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How ‘Community’ Season 5 Won Back a Frustrated Fan

Community became my favorite TV comedy almost immediately. The 2009 series premiere, which I distinctly remember watching on my computer via a Facebook preview link, wasn’t perfect, but it was strong for a sitcom pilot. I watched it twice. It managed to be expositional without sacrificing quality, full of hints of what the show would eventually become — a clever subversion of sitcom tropes, deep pop culture references, a heavy dose of self-awareness, and a perfect balance of humor and emotion. And did I mention it was funny? It was! Extremely funny.

By the second season, my personal favorite and one that would probably be near the top of my All-Time Favorite Sitcom Seasons list, I was one of those obsessive Community fans. I talked about the show constantly to anyone and everyone who would listen — not even uncaring strangers in bars were exempt — and my friends and I planned our Thursday nights around the show. After watching, I’d often go home and immediately re-watch the episode (and sometimes watch again, a third time, first thing Friday morning). I had the same routine for the third season; there were a few not-so-great episodes but there wasn’t a single fictional character that I cared more about than Abed.

Then came the notorious fourth season. It was the season-we-don’t-talk-about — the gas-leak season, as the show currently jokes — written under the leadership of new showrunners. It had more forgettable episodes than great ones. I didn’t hate the show. On the contrary, I thought David Guarascio and Moses Port did a fine job with the difficult task they were given. In fact, there were some episodes — notably “Paranormal Parentage,” “Herstory of Dance,” and “Basic Human Anatomy” — that I liked quite a bit, even more than some episodes under Dan Harmon’s watch. Community never became a bad show (I don’t think it ever could), but the fourth season mostly felt like a shadow. It was 13 episodes of spec scripts, a black-and-white copy of a color photo. Everything was still there — the characters, the basic themes, the references and meta-jokes, the ace directing, etc. — but it was dull around the edges, lacking the vibrance of the seasons that came before it. It was slightly reminiscent of a knock-off product: at first glance, it was exactly the same, but upon closer inspection, there was an irregular sleeve or a loose thread. Season 4 was an OK season of television, but I never had much to say about it.

I mention all this to illustrate how much Community had to prove in its fifth season. It had to prove that it was still capable of greatness, that it was worth the renewal (even though the collegiate premise had technically outlived itself), that NBC was right in bringing back Dan Harmon despite various reasons why they shouldn’t, and that it was still the warm — but screwed up — funny show that we all cared a little too much about in the beginning. Like everyone, I was apprehensive, but the season premiere “Repilot” lured me back immediately. Just like Jeff Winger, who can’t bring himself to let go of Greendale Community College, I can’t bring myself to let go of Community.

Community will wrap up its fifth season tonight, and I can confidently put it right up there with the earlier seasons. Without giving anything away, the season finale is very good and very funny, appropriately weird and ultimately promising. These are the qualities that pervaded the entire season, starting from the beginning of “Repilot.” The premiere found a way to keep everyone together and keep the story rolling: Jeff became a teacher at Greendale (a perfect match, as neither he nor the college are very good) and everyone else re-enrolled. It cleverly introduced a Save Greendale campaign that doubled both as an easy way to market the show and as a narrative thread that brings together the whole season, lending itself well to individual episodes.

Community

The season did away with the show’s worst and least funny character, Pierce, in a fantastically funny way (death from sperm-related dehydration), and his death resulted in the brilliant “Cooperative Polygraphy,” an episode that reached highs I hadn’t seen since the second season. “Polygraphy” had Pierce still unraveling the gang from the grave, forcing them to play secrets and admit truths that were better left unsaid. But the point is, no matter what these friends do to each other — install GPS trackers in their bodies or just change Netflix ratings for The Grey — it’s never an insurmountable obstacle in their friendship.

That’s the key to all of the fifth season. We’ve seen our main characters argue and have sex, hate each other and love each other, and we know that it’s all going to be fine in the end, so this season mostly eschewed those plots and focused on having them go against bigger things. They, especially Abed, dealt with the departure of Troy (Donald Glover, who moved on to pursue other options). Troy’s absence meant the show had room to explore Abed’s other relationships, such as his new girlfriend Rachel (Brie Larson) and his old friend/roommate Annie. Annie and Abed’s friendship strengthens throughout the season as they struggle to get to know each other better while simultaneously dealing with the fact that the don’t have Troy to act as a buffer when things go sour.

Now that we know these characters, Community did a great deal of work exploring what’s already been established. With the exception of last week’s episode, when Jeff spontaneously proposes to Britta, there was little time devoted to Jeff’s love life in Season 5. Rather, his plots revolved around his teaching attempts, his new colleague Professor Hickey (Jonathan Banks), and his insecurities about getting older. This season humanized Professor Duncan and took steps to turn him into a character with qualities that run deeper than just alcoholic professor. A revisitation of Dungeons and Dragons focused on Hickey, whose depths fit right in with the main group, and his complicated relationship with his son. Recurring favorites went from necessary props to well-developed characters. Even Chang was tolerable!

The Save Greendale Committee remains afloat throughout the season. In the premiere, they band together because of a lawsuit being filed against Greendale; the two-part finale focuses on the school being bought by Subway sandwich shop. When it comes to saving Greendale, there is no longer any hesitation. Greendale, as cheesy as this sounds, is as much as character on Community as Jeff or Annie. It’s the reason they are all together, even when they don’t want to be, and it’s the reason this show has become what it is. There’s a quick throwaway joke in last week’s cold open that speaks volumes: the Dean accidentally turns on the PA and has a conversation with the student body. “I love you guys,” he says over the loudspeaker. “We love you, too,” the students reply in unison. Community cares about all of its characters, Greendale included, and this season puts that care to good use, reinvigorating the series and resulting in episodes that I watch over and over. And yes, it’s still funny.

I tend to approach Community finales with mixed feelings: it’s good and I want it to continue; it’s good and I’m scared it won’t remain that way if it continues. This time, I’m just happy that it did have this last year to make up for that unfortunate gas leak. I fully believe that it will get at least another season — though I can do without the movie — and I’m sure I’ll love it just as much.

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