Community, Doomed

Feature Joe Matar 3/28/2013 at 10:39PM

Arrested Community: Why Community is pretty much already doomed as a series.

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.

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So right.

Interestingly, I watched the Big Bang Theory before Community - in fact I marathoned the first 3 seasons of Community after season 4 had already started. I became completely obsessed with the show and although I had read some stuff about Dan Harmon's firing so I knew someone else was in charge, I went straight from the end of season 3 into the start of season 4. I found it really hard to watch. You're right, there's no ambition. No one's killing themselves to make sure it's not hacky. They're just trying to grind their way through to the 100 episode mark for syndication. It doesn't feel like a coherent show. It's just someone making up stuff about some characters whose names they know.

Anyway, the reason I initially mentioned the Big Bang Theory is that I still watch that every week even though I don't think it's all that good. I've stopped watching Community. This is honestly the first time this has ever happened to me. I've been into a lot of shows that dipped markedly in quality but I just kept doggedly plugging away at them out of loyalty and affection, but I just haven't been able to with this one. It wasn't a fit of pique that stopped me watching it, it was a sense of actual grief every time I watched it at the lost potential. It was completely joyless. It feels like having your hamster die and then someone picking it up and waving it's little paws at you and saying in a squeaky voice "No it's okay! I'm still heeerrre!"

Wow, awesome! This is like confirmation of everything I've been rambling about.

And, yeah, I agree. I know there's like this huge groundswell of violent hatred for the Big Bang Theory but, from what I saw of it, it was kind of just average. I didn't continue watching it but it exists in this area of being perfectly passable, somewhat empty entertainment.

Grief is definitely what I felt with Community as well. One critic's analysis was that the fans have an actual relationship with the show and that's accurate for me. To be melodramatic, it really did feel quite devastating when I saw the season premiere. If it was a relationship, the other person had changed so much they were unrecognizable and it seriously made me feel like crap. And every subsequent episode just drives it further home and makes me sadder. (Except for the most recent one "Basic Human Anatomy" which is literally the only one from this season that I'd recommend to someone who's given up on the show... It's not perfect, but it's got enough of the tone right to feel familiar and funny in a lot of spots.)

I really don't want to see it get renewed for another season. The Simpsons is really bad now but it's just been so endless I've become kind of numb to it. It would feel awful to get to that point with Community.

Nice dead hamster analogy, by the way.

Thanks!

Was the basic human anatomy episode the one written by Jim Rash? I did think about watching it just out of love for him, and obviously he's a great writer so I figured he'd do something worthwhile even if it wasn't "old Community".

Thanks on the dead hamster. I had been about to go quite a lot darker with that one and then suddenly realised "dude, calm down. It's a TV show."

I think it really does make a difference, too, that Dan Harmon was pushed out against his will. With Supernatural, another show with a stunningly devoted fanbase, Eric Kripke the showrunner left voluntarily after 5 years to make Revolution. The show has had a lot of identity crises since then and there have been some really baffling creative decisions. Fans have a lot of grumblings about the show under the new writers but don't seem to be able to tear themselves away. In the end, they know this is the only way the show could continue and there is no ill will towards anyone involved. Kripke never made a secret of wanting to leave after 5 years, which was when the main story arc he had devised would finish.

NBC would have been a lot smarter to at least let Harmon finish the college story by getting to the end of the 4 years. We shouldn't be in denial that Harmon messed up big time with some of his public spats. There was inevitably going to be a parting of ways even if we can never know everything that went on behind the scene. Still, at least if they'd got to that 4 year mark we would have felt like he'd been able to explore that college experience and conclude it, and we might be a bit more open to a change of tone and leadership afterwards.

And my God, they should never have tried to tell us the new Community would have more "heart". Because that so obviously would never be possible and exposes everything about why they just don't get it.

Yup, it's the Jim Rash one. I don't think I've ever been so aware of the writing going on behind the scenes of a show as I have been with this one and it's pretty amazing to see what an effect it has.

The fact that it's 3 years and not the obvious 4 it should've been is extremely depressing, yes. I think you're right that if the show was ever ready to continue on without its creator, it could've perhaps happened organically one day and actually worked. Although, really, interviews with Dan Harmon imply he never would've felt right walking away and leaving it going because he's just too much of a control freak and too worried about something with his name on it turning to crap without him there (of course, that's exactly what happened, but with the difference being the show was forcibly taken from him).

The "heart" thing is ridiculous, too, yes. I think that's supposed to be their way of saying "it's gonna be more like a generic schmaltzy sitcom" as though that's the right way to get to the heart of anything.

I completely agree Dan Harmon wouldn't have left willingly and it's that level of devotion that made the show what it was. But I think from a viewer perspective, even if he'd been fired at the end of season 4 the audience could have felt that a particular story had been finished and now these characters were going to be used to tell a different story. They might have been slightly more amenable to a change in tone at that point. Also, there probably would only have been one more season anyway, to push the episode count over 100, and everyone would just treat it as what it was - an arbitrary over-extension of the story necessitated by business-interests. Instead of what this feels like, which is that a faceless corporation just swapped our puppy with a data-gathering spy-clone and hoped we wouldn't notice.

Agreed. It came at a moment that feels particularly wrong and leaves us wondering what could've been. If you wanna be REAL sad, listen to the DVD commentary on the Season 3 episodes with Dan Harmon on them.

He says this on Remedial Chaos Theory: "I promise every episode of the fourth season will be as good as this."

Ugh - I'm in the UK at the moment, where the DVD hasn't come out yet. I'm hanging on for/dreading those commentaries.

At this point I'd settle for every episode being as good as the pilot.