect on his life despite his protestations) and he gives him a call.  And while all of that’s necessary and important to the only strong overarching storyline of the season, this wasn’t a very good episode.

Episode Grade:  Withdraw

Conventions of Space and Time

Community - Conventions of Space and TimeInspector Spacetime is probably the strongest and funniest non-essential-to-the-overall-show meme to come from Community, so when it came time for an episode set at an Inspector Spacetime convention, I was cautiously optimistic.  In case it’s not obvious by the name and accompanying picture, Inspector Spacetime is Community‘s sendup of Doctor Who.  Across multiple episodes, Troy and Abed dress up as the Inspector and Constable Reggie and engage in tangential stories and adventures wherein the question isn’t where they are… but when!

This episode guest stars Matt Lucas — who’s a big deal on British television (which is one of those things people like me are supposed to know about) — as a foreign Inspector Spacetime devotee who threatens Troy and Abed’s friendship.  There’s also Tricia Helfer — of Battlestar Galactica fame (which is one of those shows people like me are supposed to have watched) — as a fan of Doctor Thoraxis, an Inspector Spacetime villain who looks exactly like Jeff.  From a fanboy perspective, there are a lot of wasted opportunities in this episode.  No sacred geek convention tropes are skewered (at least not effectively), no crazy scenes of convention spectacle occur, and when Shirley and Pierce are pulled aside to serve on a focus group for a potential American version of Inspector Spacetime, the scene devolves into a flat condemnation of American television production in general.

What this episode gets right, however, is the relationships, chiefly between Troy and Abed, but also between Britta and Troy, where Britta (who’s working towards becoming a therapist) shows genuine insight into Troy and Abed’s friendship.  The Jeff and Annie relationship also works as a B story, where Annie explores what it would be like to be Mrs. Jeff Winger (unbeknownst to Jeff).  By the end of the episode, you get a real feel for how close the group is, and that goes a long way toward making the episode more than just watchable.

Episode Grade:  Pass

Alternative History of the German Invasion

Community - Season 4The debut of Malcolm McDowell’s Professor Cornwallis, an almost spectacularly under-utilized character given the stature of the actor (“stature of the actor”).  The episode also kicks off the ongoing “Changnesia” story arc with the full return of Ken Jeong’s Chang, now Kevin, who’s conveniently suffering from amnesia after basically enslaving Greendale at the end of last season.

The A story of the episode features the return of the Germans, sans Nick Kroll with Chris Diamantopolous in his place, who engage the study group in a war of attrition vis-à-vis who can get up earlier to sign out the study room.  Sure, you can usually do those things online these days, but it’s still a decent setup in as far as no proper college student can actually wake up early.  I once dropped a class mostly because it started at 8 in the morning (even though I lived across the street from the school at the time).  If there’s a B story to this episode, I don’t immediately remember it, and I won’t commit the memory to recall it.  This is a mess of an episode, the first one to really hit us over the head with the fact that this season won’t be a return to the show we’d been waiting for, and its only redeeming value — exploring how our heroes, the study group, are actually villains to everyone else in the school — was explored much better last season.

Episode Grade:  Withdraw

Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations

Community - Cooperative Escapism in Familial RelationsThis is the Thanksgiving Day episode, which, again, loses something for its not airing anywhere near Thanksgiving.  But, importantly, this is the episode where we finally meet Jeff’s long-absent father, William, played by James Brolin.

“Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” is the strongest episode of the year, giving us the best character moment of the season and one of the best in the series.  It fits in so completely and so seamlessly on a dramatic and comedic level that it almost feels like it came from Dan Harmon himself.  I won’t ruin it for you by describing the details, but the episode features probably the strongest monologue from Jeff, the series monologist who always sums up what we’ve learned in the episode, and gives the character a genuine, heartfelt moment of growth.  Really strong stuff.

It’s just too bad the B story (Shirley invites Annie, Troy, Abed, and Pierce to her family’s [horrible] Thanksgiving Dinner) is so weak.  While it has a similarly strong character arc for Shirley as it does for Jeff (arguably the two characters with the most in common), the strained Shawshank Redemption-esque construction doesn’t work at all (a fact the writers somewhat acknowledge through Abed’s inner monologue; not that that makes it any better).

Episode Grade:  Pass (with Distinction)

Advanced Documentary Filmmaking

Community - Advanced Documentary FilmmakingI actually couldn’t remember what happened in this episode before re-watching it for the review.  And I’m one of those people who just remembers unimportant crap (like how Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow were engaged for a while), so that’s saying a lot.

The episode is almost entirely forgettable, and only comes close to a pass for its importance to the overall plot of the season by devoting an entire episode to Kevin’s Changnesia.  For that alone, the episode can’t get a “Withdraw” grade, even if it insults our intelligence by doing something as banal as naming the organization that funds Changnesia research the MacGuffin Neurological Institute.  It’s almost like the writers were openly announcing that they’d given up.

Episode Grade:  Fail

Economics of Marine Biology

I actually hate the A story of this episode, and there’s not many things I directly hate about Community.  But the story of the school trying to attract Archie, a rich, trust-fund slacker to help fill its ever-in-peril coffers is just poorly done, with a guest actor who’s incredibly grating, even excusing for how much he’s supposed to be given the character he’s playing.  Luckily we never see him again in the series.  This was terrible.  I’m not going to talk about it anymore than that.

Community - Economics of Marine BiologyOn the plus side, this is actually a good Pierce episode, where Jeff has to take Pierce up on his offer to spend the day with him at the Italian barber shop, “a reminder of a bygone era, where men were men and women were sex cooks who did laundry.”  Along with the following episode, this one has the kind of Pierce moment that, had they been slightly more frequent, would’ve given the character enough wisdom and perspective to make me understand why he’s on the show/in the group.  As much as I’m completely in love with the first three seasons of this show, I’ll fully admit that Pierce has been the most mismanaged character, and instead of providing occassional moments of wisdom and old-man comedy, we just got an unnecessarily racist and occassionally evil senior citizen that we never wanted to spend any time around.  Or maybe that’s just Chevy Chase.

There’s also some crap about Troy and Shirley’s class on physical education education (not a typo) and Abed leading a rogue “Delta Cubes” fraternity, neither of which are as bad as the Archie story, but that I will devote even less space to.

Episode Grade:  Fail

Herstory of Dance

Community - Herstory of Dance 1Easily the most rewatchable episode of the season, though that may have a lot to do with my emotional attachments to 90s pop music and Brie Larson.

When Britta accidentally says she will throw a rival “Sophie B. Hawkins” dance (she meant to say “Susan B. Anthony”) in protest to the Dean’s Sadie Hawkins dance, Jeff spends the episode torturing Britta as the stakes escalate to the point where the school expects Sophie B. Hawkins to actually show up and perform.  We get some great moments from Abed who’s been put on two separate blind dates by Annie and Shirley for the dances (fully aware of the comedic tropes he’s engaged in) and a moment of growth for the character when he falls for Rachel, the dances’ coat check girl (both fully aware of the dramatic trope that their story follows).  Perhaps most importantly, we get a rare win for Britta, whose name had become synonymous with making a huge mistake by this point (both in the show and in real life), a full mea culpa moment from Jeff that brings the two a lot closer together as friends (the show having long-ago moved on from the will-they-won’t-they Jeff and Britta stage; spoiler alert, they did), and, like I just alluded to, a nice, wise-old-man moment for Pierce.  All in an episode with clever moments and real laughs.

Episode Grade:  Pass (with Honours)

Intro to Felt Surrogacy

Apparently, I’m one of the few Community fans in the world who didn’t particularly like Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”, the all-claymation Chistmas episode that took place almost entirely in Abed’s damaged psyche.  It’s still a good episode, just not a favourite, and I would’ve preferred a normal, live episode.  I guess I just don’t really like animated versions of real-life shows (see Clerks:  The Animated Series).  That said, they did use the medium to its fullest effect and it did feel like a proper Christmas show.

Community - Intro to Felt Surrogacy

I would say largely the same thing about “Intro to Felt Surrogacy”, Community‘s puppet episode.  It absolutely felt as much like an episode of The Muppets as it could’ve (at least to my recollection, I’m a little young for that show), and it did take us places we couldn’t go in real life.  The only difference is I didn’t like this episode.  The numerous and extended sing-alongs really killed it for me.  I guess if you’re into spontaneous song breakouts it’d be okay, but to me it’s just covering up for a lack of the direct, visceral comedy of a really great Community episode, even if I’m willing to admit that song writing is harder than it seems (and these are full-fledged, orchestral songs).

Episode Grade:  Fail (but encouraged to retake)

Intro to Knots

Community - Intro to KnotsThe Christmas episode.  For an extended review like this, I usually make notes during re-viewing, and this is the only episode I didn’t make any notes on.  I don’t know if that actually means anything, but I really didn’t care for the episode overall.

Basically, the study group has to woo Professor Cornwallis (a noted foot fetishist) into giving them a passing grade on their group history assignment (and thus the course) by inviting him to Jeff’s Christmas get-together.  Clearly a bottle episode as it takes place entirely on one set (a concept I first learned of from Community’s heydays), the episode manages to be free of the “wall-to-wall facial expression and emotional nuance” that such episodes are supposed to have, and it really stands as a symbol of how little the creators gave Malcolm McDowell to do.

Episode Grade:  Withdraw

Basic Human Anatomy

Community - Basic Human AnatomyA concept episode with Troy and Abed body-swapping à la Freaky Friday, this felt like an episode that the writers set out on with a strong concept and no idea how to carry it through an entire episode.  As flexible as Community is — allowing for extended, themed paintball, puppetry, and claymation episodes— it’s not a show that can fundamentally break the fabric of its own reality.  It can’t literally be a body-swap episode because this isn’t a world where supernatural events can happen without breaking the whole show.  What has made this show so good, other than incredibly sharp, funny, inventive writing, is that it’s fundamentally of us.  It’s real and connected to each of us, even as it follows its idiosyncracies and flights of fancy.  By the time the writers realize this, it’s too late; they’ve already come too far with the body-swapping concept, and even though the writers comport themselves well, writing an emotionally satisfying and true ending to Britta and Troy’s relationship, the episode never actually made me laugh.

Episode Grade:  Pass

Heroic Origins

Community - Heroic OriginsThis was a really nice episode.  Surprisingly so, especially by the end where it feels like a lot of things came full circle, be it lead characters (the study group), supporting characters (Dean Pelton), and especially El Tigre (Chang).

Abed manages to trace the origins of the study group, finding that one single, destined day at the mall brought them all together.  The episode ties everything together in a satisfying way, sheds meaningful light in a series that we’ve already spent considerable time with, and even answered some long-standing questions (or at least filled in some long-standing blanks).  And the moment between Abed and Chang (Abed having long known that Chang was faking his Changnesia) was actually pretty touching and provides a theoretically working excuse for Chang’s increasing lunacy over the course of the series.  In a lot of ways, this feels like the real swan song of this off-year at Greendale, where none of the characters felt quite right, none of the events were anywhere near original, and almost nothing was as good as it could’ve been.  It’s an altogether clever episode of the show, brought to us by showrunners who really did want to put together a successful series following Dan Harmon’s vision.

It just wasn’t very funny.

Episode Grade:  Pass

Advanced Introduction to Finality

Community - Advanced Introduction to FinalityFor most of us, this was the presumed last episode of the series, and it was hard not to view it without a high level of sentimentality.  But it’s also a pretty big fail.  If only the showrunners had ended an episode earlier

Jeff has an existential crisis over his early graduation (he majored in Education, a bachelor’s degree in said subject apparently being enough to be a lawyer?) — should he go back to his old, sleazy, opportunistic ways, or has he truly learned something after three-and-a-half years at Greendale (I guess it’s three and a half; it’s harder to place the progression of the season given when it actually aired and the compressed, thirteen-episode schedule).  This crisis gives way to a darkest timeline incursion and paintball-style finale that is both weak and almost insulting given the glories of “Modern Warfare”, “A Fistful of Paintballs”, and “For a Few Paintballs More”.  And even though the episode ends with a genuine and heartfelt speech from Jeff, who has grown as a character, so did last season’s finale.  We did this already.  That’s what’s so f*cked up.

Episode Grade:  Fail

Community - season 4 backI won’t say that, for fans, season four was a complete failure, that I regretted watching it, or that that’s 4.64 hours of my life I’ll never get back (I did the math).  It was still better than a lot of what’s on TV (but just barely), it had just enough important character moments to make it worth watching, and, frankly, my time isn’t that valuable.  But there are some pretty big failures that go far beyond the generally weaker scripting and lack of conceptual ambition.  Most of the season just feels like it’s treading water, afraid to move forward even as the currents pull it back.  There’s virtually nothing done with the threat of Dean Spreck and City College from the end of season three and it’s eventually dropped entirely, we don’t get anything substantial from Dean Pelton as Jeff’s new neighbor, and even with the argument that the thirteen-episode schedule (as opposed to the usual more-than-20) didn’t leave enough room to explore, I don’t think anyone felt that the season was rocketed forth with such strong propulsive story and/or thematic force that there wasn’t time.

I’m not sure if you’re feeling as exhausted as I’ve become while writing this review, but the one thing that should come through is that this wasn’t very fun.  And that sentiment echoes throughout the entire season, where the laugh-out-loud moments are so alarmingly sparse.  Community used to be one of those elusive things that couldn’t be measured by trivial things like words or lists.  It was that rare show that could give you chills if you were the type of person who likes meaningful commentary, genuine wit, and thoughtful character development.

What this season doesn’t understand is the concept of restraint.  The strongest moments of the season — Jeff confronting his father, Britta’s Sophie B. Hawkins dance, and the origins of the study group — were all earned over the course of four years of character development.  When it dives straight into a Hunger Games-structured episode, when it uses an animated Muppet Babies homage, or has an entire puppet episode, not only are these concepts derivative by this point, they’re unearned.  It’s the difference between a story with craft and a story that just tries to be cool.  When the Germans returned, when Annie and the Dean bend over backwards to get Archie to attend Greendale, when Abed says we found a way to make paintball cool again, it’s not cool.  We’re not there yet.  These characters haven’t gotten there because the season wasn’t challenging enough.

More than anything else, this season just doesn’t get the feel right.  It’s off just enough to not sit right, and no matter how much long-time fans may have consciously tried to deny that feeling, it’s inescapable.  Community season four is a story that tells you about the Greendale Seven, but doesn’t show you them.

If not for the growth of Chang as a character near the end and, in particular, the moment between Jeff and his father, the season would almost be a complete wash.  Like in the fourth year of college, this is the season that sort of loses it.  It’s greatest triumphs lay behind it and it’s become like everyone else/every other sitcom in an attempt to get a job/continue on.

Still, with the news that not only will Community be back for a fifth season (which sort of breaks the foundational [four-year diploma] concept of the show, but whatever) and, even more importantly, Dan Harmon is back, we now have more reason than ever to look forward to whenever NBC decides to air the show and the prophesied #sixseasonsandamovie.  If “Advanced Introduction to Finality” had truly been the end of the series, it really would have been a shame.  That we can look forward with hope, that the show now stands a better chance of returning to something close to what it had been — that is all the proof any fan, any art lover, any person should need to know that this is far from the darkest timeline.

Community Season Four final grade point average:  2.1 (on a four-point scale)