It’s not often that you get to see a major network television show arguing with itself. But that’s one of the surprises, and pleasures, of “Basic Story,” the first installment in Community’s two-part fifth season finale, which spends much of its first half suspiciously tiptoeing around the idea that, for once, Greendale Community College is free of chaos, its staff and students utterly content. “Usually a lot more than this happens in 30 minutes,” notes Abed, at the end of a half-hour of study group playing-on-their-phones time, and that denomination of time isn’t accidental. For a show that spends plenty of time playing in the meta sandbox, this week’s episode represents a continuation (after last week’s “G.I. Jeff”) of the idea of pushing beyond inside jokes and self-awareness, and genuinely exploring (and exploding) the very nature of fiction.
Look at it like this: Jeff and Abed’s argument isn’t about manufactured drama or creating crisis, but about whether there “is a story.” The wording is carefully chosen—in TV and screenwriter jargon, “breaking story” is the process of, basically, mapping out the narrative, figuring out the structure, and deciding how to get from one point to the next. Without this process, well, nothing happens, a threat which rears its ugly head early on; could we actually have an episode of Community that’s just people playing Candy Crush and background extras eating soup?
Not bloody likely. Jeff snorts that Greendale is “addicted to crisis,” but then, so is Community, and so is all fiction, because crisis equals drama and conflict. Eventually, that itchy camera, roving the halls and seeking out story, is going to have to find one; the monster must be fed. And so even when the insurance inspection turns out, per Jeff’s prediction, to be “the most boring thing to happen here since Britta dated Troy” (chalk up another sick fourth season burn), the Save Greendale committee makes a disturbing realization, and it’s not just that they all like to celebrate to Dave Matthews Band. It’s that the reward for saving Greendale is losing it.
If contentment breeds a lack of story, so does an honest-to-God ending. Jeff and Britta’s flash decision to not only rekindle their sexual relationship, but throw caution to the wind and get married, is best seen as a moment of panic—they basically admit that it’s the closest they can come to accomplishing something in these five years. (They certainly didn’t get any particular education). But Abed and Annie are “part of the ‘adulthood begins at 30’ generation,” so it’s no surprise that the two of them—along with Dean Pelton, whose near-naked wail in his half-packed office indicates he may not have too many opportunities waiting for him off-campus—are the primary advocates of a real attempt to save Greendale, albeit one enabled by the Goonies-esque discovery of a treasure map. (Few sights these season have been as pleasurable as Alison Brie, Danny Pudi, and Jim Rash’s “buried treasure” dance of joy).
So where does that leave us? With, alas, the end of the finale’s first part, so many questions remain unanswered. Will they manage to save the school from the evil clutches of Subway? Were Jeff and Britta for real? Will Chang betray them yet again? That was Chris Elliot as the computer professor who had sex with a computer, right? Will we have yet another season-finale-that-could-be-a-series-finale? (That’d be like the third year straight, thanks to the show’s perpetual on-the-bubble-status.) And what the hell’s taking NBC so long to renew this show? Hopefully, we’ll find out some of those answers next week, I guess?