by Thom Yee
Look, I don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t have any precognitive abilities, and even though my sense of pattern recognition is roughly the equal of most Asians, I can’t directly tell you what the future holds. All I know is that last Friday, May 9th, NBC did the unthinkable and cancelled Community after its fifth season. #darkesttimeline said star Joel McHale, accompanied by similarly morose, but appreciative lamentations by many members of the cast, and series creator Dan Harmon’s words, “Twitter isn’t big enough to hold my condolences and more importantly my gratitude to the best fans, cast and crew in TV history. Excelsior.” (Bear in mind that these statements were all from Twitter and not necessarily meant for full-scale grammatical analysis).
Sure, our collective thoughts almost immediately turned to the positive after so many Kickstarter-ed Veronica Mars movies, big screened Fireflys, and even our own ‘Save Community’campaigns. Network names like Comedy Central and Hulu and Netflix quickly propogated as we devised our own near-term and utterly plausible plans for how Community will be back next season as Abed assured us near the end of the last. After all, in these days of citizen activism, audience participation, and the fever pitches of Internet outbursts, we, the unwashed masses, wield more power, influence, and control than ever before.
And there’s really no such thing as a cancellation as long as our media outlets remain multi-.
Because the only thing we can’t do is back down from this setback. Because we’ve become something unstoppable… we’ve become a Community.
And all I ask is for each of you that you expect the people in charge to extend the same compassion to us that they extend to sharks, pencils, and Ben Affleck.
And Save Community.
But… the truth is… I don’t think that Community’s coming back this time. And instead of becoming the Traveling Wilburys of pain, ready for anything this show throws at us next, I think this time we’ve finally broken up like the real Traveling Wilburys. Also, I have no idea what the Traveling Wilburys are. Or why that reference may have ever made sense in the first place.
Community came along at an almost astonishingly appropriate time and place for me, its lead character disbarred for having a fake undergrad degree and in need of a real one, and me ending my own career to pursue the comparative security of a full degree (rather than my array of diplomas and certificates). Sure, Jeff Winger had a good ten to fifteen years on me, and yes, I had actual credentials, but there was an unusual bit of synchronicity between Jeff Winger and myself as we embarked on our later-in-life college experiences. It had been a good five years or so since I had been in any formal classroom setting, and in that time I had convinced myself that I would never go back, that I hated school, and I didn’t need it for where I was headed. Besides that, and like Jeff concluded in the pilot, the funny thing about being smart is that you can get through most of life without ever having to do any work, and like him, I didn’t really know how to study anymore. Maybe that’s why I chose to “study” communications (“job prospects and security be damned, at least I’ll have something to do for the next four years,” I no doubt thought to myself at the time).
Looking back, it’s almost unbelievable how much confidence NBC clearly had with its newest Joel McHale-Chevy Chase vehicle (just as it was sure it had shored up its scheduling holes with five nights of Jay Leno on primetime). Sets were wide open, with scenic vistas of a large campus full of students, advertisements and promotions were rampant and widespread, and guest stars in cameos and recurring roles were everywhere. Did you know that Hilary Duff was on an episode of Community? That’s right, Mrs. Mike Comrie herself. Or the Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors was a professor of boating? Remember Doc Potterywood, that guy we used to see in tons of commercials, and Jeff’s indirect nemesis? Heady days indeed, until all they could afford were a guy whose defining trait is being fat and a guy who runs around saying, “POP-POP!” Not that there’s anything wrong with those guys. I love Fat Neil, and I know Magnitude touched us all.
Initial ratings were huge following The Office, and then some wisenheimer programming exec decided to run Community against The Big Bang Theory, all but ensuring an untimely demise. Maybe it was for the best really, as our show gradually found its legs, moving away from its post-adulthood community college setting and toward the weird, ahead-of-its-time, paintball-soaked epiphany it longed to become. After all, who of us would’ve rallied so hard for a show that wasn’t also a perpetual underdog? I even wrote and delivered a speech about the show and left Save Community banners all over my school (freakish and temporary West End campus that it was).
What made Community so good wasn’t the chemistry of its cast, its clever one-liners, or its ruminations on pop culture, all of which would be rare elements and easily the best parts of lesser shows. What made Community so uncompromisingly perfect was its sincere and all-encompassing desire to take the network television medium as far as it could go. You can watch an episode and follow the drama of multiple will they/won’t they’s (most involving Jeff), you can laugh as Chevy Chase bumbles his way through trying to put together his lunch at the school cafeteria, and you can marvel at the show’s unceasing desire to tear down the walls of everything that makes Glee an empty, superficial and ultimately cynical hour of television, but what makes Community great is that it made you think as it poked and prodded and punched through the artificial fourth walls it found itself surrounded by. For me, at its best, it was a show that convinced me it was ahead of everyone else, and even at its worst there was always something to talk about at the meta-level. And even though it’s a show within a show, built on top of a show and underneath another show, even though it doesn’t have a leg to stand on without the contributions of the stories, conceits and tropes of its television forebears, it still earned a spot all its own, deftly able to find the beating human hearts of characters who, like us all, are just searching for acceptance from teachers, from fathers, from society, and from those around us everyday of our lives.
Over the next three years of clips shows comprised of entirely new material, alternate timelines, and major missteps, we would grow to love, hang on to, and occasionally despise the places Community would take us. Like the tin man, Jeff found his heart, unlike the scarecrow, Britta lost her brain and Britta’d everything up, Troy found the courage to leave his co-dependent relationship with Abed to travel the seven seas, and no one else did anything even remotely Wizard of Oz-oriented. Despite two different series-wrapping conclusions at the ends of seasons three and four, perhaps the ultimate coda we would receive for our characters came after series creator Dan Harmon’s return in the fifth season’s fourth episode, “Cooperative Polygraphy.” Following Pierce’s death, vaporization, and storage in an Energon pod (as is the tradition of his Reformed Neo Buddhist religion), he bequeathed each of our now Greendale Six with gifts of their own in the form of his revelations, letting everyone know exactly what he thought of this group that generally hated and often excluded him (he also left bottles of his own sperm, the creation of which caused the dehydration that led to his death [ah, the circle of life]). Pierce, the always eccentric, usually racist, and sometimes evil old man tells Britta that her passion inspired him, Shirley that her business acumen and strength of character intimidated him, Annie that she was his favourite, Jeff that he was happiest when the two shared time together (that’s my inference from the gift of Scotch he received), Abed that he’s insane and nothing he said ever made sense to him (a good thing?), and that Troy had the greatest gift that life can give: the heart of a hero. It’s a touching scene and conclusion to this character that the writers didn’t always know what to do with, and its one that the show really earned as it neared the end of its run. If we had known that this would be Community’s last season, I can’t help but wonder if it would’ve been better placed near the season’s end.
I think the worst thing about Community’s cancellation is that it really didn’t end with any sense of finality. Unlike season three, which concluded creator Dan Harmon’s original run, or season four, which offered its own resolutions, season five, as I pointed out in my review, ended with a resounding f*ck you to the powers involved in a sixth season decision. Abed, speaking as the metacontextual outsider he’s been since the beginning, says, “We’ll definitely be back next year. If not, it’ll be because an asteroid has destroyed all human civilization. And that’s canon,” followed by a credits sequence of superficial, destined-to-fail, classically NBC-esque fall previews. Neither are particularly strong or clever moment of meta-cognition, but combined with the widely propogated meme that’s, in many ways, subsumed the show, we all just kind of thought that at least six seasons was all but inevitable. I mean, how much less money can NBC make on first broadcasts? How much lower could ratings get? And have their executives really not learned from their mistakes and realized how few of their new fall shows will make it to a full year of broadcast? Of course, such logic is foolish as it’s also on us fans to realize that it’s impossible to learn and apply a lesson when you too are fired after only one season, as is the case with most TV execs (especially at NBC).
Taken as a whole, and looking at where we’re leaving our characters, however, and you’ll realize that things really did kind of wrap themselves up. Jeff has reached some level of stable employment, Pierce is dead (as was his characters’ ultimate destiny), Troy is off pursuing an adventure to match his heroic heart (and hopefully he and LeVar Burton have found a way out of their capture by pirates in the Gulf of Mexico by now), Abed has grown more independent and become somewhat relatable (he even has a girlfriend), Britta has actually experienced success as a therapist, Annie found the courage to be who she wanted to be as a forensic investigator rather than hospital administrator, and Shirley… continued to be under-written. And no, I don’t know why that last sentence put all the men of the show before all of the women, it just happened that way, okay?
Beyond all of that, there are some hard facts standing in the way of a series renewal. First, Community is already in syndication. With ninety-seven shows in its back pocket, Community had more than enough episodes to shop to networks and cable channels far and wide. By the end of season four, it didn’t need that last burst of shows to complete a syndication order. Second, Hulu (a service not even officially available in Canada) holds the streaming rights to the show, Comedy Central the cable broadcast rights, and neither is in a strong-enough financial position to take up the monetary production slack left by NBC. Third, and this is probably the most important, the spirit just isn’t there anymore. Dan Harmon is an implacable asshole genius who’s already moved on to other works (see the great, great Rick and Morty), and it’s clear from the solid, but weakened season that’s just passed and his own musings that he doesn’t have the same disposition, attitude, or resolve of seasons past. Even on our side, to the extent any of us play any real role, we’ve already saved Community two or three times by now, and after five seasons struggling to save a constantly on the bubble, can you honestly say you’re not more than a little tired? This isn’t Community’s senior year, it’s post-grad.
This may not be the first time Community’s cancellation has come up, but it’s the first time that it’s really counted. It really feels like it’s gone, and in some ways, it really feels right for it to go. I don’t want to say goodbye, but I’m ready to. Nothing will take its place, but we’ll move on and find our new favourite shows, fictions, and other things to do. No matter what we think or want or tell ourselves, this is probably the end. In fact, the only compelling reason I can think of that Community would come back is that I spent the last couple of hours writing this piece.
Is it better that it ends somewhat rejuvenated and Greendale saved? Is it better that Britta still probably won’t find work in psychiatry, Shirley’s still divorced, and Chang is still a mixed up hodgepodge of character types, existing almost entirely for laughs and never to be trusted again?
Is it better that we fans are still here, fallen to our knees in shock and disbelief, just past the edge of a near-triumphant return of a season and the embittered hopes for more?
I don’t know the answer to that, all I know is that right now I’m too tired to seriously consider trying to answer those questions.
And maybe that’s the only answer that matters.
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