An Ode to ‘Community’ – Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television

I know that I have not talked about television shows on this blog, but it is for times like these that exceptions exist. This might also be the most subjective post I’ve written on the site, what with it being my favorite show of all time, so fair warning. Community was more than just your average television show, and while that seems the most clichéd line to use for any show, this comedy series was the exact opposite of cliché. While other shows were going about shaping genres and taking TV to Hollywood-budgeted extravaganzas, Dan Harmon and the rest of the good people at Community were working out of a 90s budget (repeatedly facing the threat of cancellation) and watching wisely over all of pop culture. The television renaissance has left us with our pick of genres, from the mythical fantasies of Game of Thrones to the gritty realities of Breaking Bad, but in Community you will find every single one. No other show can boast of a zombie apocalypse episode, a Law & Order episode, pillows-and-blankets wars, a Pulp Fiction episode, numerous paintball and Dungeons & Dragons episodes, episodes in claymation, puppet animation, 8-bit animation and 90s cartoon animation all over the course of 5 seasons. Yes, Community dared to go where network television had never been before, and it went all in.


Having its humble beginnings as a formulaic comedy revolving around a ragtag band of misfits, the show was still leaps ahead of universally famous Big Bang Theory and such, with its special brand of meta-humour that proved way too clever for the mainstream audience. The show starts when Jeff, a disgraced lawyer arrives to earn a degree at Greendale Community College, and unintentionally forms a study group with Annie, Britta, Troy, Abed, Shirley and Pierce. Community had the virtue of being endowed from the very start with the perfect and only cast that could take such an ambitious and conceptual show. From the bond between the adorably meta Abed and the perpetually optimistic Troy, the schizophrenic insanity of Chang to the incredibly snarky Jeff and the queer in more than one way Dean, the audiences had their fill of incredible characters. Many would say that it was the antepenultimate episode of the first season – the acclaimed Modern Warfare – that decided to stretch the limits of what television could aspire to be, with a campus-wide paintball war that has factions emerge, survivors duel, and poke fun at (while respectfully paying homage to) the cheesy action genre. From then on, Community would go on to prove with every new episode that anything was possible, and in turn created the most insane and unpredictable show on network television.


Now, we’re six seasons in – having already faced and meta-poked at cancellations – the sixth season itself standing testament to the power of the fandom, as Yahoo! resurrected the show from what everyone thought, but hoped against all to be, the end. I had been watching this latest season too with the same amount of gusto, despite the marked emptiness left behind by the characters of Troy and Shirley, the latter whom I never loved as much as the others but now had me wishing for a ‘That’s nice’ every once in a while. Now I do admit the first half of the season didn’t feel quite like Community, and had a gray drape thrown over the characters, as though missing a key that brought the octave together. But by the end of the season something wonderful happened and Frankie (Paget Brewster) and Elroy (Keith David), the new characters introduced blended in quite nicely with the rest of the cast and came to be accepted as part of the new Greendale Seven. The show regained its momentum, and devotees all around started believing in a Community that could live forever.


That is, until this last episode so aptly titled Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television. The episode opens with shots of an empty Greendale campus as the Human Beings have left for the summer, but the Save Greendale Committee is seated as always around the old study room table (Mark-II) finishing up their last meeting. As the familiar bell rings, the Dean who surprisingly hasn’t been keeping up with his tradition of turning up in outrageous wardrobe displays this whole season, makes his entrance compensating for that in every possible way. The finality is then set off with Elroy’s Irish goodbye to the group (and to the show), leaving as matter-of-factedly as he eased in. As the group start the summer off at Britta’s bar, up comes the question of ‘what’s next?’ or to put it in terms that Abed can understand, ‘Season 7’.


This is when Community goes full-Community (sorry, there’s just no other word to place there) with its insanely meta conversations and interpretations of itself as each character sees it. This reminded me a lot of the episode Remedial Chaos Theory (Season 3 Episode 4) which has the group play out different timelines based off a simple act of rolling the dice to see whose turn it is to get the pizza, which also gives birth to the notorious-if-its-name-wasn’t-obvious-enough Darkest Timeline. (When a sentence like the one I just typed down makes sense to you, that’s when you know the show you love is insane) While in that episode the characters couldn’t help what was happening but see the smallest changes make worlds of difference in the future, this one is set in a more controlled environment, with everyone pitching what their idea of a perfect ‘season 7’ would be. That setup alone is one of the truest and best things about Community; the willingness to commit to its characters and give them enough room to grow. And not just each character by themselves, but in relation to how the others perceive each one, poignantly in fact, existing in a real ‘community’. That is why a show that began with Britta trying to make Abed understand the difference between television and reality has reached this point where it’s Britta not only defending Abed but also referring to their next year as a ‘season’ in the first place. Take that, Big Bang Theory. (I tend to hate most other sitcoms in the hours following Community)


At first, the show has fun – something it never fails to do – with having each character re-imagine their own brand of Greendale, highlights being Britta’s overly serious and depressing one (with a remixed opening song to go with), and Abed’s as-always-uncanny deconstruction of the group members all except Chang whom he thinks suffice to say ‘Lizard. Fire hydrant. Obama. CHAANG.’ These pitches also bring back for brief moments Shirley who was absent for the entirety of the season, which turns out to be a welcome delight. This is all of course leading up to the overarching theme of the series – Jeff’s unwillingness to come to terms with his growing old and being left behind by the few he welcomed into his head. This anxiety is particularly incited with Annie’s news that her new internship would require her to move to DC, also tying in closely with the only teasing romance through this show without love-interest hang-ups, that of Jeff’s unrelenting attraction to Annie. Jeff then goes on to explore possible pitches for a 7th season which would keep them together through some illogical circumstance, which in any other show would have been the direction the actual show took. I mean, you cannot expect the brilliant, determined Annie and the nerd genius Abed to be tied down in community college for the rest of their lives when the world awaits them outside.


In many ways, Jeff represents us, the fans of this show, struggling to cope with the finality of an ending, and Abed the show itself sitting us down, passing us a beer and telling us ‘it’s going to be okay’. Ah, who am I to try and put it better than Abed himself:

“There is skill to it. More importantly, it has to be joyful, effortless, fun. TV defeats its own purpose when it’s pushing an agenda, or trying to defeat other TV. Or being proud or ashamed at itself for existing. It’s TV…it’s comfort. It’s a friend you’ve known so well for so long, you just let it be with you. And it needs to be okay for it to have a bad day, or phone in a day. And it needs to be okay for it to get on a boat with LeVar Burton and never come back. Because eventually, it all will.”  


You’ve got something to teach me if you don’t think that’s the most powerful line of words to be spoken on television. This is the moment at which Abed’s character reaches poetic closure, guiding us all through the emotional consequences associated with broadcast television. Abed was the character having to be reminded time and time again the clear difference between TV and reality, but now it is him who keeps Jeff grounded and not up in the clouds that are too good to be true. He was the one at the end of season 4 to find coping with finality an error, and yet he is here for Jeff, guiding him into acceptance. For this is no singular line restricted to Community, it is the word to live by for anyone wishing to invest themselves in television, a risk greater than real-estate or stocks in my opinion.


The finale doesn’t just stop there, but goes on to address Jeff’s other big anxiety: the hopeful future he could have with Annie, and how he probably let it all slip through his fingers. Annie then shows up in a way that characters dedicated solely to being love-interests (of which Annie is not one) do in the closing moments. But instead of getting off the flight or deciding that ‘love’ is above all else, lovingly tells Jeff what he already knows: that this is again him pulling at the last straws of his youth, so he can feel his heart beating again, unwilling to let the kids’ stuff go. And with a kiss that Annie would regret for a few weeks, and if it hadn’t been, Jeff would regret for the rest of his life, they leave it right there. What was most beautiful here was Jeff’s own pitch of an Annie future asking him if he’s sure he knows what she wants, and the last pitch for the season, ending with him saying ‘I can live with that now, I’m kind of the hero that way’ with that uncanny Winger smile, ending the tease as poignantly as did the episode. The group then proceeds to join in for a much-needed hug where secrets are admitted *ahem* Chang *ahem*.


This finale was the best piece of television I have seen in some while, not just catering to hardcore fans but tying up just the right amount of ends necessary. (Who was the Ass Crack Bandit? Where is Annie’s Boobs? Will they see Troy ever again? Is Abed God?) It brings to fruition the arcs of all the characters that are leaving and with that second hug, we end the show on the same friendship that started it all in Pilot – Jeff and Abed. Now the finale could have gone the way of Dean’s wardrobe and thrown everything into the last episode, bringing back all of the cast members; and it’s not unlike Dan Harmon to find space for time-travel, Dungeons & Dragons, and the quintessential raid by the ‘Darkest Timeline’. But instead, it opted for an incredibly eloquent end, displaying an inevitability that sinks your heart at first, but then goes on to guide you softly to rest, not just for itself but as a guide to all television, anywhere. Now, was that truly the end? Must we confront the fact that this is reality no matter how much it comforts us to look through that meta-lens? Nobody knows at this point, but until then, Community remains something that encompasses all television, but yet there was nothing like it, nor will there ever be.

COMMUNITY -- Episode 403 -- Pictured: (l-r) Gillian Jacobs as Britta, Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley, Donald Glover as Troy, Joel McHale as Jeff Winger, Alison Brie as Annie -- (Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC)

[It is incredible that all you need to know about the show can be seen through that brilliant last ad around the Community board game which disclaimers that ‘lines between perception, desire and reality may become blurred, redundant or interchangeable’ and that ‘characters may hook up with no regard for your emotional investment’ and ‘some episodes too conceptual to be funny, some too funny to be immersive and some so immersive they still aren’t funny’. But the ride itself is everything you need out of television.]

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