In the wake of Community‘s three-episode finale and the removal of creator Dan Harmon as showrunner, there’s a lot of reason for concern for the show’s die-hard fans.
That is, of course, unless you were already concerned.
When I read this review by Adam Bellotto after Community came back from its long mid-season hiatus, I wasn’t yet of the mind that the show had gone off the rails. “Regional Holiday Music” was pretty funny, after all, and after the long break, maybe expectations were too high. But I did notice something…I was laughing less and less. Community used to make me laugh the whole way through and I’d sometimes miss jokes because I was still laughing too hard from the last one. Now I was just chuckling here and there and wondering what the deal was. The Ken Burns/Civil War parody was good, especially when you considered the gulf between “letters from the front” and “tweets from the pillow fort.” The Law & Order episode also hit more than it missed, but both spoke to a growing problem with the show that a character even gave voice to at some point:
“Do people even go to class around here?”
And the answer was…of course not. Between campus-wide pillow fights, “courtroom” shenanigans, foosball, off-kilter weddings, bizarre funerals, and practicing for Regionals (whatever those are)…there isn’t even lip service being paid to the idea that these people actually are attending a community college somewhere. And the last five episodes throw even that flimsy framework out the window by having the “Greendale Seven” expelled as part of an incredibly ridiculous coup.
Part of Community‘s charm was that it operated out of the skeleton of a more-traditional sitcom but was actually something else entirely. It could do character studies and wacky paintball episodes but it would always come back to something recognizable…something with rules. People always say that “rules were made to be broken,” but I learned a different phrase back in high school creative writing. “We learn the rules so we know which ones to break.” In other words, if I wrote a brilliant treatise on human evolution but wrote it so that every word was in a different language than the last and then printed it on black paper with black ink…who would ever know that it was brilliant, let alone anything?
And that’s what Community has become. Spurred by the popularity of the paintball episodes, the show has abandoned such “antiquated” notions as characterization or plot, instead reducing what were once reasonably-well-developed characters into one-note caricatures that say whatever the current, ludicrous situation dictates. “Event” episodes have become the norm, shattering the very fragile illusion that these people go to college. The original paintball episode, “Modern Warfare”, was brilliant because it was a shot out of left field. And it was done and resolved in such a way that maybe it wasn’t quite that crazy. Maybe, like Calvin & Hobbes, we’re seeing Spaceman Spiff in one frame, but the kid in the cardboard box in the next. But when fantasy gets substituted more and more for reality…when we see more Spiff than Calvin…what do we really have?
The Community episode “Curriculum Unavailable” actually presents the most likely explanation for the massive departure from reality: The “Greendale Seven” have been experiencing a collective delusion and they’ve all been in an insane asylum, not a community college. And if that’s the reasonable possibility, that might explain just how far off the rails the show has gone.
The last three episodes, aired in one night, do nothing to bring reality back to Greendale. One is spent entirely in an 8-bit video game parody, the second used to overthrow Chang, and the third features “Evil Abed” trying to kill Jeff while Troy struggles with his new position in the Air Conditioning School. If it sounds incredibly silly, that’s because it was. And none of it was particularly funny because that’s just what happens there now. Black ink on black paper, Spiff instead of Calvin.
Dan Harmon’s childish feud with notoriously childish Chevy Chase aside, the best reason for removing Harmon from running his own show was that he’s run it into the ground. Now, obviously, I have some pretty huge doubts as to whether anyone else can bring back the real magic. They probably can’t. Community will get a fourth season, but I can’t imagine it being anything other than a shell of its former self.