A few months ago, I looked back at my feelings about Community before its fifth season began. I discussed how intense my infatuation with the show was in the first couple of seasons, and how betrayed I felt when creator and showrunner Dan Harmon was fired before the fourth season, which I ultimately bailed on due to its awfulness. With Harmon back in the driver’s seat, I thought it was worth checking it out again.
I did stick with the fifth season, and now that it’s over I have a few thoughts. For the most part, it was pretty good: it had the wry mixture of sweetness and cynicism that was a distinct part of Harmon’s voice, and while the story twists and “gimmick” episodes were as implausible as ever, they mostly felt like things that the characters might actually do or take part in instead of a writer lazily spitballing, “How about an episode that does (insert popular property ripe for parody)?” And the show was still reliably funny; while there was nothing as hilarious or mind-blowing as Season Two’s fake clip show “Paradigms of Human Memory” (although parts of this season’s “G. I. Jeff” came close), I usually got a good laugh out of at least one or two things even in this season’s weakest episodes. As I had hoped before the season began, it was mostly just fun to hang out with these familiar characters again.
The season was notably shorter, of course, only thirteen episodes instead of twenty-four, and while I’d always rather have more of something I enjoy, on balance I don’t think it was bad for the show. In the past, Community’s seasons have followed the pattern of the school year, so a truncated season meant no holiday episodes. However, considering how bad last season’s Halloween and Thanksgiving episodes were, and how much the writers have had to stretch to come up with new ideas for the holidays, I don’t consider that a great loss. It was probably better to let them concentrate on a smaller number of episodes as well so that their ideas (and budget) weren’t spread too thin.
On the downside, two members of the core ensemble left the show under different circumstances: Chevy Chase, long known to be dissatisfied with the direction of the show and his character (wealthy non-traditional student Pierce Hawthorne), and after repeated feuding with Harmon, quit the show and didn’t return for this season. Although Chase was an essential part of the show in the first couple of seasons (as both a would-be mentor to Joel McHale’s Jeff Winger and as a foil to play off the younger characters), behind-the-scenes rancor increasingly crept into his performance and storylines. The writers didn’t know what to do with him, and his character became nastier and more intractable. It’s sad, really: although I’d heard Chase had a large (even for Hollywood) ego, I’d enjoyed him in films like National Lampoon’s Vacation since I was a kid, and it was great to see him make a comeback after years in the wilderness. Community was the best project Chase had been involved with in years, and while he was committed to making it work he was great in it. But apparently he wasn’t satisfied with being part of a terrific ensemble instead of the star, and he reportedly didn’t “get” Harmon’s style of humor, demanding more input on his scenes. The break was probably inevitable, and with Pierce Hawthorne’s offscreen death early in the season, it appears permanent.
Replacing Chase as the “old man” of the group, Professor Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks) proved to be an inspired addition. The element of generational conflict remained present, but Hickey was quite a different character from Pierce: whereas Pierce wanted to be seen as a wise elder, Hickey was more of a stubborn old coot, a former police officer who now taught criminology (his addition to the group was the most obvious way in which Jeff’s elevation to teacher and the transformation of the study group into the “Save Greendale” committee provided opportunities to tell new stories about the college).
On the other hand, the departure of Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) was left open-ended. Glover, whose star is rising as both actor and rapper, left to make time for other projects, and his character was given an emotional (and hopefully temporary) farewell, sailing around the world on the yacht Pierce bequeathed to him. Troy’s last episode, “Geothermal Escapism,” began like the sort of thing Community has done many times, with Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) putting the school through a campus-wide game of “hot lava” as a way of avoiding the pain of being separated from his best friend. The “break from reality” has been a common plot device for the show (and would also be used in this season’s “G. I. Jeff”), but “Geothermal Escapism” reached a surprisingly affecting climax as Troy and Abed found an “in-story” way of both explaining and accepting Troy’s departure. Although Glover was missed, breaking up the pairing of Troy and Abed allowed both Abed and the show to grow and do something different.
Each season finale since at least the third has been in the odd position of providing an ending definitive enough to conclude the series but with enough loose ends that it could plausibly continue, a reflection of Community’s always-uncertain fortunes. Season Five’s finale, “Basic Sandwich,” was even more meta than usual, with Abed referring to the school’s and characters’ fates in terms of spin-offs and cancellation. Community has changed in some drastic ways since the first season: Greendale itself has changed, even as it moved to the foreground as the real star of the show. It’s not the same as it used to be, but it’s still a fun place to visit.
I don’t know if Community will make it to the proverbial “six seasons and a movie,” but if it does I’ll probably continue to watch. And if it doesn’t, I’ll know it’s because an asteroid has destroyed all human civilization. Like Abed, I appreciate narrative closure.