The (Second) Darkest Timeline: A Eulogy for CommunityPosted: May 10, 2014
After a (surprisingly) long Cinderella run, Community has unfortunately turned back into a pumpkin. What started off as a quirky-but-straightforward sitcom quickly turned into one of the most ambitious and brash comedies on television, and one of my favorites. Now I don’t think you could say the show didn’t get a fair chance, but it certainly had a bunch of needless obstacles (creator Dan Harmon’s temporary ouster chief among them). But true to the show’s driving tone and theme, it persevered and kept going and told a truly great set of stories that we will always have and hold dear.
When I try to come up with parallels for Community the first thing I think of is the Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg-Jessica Hynes show Spaced: a frequently surreal, emotionally strong comedy that takes place in a world completely drenched in pop culture. But even within that very specific description, Community and Spaced are worlds apart, which shows just how distinctive a work Community is. It certainly stood out as something incredibly unique on network television, with an incredibly strong voice throughout. This voice- originating mostly from Harmon but certainly aided by writers like Chris McKenna, Dino Stamatopoulos, Megan Ganz, and Tim Saccardo, directors Tristram Shapeero, Joe and Anthony Russo (yeah, the Winter Soldier guys), and Justin Lin (yeah, the Fast & Furious guy), and the supremely talented cast- birthed a show that was equal parts traditional college-set sitcom, pop culture parody machine and twisty psychodrama.
One of the things that Community always did so well was combine high concept, absurd theme episodes that actually externalized and fed into the emotional arc of the characters. These episodes, ranging from the two paintball season finales to “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” to the brilliant Ken Burns pillow fight episode to the heartbreakingly sweet “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”, helped build a heightened Greendalian reality while also displaying the characters’ emotional depth. All of these episodes were built around some sort of character beat or progression, so rather than just the fleeting enjoyment of a gimmick episode they actually provide a ton of emotional resonance as well. Those sorts of episodes also gave the show a level of unpredictability and prevented it from being formulaic.
One major recurring structural element though was the Winger speech, which Community astutely undercut on a regular basis, most prominently in “Paradigms of Human Memory”. That brings us to another major accomplishment of theirs, namely the ability to be incredibly metatextual without it feeling too self-involved. The show was constantly wrapping back in on itself, but in Harmon & company’s hands it was a tool, used to strengthen the bonds of the world and the absurdist tone. In the case of the aforementioned “Paradigms”, it was to emphasize that while the Greendale 7 might continue to struggle with the same problems over and over again, that might be because they were meant to be together this way, and that the force that draws them together is stronger than the conflict that almost drives them apart. A sequence that could’ve been an obnoxious winking at the audience instead turns into a very sweet and relatable moment when these people realize the strength of their bond, even with all of their problems.
Even without all the gimmicks, Community had such a strong grasp on the characters and good dialogue that they could craft stories equal parts hilarious and gripping. Episodes like “Cooperative Calligraphy”, “Competitive Ecology”, and “Cooperative Polygraphy” just throw the characters in a room together and let the insanity come naturally. These episodes are not only just as funny as any parody concept, but they are also some of the most vicious and potentially hard to watch, as these sorts of bottle episodes tend to bring out the ugliest side of each character. Without these episodes, the emotional poignancy of the other episodes isn’t nearly as strong (not that the bottle episodes lack poignancy; the end of “Cooperative Polygraphy” was one of the best moments of Season 5). For those who might dismiss Community as a gimmick-driven show, these episodes serve as a clear reminder that Harmon and his writing staff have as good a grasp on good, old-fashioned character drama as anyone.
Of course, Community had a few hiccups the last couple of years, with two shortened seasons, one of which was run without Dan Harmon, the other of which was missing original cast members Chevy Chase (for the whole season) and Donald Glover (over half of the season). These various shifts in the show’s previously-perfect makeup slowed the runaway-train momentum that Community had built up over the first three seasons, even while providing some great episodes (even the fourth season had that solid Freaky Friday episode written by castmember and Oscar-winner Jim Rash). I think that’s the real source of depression for Community fans, that not only did it not reach its goal of #SixSeasonsAndAMovie but that it didn’t end as perfectly as, say, season 3 did. But I still think that season 5 is a solid end to the show; the idea of the gang returning to the crucible that remade them to try and protect it is a great culmination of the entire series.
More than anything Community was a show about finding yourself, and how difficult that can be, especially if you’ve already fallen down. All of these characters came to Greendale trying to figure themselves out and get back to a “normal” life, only to find an absurd, wacky place where they can fully explore themselves without judgment. One thing that my girlfriend Shiran (the biggest Community fan I know, and the person I’m directing this article to) always points out during “Virtual Systems Analysis” when the Dean tells his story about going to the bank in drag is how supportive and empathetic the world of Greendale seems to be, and how it’s the perfect environment for these misfits to remake themselves. This probably why it resonated with so many people around my age, as it’s something that a lot of college-age people grapple with and relate to. Especially for me and mine, the idea of living in this wacky, emotional world will always be a welcome one, and I thank Dan Harmon and his creative cadre for letting us share in that world for 97 episodes. And yes, this is only the second darkest timeline. The darkest timeline would’ve been one where Community never existed at all. You can’t dean-y I’m right about that.