Last Friday, after a rather successful (for this year, anyway) fourth season finale, we asked the simple question: should Community get picked up for another, Dan Harmon-less season, or is it time to let the characters — and actors — graduate to bigger and better things? It was a question answered far more quickly than expected; by Friday afternoon, there were rumblings that a fifth season was “all but a done deal,” and that deal got done over the weekend. It’s not all ducky for the Greendale crew; as with the just-completed season, year five will only run 13 episodes (initially, anyway), and there’s no set start date. The show is on neither NBC’s fall nor mid-season schedule, meaning the network is saving it to drop in when one of their new comedies tanks, which at least one certainly will. (Let’s be honest: it’ll be more than one.) So the ratings were good enough, and the show is good enough. But it’s time to ask the more pressing question: where does the show go from here, narratively speaking?
Thursday night’s season finale saw two graduations: Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) and Jeff Winger (Joel McHale). Pierce’s graduation was a matter of housekeeping — Chase left the show before the season was even finished, his absences from later episodes awkwardly explained away (or even more awkwardly doubled). Jeff’s is trickier. It’s easy to forget, but back when Community debuted in 2009, it was, more than anything else, a Joel McHale vehicle; aside from Chase, a fading icon looking for a shot of hip career reinvigoration, McHale was the biggest star on the show, and in those early episodes, he was much more the focus than the supporting players. As the show continued and the gifts of the cast became clearer, the supporting characters were fleshed out and it became much more of an ensemble piece.
But in many ways, Community reverted to a more Jeff-centric program in year four. Sure, there were B and C plots for the rest of Greendale Seven, and screen time was distributed fairly evenly. But Season 4’s reliance on the “Jeff brings us together with a heartfelt speech or voice-over” trope made it feel like he was the center of the show’s universe again — in retrospect, a strange choice if the show’s writers were really serious about graduating him at the end of the year.
So what happens to the character now? The finale had some halfhearted indications that Jeff would continue to pop in to “check up” on his friends or something, but that’s gonna be hard to sustain for too long — if he’s going back into law, even at a small practice helping out the little guy, he’s not gonna have an abundance of spare time to hang out with the old study group. Maybe they can find 13 episodes’ worth of excuses to put him back on the campus, but it’ll be a stretch. More likely: they’ll either have to pull the old “oh, he needed one more credit” move, or make him decide to be a teacher at Greendale (shades of Saved by the Bell: The New Class). Both are pretty lousy ideas, though there’s a nice circularity to the latter, since Chang is a teacher-turned-student.
But this fifth-year aimlessness exposes the danger of setting a show in a four-year institution — it’s the kind of thing they had to have seen coming. Dan Harmon had talked often about figuring out how to continue the show off campus (both before and after his dismissal); he has described his notion of a Season 4 that would be “the final tech rehearsal for a version of the show that didn’t necessarily need to be on that campus at all.” At risk of continuing to idolize Community‘s fallen creator, that sounds better than what we got and where we’re going. Why would Jeff and Pierce be the only ones in this group that would graduate in four years? Sure, Shirley’s a working mom, so it might take her a bit longer; maybe Abed is taking some unnecessary classes, or Troy’s taken a few incompletes. But who on earth doesn’t think type-A, straight-A Annie would be on a four-year track? Or Britta?
Community, after all, has never really been a show about college — beyond considering it as a fertile setting and an easy way to throw a group of disparate individuals together. But its finest episode ever (Season 3’s “Remedial Chaos Theory”) took place entirely off campus; its most popular shows, the paintball episodes, could have taken place just about anywhere. If the folks running Community now want to maintain even a degree of credibility, they need to start eyeing the study room’s exit doors.