As a twentysomething liberal arts grad, it's pretty much a pre-requisite to love post-modernism. The more meta something is, the better. So needless to say, I've been a huge fan of Community since the beginning (my massive crush on Donald Glover might have helped a little too). But then somewhere in the middle of Season 3, I felt my passion waning. When I first tried to share my concerns, fellow fans shunned me, acting as though I wasn't smart or hip enough to get it.
Then Dan Harmon was fired.
Soon these same people started to wonder if Community had "lost its edge" in its fourth season, to which I sat back, rolled my eyes and did my best Dennis Duffy: "Took you long enough, dummies." Without their obsession with Harmon — and the hypnotic power of Community fandom itself — blinding them, the cracks in Community's design were obvious. That's not to say I haven't enjoyed these past two seasons (my love of "Basic Lupine Urology" knows no bounds and Jim Rash continues to be perfection), but something is definitely different.
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Before Season 4 even premiered, new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port had an uphill battle ahead of them. I was relieved when, in the premiere's cold open, they took the criticism in stride and responded to fans' fears with a referential riff on a multi-cam comedy. Yet when it came to responding to criticism over Community's somewhat shallow character development, they floundered. Season 4 saw Jeff (Joel McHale) meets his estranged father, Troy (Glover) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) attempting a mature relationship, and Annie (Alison Brie) and Abed (Danny Pudi) struggling with change — and it stunk. There's a reason Troy and Britta broke up in "Basin Human Anatomy." Not because it would provide a catalyst for a rich, emotional story line, but simply because no one cared if they stayed together. This isn't Mad Men or Grey's Anatomy. No one is sitting around watching Community for a nuanced character study or soapy romance. We watch to see the unexpected, zany ways the show will subvert our expectations.
But what did Community subvert this season (beyond maybe our own hopes)? Season 4 felt as though Guarascio and Port dug into Community's history and threw everything (including the kitchen sink) at the wall to see what would stick. But nothing did because this is a TV show, not spaghetti, and it requires a bit more forethought. There was simply too much happening this season that went nowhere and ultimately, it lent an air of meaninglessness (and not in a cool "show about nothing" way like Seinfeld). Jeff's relationship with his dad, Abed's Manic Pixie love interest, Annie's infatuation with Jeff — did we get any closure to these issues? Did it affect the larger narrative or our characters' dispositions at all? Or were they simply empty plot devices to distract us from realizing that Community is now only a simulacrum of the show we once loved. (I'm leaning towards the latter.)
In no way is the fault of Guarascio and Port alone. Most of the aforementioned issues were ideas planted by Harmon before his abrupt firing last year. And though Guarascio and Port were following fixed plans, it never felt like they committed to any of the ideas. Between InspectiCon and their breakup, Troy and Britta's relationship was rarely mentioned, Abed never saw the girl from the dance again (even though they were clearly MFEO), and I honestly still have no idea how Jeff feels about his father. So what was the point?
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The themed episodes, typically Community's shining hours, suffered from the same lack of follow-through. Both The Shawshank and Die Hard send-ups were underdeveloped and served no purpose beyond, "Hey, look. It's a parody. That's what Community does, right?" Instead of immersing all the characters in the theme (for instance, in a school-wide paintball battle or stop-motion Christmas fantasy), Season 4's Very Special Story Lines were inconsistent and clashed with the grounded plots within the episodes.
However, I do (or at least did) have praise for Guarascio and Port for what I believed was a genius solution to Community's consistent weak link: The Chang Problem. My patience for Chang (Ken Jeong) disappeared not long into Season 1, yet I found Kevin refreshing and charming. His over-the-top befuddlement was a perfect fit at Greendale's already eccentric campus. Then they went and Britta'd it by having his Changnesia be a ploy to enact revenge on the Greendale 7 (but don't worry — it all ends with hugs and froyo *eye-roll*). While I crave the unexpected, the study group accepting Chang in "Heroic Origins" was surprising in the worst way possible because the only reason I didn't see it coming was because I never thought Community would stoop so low as to rehash the tired sitcom trope of the reformed and misunderstood bully.
But let's forget about Chang for a second (one of Community fans' most popular sayings). At the root of all these issues is the fact that the show simply isn't as ambitious as it used to be. The jokes come slower. Plots are inconsistent. Characters evolve and devolve with no real sense of purpose. As Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) summarized: "What they like about this show is that it's smart, complicated and doesn't talk down to its audience." These words, an overt reference to Community's own fans, just proves that the series isn't as smart or complicated as it thinks it is. If you want us to think you're so clever, prove it. We aren't Pierce (Chevy Chase). We don't need you to spell everything out for us (especially if what you're trying to explain is a self-indulgent stroking of your own ego).
Community used to be an impressive juggling act, with story lines converging in a way that both amused and surprised. Only once this season ("Alternative History of the German Invasion") did Community achieve this, but otherwise, the show was being weird simply for the sake of being weird. This doesn't mean that Community couldn't get better and I'm not saying that there weren't genuinely great moments this season ("You want to see our papers? I thought this was America, not Arizona"). But these moments were rare and easily forgotten between parodies as lazy as The Hunger Deans and jokes as tired as Troy's gay Batman anxiety. I fear if Community were to continue, these moments of genius would continue to fade away until we're left with a sitcom equivalent of Twin Peaks' second season or worse — The OC's fourth. (Does that make Pierce the Marissa Cooper of Community?)
I will admit that Community's done a great job of rallying fans together through Twitter. The show has the ability to make fans feel as though they're a part of something, a close-knit little group, not unlike the Greendale 7. And in the end, that's what I'd miss most if Community went away for good, instead of the show itself.
But hey, we'll always have #myemotions.