Something that at a glance technically qualifies as Community is currently airing its fourth season on NBC. There has been a lot of discussion about whether or not the show is different, how different it is, if creator/showrunner Dan Harmon getting fired is the reason for that difference and whether we’d even be talking about the show being different if we didn’t all know about Harmon’s firing.
To address the Dan Harmon in the room first, yes, admittedly I can’t deny that, knowing what I knew happened behind the scenes, my expectations for Community going into Season 4 were markedly different than they had been for any of the other seasons. I was very much watching the season premiere with the express purpose of finding out if the show felt like the Community I’d known in the past, wondering if the new showrunners, writers and remaining writers could still achieve the same quality and the tone that made me love Community.
All of that being said, I do feel I went into Season 4 trying to be positive, arguably even more positive than I was when Season 3 started. I love the first two seasons so much, but I’m quite the pessimist and, back before Season 3 began, some part of me kind of wanted the whole series to just end before it disappointed me at all.
One argument I often hear people making is that it’s not like Harmon wrote every episode anyway. But, well, as is the case with just about all American network sitcoms, everyone on the writing staff wrote every episode. Sure, someone does an initial draft and their name gets slapped on it, but network sitcoms are a communal effort of workshopping scripts till they sing. And Dan Harmon was notorious for forcing his team to workshop into the wee hours.
Furthermore, the changes in Season 4 might not be purely Harmon-centric. As Tim Surette noted in his review of the premiere on TV.com, writer/producers Chris McKenna, Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan also left the show, as did Dino Stamatopoulos (Star-Burns) and directors Anthony and Joe Russo. While it is worth noting that the writing staff had already changed up hugely between the second and third seasons (perhaps accounting for some of the dip in Season 3’s quality), all of the aforementioned crew had been with the show from the Season 1. From what I’ve gathered, there is now nobody left in a leading creative position who was there with the show from the beginning. It seems very plausible to me that, along with Harmon, these people helped maintain a guiding force and direction for the series that they took with them upon exiting.
Writers who got and could put up with Harmon long enough to stick with the show through three whole seasons would likely have had a solid idea of what the show’s voice sounded like. Anthony and Joe Russo, though they didn’t direct every episode, did direct the show’s pilot and were huge influences on its visual tone. This might not sound like such a big issue, but Community started as a very filmic, dynamically shot show and has since drifted toward looking a lot more generically sitcom-like. Compare Season 1 and 2 episodes to the Season 4 premiere or the fifth episode, “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations;” the difference is stark.
If you don’t believe me that these guys were a pretty massive force, I would also note that they directed the pilot for Arrested Development, meaning they just about invented the American approach to the cinéma vérité, mockumentary sitcom format that other shows (Parks and Recreation, Modern Family) have gone on to use with great success. Joe and Anthony Russo were also responsible for getting many of the amazing guest directors (like Justin Lin, who did the first paintball episode, “Modern Warfare”) and Dan Harmon praised them for having a fantastic eye for the show as well as all the right connections to know who would be a good fit for directing each episode. As for Dino Stamatopolous and the loss of Star-Burns… well, okay, maybe not as a big a deal (though the Claymation episode wouldn’t have existed without his production team).
I’d like to be able to analyze the show’s current state without knowing all this background info, but it’s much too late for that. So, while I can never pretend to truly know what I would’ve felt had I been completely ignorant of The Harmon Fiasco, it is my belief that the show is palpably different now. Though I’ll admit this is all internet hearsay, I’ve seen a number of comments around the web from fans stating they have parents or know other people who are otherwise not so invested in Community as to be keeping track of its off-camera drama and even these people have asked of Season 4: “Doesn’t it feel a bit… off?”
There has been a lot written in regard to that sensation and I imagine it comes both from a combination of different things and that people’s varied reactions. The aforementioned loss of the Russo brothers, not to mention the obviously downsized budget are surely contributing to a drop in visual quality; the show’s pacing has probably been screwed up by the halved show order and Star-Burns is no more! But, for me, Season 4’s off-ness really comes down to this:
The ambition is gone.
What I'm seeing from fans who continue attempting to justify Season 4 is that it's certainly not the best stuff Community has done, but there’s worse stuff on TV. So it’s just fine.
But that’s precisely the problem. What is the point of a "fine" Community? That's not what Community IS. Even at its worst moments, Community was a show taking risks and trying odd things, reinventing or evolving its format and characters from episode to episode. Sometimes it focused on format, giving us, for example, a half-hour Ken Burns’ documentary. Other times, it made changes to the characters and their lives like in “Studies in Modern Movement” in which Annie moved in with Troy and Abed, forcing them to mature somewhat. And then, at its best, it did both, like in “Modern Warfare,” which served as an incredible action movie homage and a huge milestone in Britta and Jeff’s relationship.
In Season 4 when the format gets messed around with, there’s no sense of effort being put into it. It feels a lot more like the writers’ room scrambling to drop in an homage just because “that’s what Community does.” The premiere had Hunger Games references, jabs at multi-camera sitcoms, Muppet Babies and maybe even a bit of Inception in there. Season 4’s Halloween episode, “Paranormal Parentage,” was ostensibly a Scooby-Doo homage, but it quickly lost sight of that and just became some generic… scary house… thing? None of these ideas felt solid. They all felt lazily plopped in. There were some failures in the format department in earlier seasons as well, such as the video game episode, “Digital Estate Planning,” which just came out weird and a bit silly. But, even then, I admired the sheer ambition behind it. Even though it didn’t really pan out, the fact that a video game episode was so completely committed to from beginning to end let me know that this was Community.
Also, while Season 3 revisited ideas from prior seasons (documentary filmmaking, clip shows, blanket forts), these were hardly retreads as they departed heavily from the original premises and put entirely new spins on them. Season 4 recently added another documentary episode into the mix but, aside from helping make a few aspects of the plot fit together, the reason for its being felt uncertain. It did, in fact, feel quite a bit like a stylistic retread, which in the past would’ve been a serious Community no-no.
With its characters, Community once made a concerted effort to actually have them experience meaningful growth. The finale of Season 3 made that clear, showing Jeff, Britta, Annie, Troy, Shirley, Abed and Pierce all reaching important new chapters of their lives. Season 4 trots out old, reverted versions of the characters and drops them into plotlines that take them through arcs they've already traversed.
Abed, for example, appears to have completely regressed to his Season 1 form. He sees the world in nothing but pop culture references and regards his friends as characters on a show he’s in (something he openly stated in the latest Halloween episode). This might have been fine back in the first season, but for fans who have been following the show from the start, we know Abed had become something much weirder by Season 3. He was less reference-heavy and deeper into his own head, but now beginning to recognize how his behavior affected his friends. Dialing him back to Abed 1.0 suddenly feels completely wrong, especially when other characters are moving at least slightly forward… sort of. It’s telling that, though the writers did follow through with the seeds planted in Season 3 by making Troy and Britta a couple, they have no clue how to explore and further this relationship (or possibly they have no real interest in doing so), making only passing references to it and in episodes 4, 5 and 6 seemingly forgetting about it altogether.
Jeff is the only one the show has made obvious efforts to continue progressing. With the fifth episode, “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations,” Season 4 picked up where Season 3 had left off by having Jeff meet his father (who he’d finally built up the resolve to Google in the prior season’s finale). And, when this plotline showed up, there was the small sense that this was the way Community should be: growing and changing. The drama between Jeff and his dad was handled fairly well and the hints of a genuine emotional moment (like the series used to achieve for realsies) came through. However, it was still couched in an episode that also contained a completely rote plotline about Annie, Abed and Troy demonstrating that they cared for Shirley. Furthermore, in the grand scheme of things, the introduction and dismissal of Jeff’s father was extremely anticlimactic. So, again, this ended up feeling less ambitious and more like something the writers knew they had to take care of if they didn’t want longtime fans at their throats. Now that that’s out of the way they can go back to easy will-they-won’t-they Annie and Jeff scenarios and Troy and Abed being a nutty pair of kooks.
If this had been a lazy sitcom from the very beginning, it would've been just that: a lazy sitcom serving its function for those people who watch that sort of thing and I would never have been interested in it. The reason Season 4 of Community seems so much worse than a more conventional, consistently lazy sitcom is that it keeps around a lot of the oddities, like the homages, of the Community of the past but tries to mesh them with triter, more conventional sitcom writing that has its characters shedding their prior development and re-learning already covered lessons. This creates a weird hybrid show and I have no clue who the intended audience is. It's still too weird for newcomers to get into (there's evidence of this with how the ratings completely tanked after the premiere) and it's too unlike its old self to make fans happy.
So, hyperbolic though this might sound, I think that Community’s fourth season is a more egregious crime than something that has been less ambitious and more conventional throughout its run, like The Big Bang Theory. At least that show (I'm admittedly assuming this as I've only seen several episodes) continues to offer what people expect from it, not to mention it probably makes it easy enough for those just tuning in to get acclimated. But what is the purpose of this new Community that upsets veterans who had come to expect the unexpected and confuses newbies who can't get a grip on these bizarre, half-baked homages and references to prior seasons? It serves no function for anyone.
I will continue to watch. And I will continue to allow for the possibility that Season 4 will salvage itself, at least temporarily. There are upcoming episodes that sound potentially promising, like one where the whole cast is replaced with puppets and another written by Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) himself. But, as of right now, I can’t at all feel the show’s former ambition and I’m seeing very little in the way of real growth.
And that’s why, regardless of whether it gets picked up for more seasons or not, Community is already doomed.