Television Tuesday :: some thoughts on the decline of Community

18 Aug

Entirely by my drift partner (as the reason I have not seen beyond seasons 1-3 is that she warned me against it).

Community is a show that will always have a very special place in my heart, because it reminded me that comedy didn’t have to be mean-spirited. When I was a freshman in college, I had only recently begun to watch currently running television shows that actual adults watched (I.E. not things from Disney Channel or canceled shows like Firefly and Pushing Daisies). At some point this led me to The Big Bang Theory, which I am sorry to say I watched four seasons of before realizing how awful and unfunny it is. But realize I did, and then I decided I needed another comedy to watch. A complicated series of events led me to watching about half of Community season one in a day, and it was a revelation to me. Here was a show about nerds that didn’t half-rely on sex jokes, and that didn’t make fun of people in order to be funny! (I mean, it does make fun of some people, but the humor does not come from mockery.) And here was a group of friends who seemed like they actually liked and respected each other, despite being vastly different! Also, here was a show with more than one character of color where the jokes weren’t centered around their races. I was hooked, and I kept watching up until very recently, after season six premiered on Yahoo Video.

But there’s a very marked difference between seasons 1-3 and seasons 4-6. I hear it’s a little easier to take if you watch it all the way through from the beginning, but I have never felt the need to do this since season 4 killed a part of my soul. In seasons 1-3 the characters evolve and change, and we learn more about them as people. They become rounded, interesting characters (except maybe Pierce, but literally no one likes Pierce). The show continued to be its weird, wonderful self by doing, amongst other things, a claymation episode, a Christmas musical episode, multiple episodes centered around paintball wars, a Law & Order-themed episode, multiple episodes filmed documentary-style, and an episode entirely in 8-bit. But by the end of season 3, no one was sure if NBC was going to pick up the show. Dan Harmon had planned for four seasons, although amidst the uncertainty the hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie began to circulate. The fandom immediately started campaigns, including one to vote the show onto the cover of TV Guide (which we won, and I swear was through the combined actions of my friend and I voting literally every spare minute we had). It was an uncertain time.

Finally we got the news. Community would be back for a fourth season…without creator Dan Harmon. Now, Harmon is an interesting fellow: it’s been well-documented that he and Chevy Chase clashed on set multiple times, and that’s part of the reason Chevy wanted to leave, and he can come across as abrasive and condescending and has trouble apologizing. I’ve made my peace with it. All showrunners are assholes in some way. But his unique way of looking at the world is what gave Community its flavor, and when the network brought in David Guarascio and Moses Port from Modern Family, it sort of felt like they didn’t know what to do with it. They looked at the show and they saw a weird sitcom, so they said “okay, let’s keep making it weird.” The fourth season included a convention episode, a body swap episode, a flashback episode that supposedly revealed that the study group members had run into each other before (note this already having been established with Jeff and Shirley in season 3), and a musical episode with puppets and Sara Bareilles. The problem is that the new showrunners managed, somehow, to miss the part where the wackiness of the show was always serviced by the characters, rather than the other way around.

A really good example of this is the body swap episode. This sounds like a great idea, right? The basic plot involved…some mumbo jumbo about Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) reenacting the body swap scene from the original Freaky Friday that caused them to actually switch bodies, I think. I don’t know, that entire evening is a haze of crushed dreams. The only part I actually remember is the scene where Troy and Abed look down the pants of their swapped bodies, at which point I watched the rest of the episode through a haze of fury. Abed has never cared about anyone’s junk and Troy would never look at Abed’s without permission. The rest of the episode involves some wackiness about the lost Freaky Friday DVD and Abed-as-Troy having to go on an anniversary date with Britta, while Troy-as-Abed tries to help him break up with her, I don’t know, it was a mess. Troy and Abed are mean to each other and mean to Britta and that just wouldn’t happen at this point. Basically half of this season was allegedly all about Troy and Abed’s friendship, except Abed acts weirdly possessive in a way he hadn’t up to that point, and Troy is weirdly spineless in a way he had never been, and it is just no good for anybody.

So after season 4, I was feeling pretty despondent. Then, Dan Harmon revealed he had been rehired for season 5! Wary, I decided to keep watching. The fact that I just had to go look up season 5 on Wikipedia to remember any of the episodes should tell you how well that turned out. The characters were sort of their old selves, but the show’s tone was…weird. Part of the reason is probably that at that point, Jeff (Joel McHale) was no longer a student and had instead become Greendale’s newest law professor. So the “study group” wasn’t really a study group anymore, and that just further continued with the departure of Pierce (Chevy Chase) and Troy. Pierce died, and no one was really sad, but Troy’s leaving (in-show, the reason was that Pierce was leaving his entire fortune to him, but only if he could sail his yacht around the world in a year – long story) was heartbreaking. Honestly, the episode where Abed panics because Troy is leaving and turns the entire school into a The Floor is Lava game is the only one from seasons 4 and 5 put together that felt like old Community to me. It’s definitely the only one I’d rewatch. Because that episode was focused on Abed and Troy’s relationship and on Abed’s inability to cope with his best friend leaving, but in a way that didn’t feel forced (season 4 had an episode about Jeff’s absentee dad that tried way too hard to tug heartstrings). It also remembered old jokes from the show, as in a season 1 episode Troy asks “Why am I crying? Did I accidentally listen to ‘Come Sail Away’ by Styx again?” And in the final scene, when Troy boards the yacht with LeVar Burton (again, long story), the song playing is…”Come Sail Away.” I can count the times I have openly bawled at television on one hand, and this was one of those times.

But overall, season 5 was hit-or-miss, largely forgettable, and full of weird moments. John Oliver returns as Professor Ian Duncan, and proceeds to – try to woo Britta? There was an entire episode about a popularity app that was a rehash of a season one episode. And so on. At this point I was praying for it to die a quiet death, so when Yahoo swept in to rescue the show for season 6 I was dreading it more than anything. I still haven’t finished it. The parts I have seen are okay. Paget Brewster is kind of fun, sort of an Annie 2.0, and Nathan Fillion finally got his cameo. The episode where they try to argue that Greendale didn’t actually give a degree to a literal dog is kind of funny. But in general, it seems like the show has lost its heart. I think part of that may be that it keeps losing cast members and having to compensate; Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays Shirley, departed suddenly at the beginning of filming to care for her ailing father. Without her, the show has become Charming Asshole Jeff, Ditzy Britta, Robot Abed, Micromanager Annie, Crazy Chang, Annie 2.0, and Keith David for some reason. The new group didn’t really gel for me, and I’m not sure if I have the heart to finish it anytime soon.

So what caused this? I think it was a combination of things: Harmon’s leaving, the new showrunners not knowing what they were doing, Harmon’s uncertainty of where to take his characters once he had returned, and, honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Yahoo were doing some micromanaging of their own behind the scenes. A friend who has watched it has told me that Britta has become even more of a punchline than she used to be, and that doesn’t sit well with me. I also noticed that Abed is treated less kindly and more like a walking TV Tropes article; without Troy there, after all, who understands him? In the end, I think, it is simply that the show has forgotten how to be kind in its humor. When it began, it was a celebration of weirdness and how weirdness can bring people together. Now…I’m not really sure what sets it apart from any of the other sitcoms on TV, and that’s a weird, sad thought.

That being said, if Yvette and Donald want to come back for a movie, I’ll be there. I want to believe my show’s not gone forever.

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