"I guess there’s no hug button.”
The celebration from last week’s announcement that Community would return for a 13-episode fourth season had just begun when it was immediately brought down by two pieces of news: the show would be moving to Friday nights, and Dan Harmon may not be returning. There will be a whole summer to hash out precisely what either of those would mean to the show, but on the face of it both are not just bad, but catastrophic. Friday night is a death-slot, or traditionally has been, for series that networks want to die a peaceful death away from the shows they actually give a shit about (congratulations, Up All Night). Now a network like, say, FOX, has also used that slot to protect a low-rated but critically acclaimed series — no way Fringe gets more than a single season on Mondays — but NBC has never let that kind logic get in the way of their apparent goal to first produce and then destroy the most innovative comedies on television (right, Conan?). They don’t seem on board with, or at all interested in talking about, new models. They want Community to go away with as little bad press as possible.
The second piece of news was a real kick to the groin of any fan of the show. What would Community be like without Dan Harmon, one of the most devoted show-runners in recent memory? Much has been made, and I have said much myself, about Harmon’s famous four-part story structure, a model that would require at least one more season to fully realize. But without Harmon overseeing the series, how would that play out? Stepping aside may do wonders for Harmon’s cardiovascular system, but it could kill his baby.
And on top of all those indignities, NBC chose to unceremoniously dump the final three episodes, and the last that will ever air on Thursday, on one night together — interrupted by an episode of 30 Rock! It’s the same kind of nonsense that FOX pulled on Arrested Development at the end of its life, but at least now we know that we’re getting Season Four (though, as we will see at the end of the final episode of the night, the creators clearly didn’t). What we end up with are three very disparate episodes of Community, and two very different approaches to TV comedy.
“Digital Estate Planning”
The night begins with a gem, one of Community’s concept episodes, but this one’s a concept wrapped in a concept. “Digital Estate Planning” will go down in history as Community’s “video game episode”, but it also explores the horror movie trope of staying the night in an abandoned house to inherit a fortune. It’s a clever mash-up, and the resulting episode is unpretentious fun.
The gang accompany Pierce to the office of his father’s long-time assistant Gilbert Lawson (played by Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad, Do the Right Thing, and every other amazing piece of art in the past twenty years), who is now the caretaker of the Hawthorne estate — a position earned through long hours of reading the bible to Colonel Hawthorne during his bath. He informs Pierce that the only way to inherit his fortune is to plug in to a video game with six friends (convenient, that). Whoever reaches the end level first will take the fortune, a tactic designed to get Pierce’s friends to fight each other for the money. Their seats are equipped with a sensor that will forfeit the entire game if they stay out of their chairs for longer than 30 seconds, and they are stalked by Gilbert himself, who logs into the game and supplies himself with endless power-ups to keep the fortune for himself.
Now, that all sounds pretty stupid. But the episode works — much like the zombie attack in “Epidemiology” — because it acknowledges the stupidity and goes with it (for instance, Colonel Hawthorne has pre-recorded death rattles into the game should he lose, because he is a “man of honor”). So without lingering on plot points the episode is free to have fun with the charmingly rendered Super Nintendo-era graphics. The little touches in the animation really sell the concept (I want to play this game, like, now), from the way Jeff jumps like Mega-Man to Troy’s giant tumbling leaps, and the continual red flashes as the group members accidentally hurt each other each time they touch (metaphor!). The gags, from the killer, sex-crazed hippies to the murderous jive turkeys are sharp and hilarious.
And there is a nice twist in the plot, as Gilbert is revealed to be the illegitimate child of the Colonel. In the end, Pierce lets Gilbert defeat their father and win the fortune (though he seems to think that providing a real handgun is the way to accomplish this). It’s a nice character beat for Pierce who, in the course of the past two seasons, has lost both of his parents and even Troy as a roommate and been driven mad by loneliness. Now at least he’s got some family left. The moment is there, but we don’t dwell on it, which again ties this episode to “Modern Warfare” and “Epidemiology” in its approach to story. The other two episodes of the night will utilize the interconnected story threads that Season Three has experimented with, and I think they suffer as a result.
“The First Chang Dynasty”
Something must have happened in this episode other than Goth Britta, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what it was.
Okay, fine, I’ll try. Here we come to the culmination of the half-season long arc of Chang taking over Greendale (just like Stalin in Russia times, as Britta is quick to point out), with another parody built in — this time an Ocean’s 11 heist style theme. Now, mileage will vary on these kind of parodies, but this one didn’t engage me as much because I don’t care much for those kind of movies. However, this episode does pull off its main plot effectively. There’s a lot of twisty stuff, and even a mockery of the moment where the plan goes wrong, but no it didn’t because that’s really what our heroes wanted to begin with — a hoary trope that undoes even the best of films, and by that I mean Wrath of Khan.
Now, I’ve always like Ken Jeong as Chang, even through some of the more pathetic, annoying stretches of Season Two, but I have nothing but sympathy for you if you disagree. There is an unsettling intensity to his manic peaks that is less successful than the bizarrely percolating insanity we get when he tries to get sneaky. I like that Chang, and we got that Chang here at the end of his arc. I love the turn-on-a-dime switch from megalomaniacal glee to sheepish humility we get as he tries to hide the impending lightsaber duel from the board members, I love the folder labelled “Misc. Chang Puns” in his office, and yeah, I love the Napoleon outfit.
In the end, Greendale survives because of the alcoholic incompetence of its overseers. If there’s greater meta parallel to Community’s treatment by NBC in the past week I can’t think of one. But the group themselves are saved by Troy’s sacrifice, which leads in to the final episode of the night and of the season, and into a discussion about my general misgivings about the Air Conditioning repair annex storyline, which I’ll pick up in a second. For this episode all we need to know is that Troy must leave the group, which he does with a series of emotional goodbyes (and some brilliant advice from Pierce — “never wear a rubber”). The Abed moment plays well, but the idea that Troy would have to leave forever is so broad that the moment doesn’t carry as much resonance as it should.
“Introduction to Finality”
It’s been established from the first season onward that Troy is a plumbing prodigy, gifted almost mystically with his abilities. I would guess that’s why the writers decided to make him the messiah of a super-secret sect of repairmen. But now that the story has run its course, that arc — though clever in conception — doesn’t work. The air conditioning repair school is set up like a secret society, with Masonic overtones and symbols. Some of this is cute, but had we seen more of it in previous episodes it might have helped to flesh out this world and Laybourne as a character — and make us give a shit about his abrupt passing. As it is, we don’t, and in retrospect it seems like a waste of airtime and John Goodman as an actor. Laybourne never seemed a part of the world of Greendale, and now that he’s dead there’s no chance for advancement or change. Was Laybourne truly malevolent, or just eager for Troy to grasp his own destiny? We’ll never really know, unless his Force ghost returns to guide him — and please, please, please don’t let that happen.
The finale also fairly deftly ties up several lingering story threads, from Shirley and Pierce’s battle over the sandwich shop, to Evil Abed taking over from inside the Dream-a-torium, to Jeff’s ambitions (something that was all but forgotten for the entire season).
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Evil Abed stuff works best. It’s always nice to see how well Danny Pudi responds to a different acting challenge, and Abed’s Hannibal Lecter moment with Britta during their therapy session was well played and more than a bit creepy. Evil Abed also supplies the biggest laugh of the episode, as he beckons Jeff to come closer so he can chop of his arm with a tiny saw with a short cord. That Evil Abed can be so easily defeated by a Winger Speech (yes, it officially gets double caps now) is silly, but so is Evil Abed to begin with.
The trial, and Jeff’s moral dilemma, are slight, but some good gags come from it — Jeff getting Pierce to make the court hate him by asking if anyone knows any good jokes, Dean Pelton’s glorious Blind Lady Justice costume. There’s not much tension in any of the story threads in the episode, but the overall tone is light and the jokes mostly land, so it doesn’t really matter.
The episode ends with a brief montage, clearly pulled together at a point where the writers and producers doubted that they’d be coming back, as the final image of Abed escaping into his new makeshift Dream-a-torium with the hastag #sixseasonsandamovie popping up on-screen is a direct appeal to fans to fight for the show’s return. The montage works both as resolution and teaser. We see Shirley and Pierce open their sandwich shop, Jeff passing Biology, Chang stalking Dean Spreck from the vents, a very much alive (!) Star-burns applying a wig (but not shaving his trademark affectation, God bless him), Jeff entering the words “William Winger” into a search engine, and Abed tearing down the Dream-a-torium to make room for Britta to move in. Had the series not continued it would have been an appropriate note to end on, sentimental but not maudlin. Thankfully we get Season Four, and we can flesh out these brief moments then.
Now that the season is over the show’s big experiment with a season-long arc was a mixed bag. I was ready to proclaim it a failure until I took a look back at the episode list, and realized what a truly solid season it was. But that said, the episodes that really stand out, from “Remedial Chaos Theory” to “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” to “Regional Holiday Music” still tended, as in the first two seasons, to be episodes that could stand on their own, divorced from the overall plot.
The back half of the season seemed more densely plotted, and yet more inconsistent. Harmon and company can be lauded for trying something different with a network sitcom, but I do hope that next season, very likely the show’s last, learns from the plotting problems of this one and strikes a more appropriate balance between story and comedy.
Community, Episode 3:20 “Digital Estate Planning”: A-
Community, Episode 3:21 “The First Chang Dynasty”: B+
Community, Episode 3:22 “Introduction to Finality”: B+
Community Season Three: A-