Should ‘Community’ Stay In Session — Or Is It Time to Graduate?

For the past 12 weeks, in this space, Flavorwire has recapped the abbreviated, delayed, and frequently problematic fourth season of NBC’s Community. As you certainly all know by now, the third year of the often brilliant series concluded with the abrupt sacking of creator/showrunner Dan Harmon, whose distinctive, idiosyncratic sensibility gave the show much of its voice, and whose comic genius was reportedly matched only by his inability to suffer suits gladly. The transition to new showrunners Moses Port and David Guarascio was certain to be bumpy, and it was. But now that Community‘s senior year has come to a close, it’s worth asking: should the show carry on, or is it time to send the Greendale crew (and the gifted actors who play them) out into the Real World?

This is, of course, presuming that the question is one that will be considered solely with regard to artistic merit. It presumes that the current ratings, miserable as they are, are still good enough for perpetually fourth- (sometimes fifth-) rated NBC; it presumes the logic that everyone but Jeff and Pierce would still be toiling away at a community college after four years. If those are a given, it all boils down not to whether the show is as good as it used to be (it’s obviously not), but whether it’s worth the trouble of further exploration and further investment.

This could just be the high of a particularly good, Megan Ganz-penned episode talking, but it very well may be. Thursday night’s finale, “Advanced Introduction to Futility,” was one of the season’s very best: funny and quotable (“You have so many credits, they have grand-credits”), knowing and self-aware (kudos for the “Six Seasons and a Movie” blackboard and the “Star-Burns Memorial Tree Planting” flyer), and genuinely sweet and touching by its conclusion. This year’s episodes have had their roughest time when creating direct revisits/sequels to previous shows, so the notion of a return to “the darkest timeline” of “Remedial Chaos Theory” (for my money, the show’s single finest episode) was cause for concern. And while “Advanced Introduction” certainly doesn’t match “Remedial Chaos,” it’s at least a worthy successor — a Die Hard 2: Die Harder to its Die Hard, to employ terms Abed might appreciate.

So going out on a high note — which it’s probably safe to bet was part of the reason why Ganz, the most senior of the remaining writers (her credits go back to Season 2’s “Creative Calligraphy,” aka the “Bottle Episode”), was assigned the finale — skews the overall impression of the season somewhat. To be sure, there were real lows this year: the consistently clumsy handling of the Troy/Britta arc, the missed opportunity of the puppet episode, the sappy Thanksgiving show and its half-assed payoff to the Jeff-and-his-dad runner… and don’t even get me started on “Changnesia.” If you tally them up, Season 4 only yielded a couple of really great episodes (I’d count this week’s, the “Sophie B. Hawkins” dance episode, and maybe the Halloween show — also penned by Ganz). But it also only had a couple of genuinely bad ones. Most of the season existed in varying degrees of so-so: a few good gags, a couple of groaners, and a lot of leftover goodwill towards the cast and the characters.

Those who defend Season 4 like to ask if those disappointed by it would have voiced their concerns so strenuously if Harmon were still on board. It’s kind of a silly argument on its face — our presumption is that he wouldn’t have let much of this stuff slide in — but the point is valid: we’re hyper-aware of the fact that there was a giant shakeup behind the scenes, in a way that audiences weren’t when, say, Larry Gelbart left M*A*S*H or Glen and Les Charles exited Cheers. When those series were running, the creator/executive producer of a hit — or acclaimed, or both — television show wasn’t quite the pop culture rock star that he/she (he, too often) would become in the Internet era.

No, the more appropriate example would be Aaron Sorkin, whose much-publicized ouster from The West Wing at the conclusion of that show’s fourth season is a useful precedent for Community’s second era —and for why it’s worth keeping around for a while. Because as any West Wing fan can tell you, that first post-Sorkin season was fucking malodorous. A show that had been fast, sharp, funny, and thoughtful was suddenly plodding, dull, and aggressively stupid; because Sorkin had penned so much of the show himself, his writing staff didn’t know how to do much more than imitate his style, and badly.

But the show kept going, and after a miserable, borderline-unwatchable fifth season, a funny thing happened: The West Wing got good again. The writers found their own groove, the shiny ensemble cast started getting material they could work with, and the show was reinvigorated by a splendid election-year plotline, with new characters and new stakes. The West Wing never again reached the heights of the Sorkin era, but it became its own new and pretty-good thing.

And that, it seems, is the best we can hope for from a fifth year of Community, should NBC decide not to cancel all of its comedies except Parks and Rec. It is, fairly obviously, a show whose best years are behind it. But even in its lesser installments, it remains a warm and likable program with a talented ensemble, and its fourth season peaks, while rare, hint that there might be some life left in this perpetual underdog after all.