TV Review: Community – Season 6

#andamovie

Community has always been a difficult show to define. In one sense, it is a show about television itself. With countless “homage” episodes and frequent meta-commentary on the nature of storytelling, this show celebrates everything that we as viewers love about TV. Abed Nadir is often used by series creator Dan Harmon as the voice of the writers, expressing frustration with certain characters or plots and brainstorming new possibilities for adventure. Over the course of its six-season run, the show managed to deconstruct just about every TV trope in existence. For example, the study group is the type of forced makeshift family comprised of quirky, unique characters that can be found in just about every other sitcom ever made. Characters would find themselves dealing with romance, bromance, fighting, and existential crises – very standard sitcom storylines in themselves – but explored under the guise of a Western, a sci-fi adventure, or a cop drama. Community is infamous for a sort of uncomfortable self-awareness, which has caused those who refuse to look beneath the surface to believe that the show is nothing more than a pretentious, self-indulgent mess. But this show wasn’t made for those people; it was made for people who, like Abed, are often treated as outcasts because of an inability to accurately express ideas that they know to be true about life, relationships, and human nature. To this specific group of people, Community is a cherished gift.

Once this show “clicks” with you, it is clear that the series is about much more than TV or the concept of storytelling; it is about a group of real, broken people who find joy and strength in community with other broken people. For a show that is so relentlessly zany, Community truly cares about its characters. Every single member of the study group (comprised of Jeff Winger, Britta Perry, Abed Nadir, Troy Barnes, Pierce Hawthorne, Shirley Bennett, and Annie Edison) has well-defined strengths, weaknesses, and motivations that guide their actions throughout the series. This is true, in particular, of the show’s two most central characters: Jeff and Abed. Jeff, upon his arrival at Greendale, is a vain, arrogant, selfish liar who plans on coasting through life (despite his failed attempt at a fake law career). The only reason he started the study group in the first place was to seduce an attractive girl in his Spanish class (Britta). He does everything he can to keep this lovable group of misfits from affecting his worldview, but he ultimately realizes that he is a sad, lonely man with no direction in life, and this group is the closest thing to family that he will ever have. He realizes through his relationships with each of these people that he does not have life figured out. He still doesn’t know exactly what he should do with his life, but he found acceptance with the study group and at Greendale, and that is enough to give him a sense of direction. Abed, on the other hand, is a seemingly robotic, socially awkward nerd who can’t tell the difference between life and TV. Most shows would use a character like this as a laughing stock; an unrelatable weirdo. This is how people like this are viewed in real life, so it makes sense for a TV show to provide the same easy target to its audience. But Abed is the heart and soul of Community, and he is the most sympathetic and relatable character on the show. Abed isn’t great at interacting with people or building relationships, but he knows TV, so he filters life through that lens. This allows him, in his discomfort and confusion, to understand why people act the way they do. Time and time again throughout the show, Abed experiences mental breakdowns and breakthroughs as a result of major life events, and his use of storytelling techniques to filter these events makes him easily identifiable for the type of audience that this show attracts.

I am of the opinion that the first three seasons of Community make up arguably the greatest run in sitcom history, rivaled only by Arrested Development and golden-age Simpsons. Behind-the-scenes drama and cast departures led to a gas leak year and a good-but-not-great fifth season. So when the show was finally canceled by NBC and picked up for a sixth season by Yahoo! Screen, I was excited to see the first half of our hashtag prophecy come true, but extremely nervous that the show would only damage its legacy. There are other shows that I think are better than Community, but this is easily my favorite show of all time, and it killed me to think that an unsatisfactory ending might wipe away all the wonderful memories of the first three seasons. Almost half of the original cast had left, so shirley the show had no chance of returning to its former glory. Dan Harmon of course knew that fans would have these apprehensions, and he was probably scared out of his mind himself. But early on in the season 6 premiere, “Ladders,” Harmon addresses these feelings through a conversation between Abed and the newly introduced Frankie Dart, which ends with Frankie assuring Abed (and us) that “Good shows change.” Season 6 Community is not Season 1-3 Community. And as we learned over the course of these thirteen episodes, that is not such a bad thing.

By now, this show is used to working around changes and uncertainties in its cast. This season, the writers were able to turn the loss of beloved characters into a point of remarkably poignant thematic relevance. The remaining members of the original study group were forced to deal with the fact that people do not stick around forever. Close friends drift apart, move away, or even die without any warning, leaving us saddened and confused. Abed deeply misses Troy (as does everyone else). Jeff envies his friends for leaving Greendale and moving on to bigger and better things, asking the Dean in “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care”, “I’ll never get out of here, will I?” The entire group is forced to adjust and examine themselves, questioning their identity and purpose. And on a superficial level, the show had to deal with the losses of Donald Glover, Yvette Nicole Brown, and Chevy Chase by bringing in worthy replacements. Jonathan Banks came in for a short time last year and then left as well; and John Oliver is a pretty busy guy these days, so he understandably couldn’t come back this year. In come Paget Brewster and Keith David as Frankie Dart and Elroy Patashnik, respectively. It was clear that these characters were only brought in because others had left, and Abed makes sure to point this out and express all of his concerns immediately. Frankie is a very serious, professional person who is brought in to help save Greendale. So does that make her New Shirley, Other Annie, or Female Jeff? These are the questions that are asked of her from the moment she makes her overly confident entrance into Study Room F. As we get to know her, it turns out she is simply Frankie Dart – an intelligent, successful woman who longs for acceptance and friendship. Over the course of the season, Frankie does her best to keep the group in line, while also attempting to earn their acceptance. Just look at the smile on her face as she plays the steel drums in “Advanced Safety Features,” or the sort of bewildered excitement she displays as she throws her hands in the air while Jeff screams about drinking and partying in “Wedding Videography.” Frankie has never been the type of person that other people want to hang out with, which means she fits right in with the rest of the group. Frankie’s acceptance into the group is a great triumph for her, and it also says a lot about the group’s subconscious mutual understanding with other misfits. The friendships that they have built with each other during their time at Greendale have allowed them to be welcoming to like-minded people, regardless of how different they may appear to be on the outside. This desire to bring in and be loved by new people is especially seen in the group’s immediate acceptance of Elroy. Elroy Patashnik is a failed entrepreneur who comes to Greendale because he basically has nowhere else to go. When he arrives, Chang is concerned that this new character is either Black Pierce, Old Troy, or Shirley without a giant purse. And in a way, he is some sort of weird hybrid of all of the characters who had previously occupied seats at the study table. But he is absolutely hilarious, which makes up for any contrivances in his character identity. Elroy, relative to Frankie, does not really desire to be accepted by this group; he is perfectly comfortable with who he is, and he doesn’t care how other people treat him as a result. The rest of the group, however, sincerely wants Elroy to love them and enjoy their company – partly because they miss their old friends, but also because these people want to provide the comfort and happiness that such a close-knit group of friends can provide. The growth and development within the group is a natural result of living and interacting with each other for so many years, and it is a beautiful picture of the power of community (Hey, that’s the name of the show!). In life, we constantly have to deal with change. We lose our jobs, we fall out of touch with the people we are close to, and we sit back and realize that life is completely flying by, whether we like it or not. This is why living in community with people who seek to strengthen and encourage us is so important. It is impossible to get through all of life’s trials alone; relying on God and walking with other believers prepares us to deal with both enjoyable and difficult circumstances in a way that glorifies God. The Save Greendale Committee provides a beautiful, yet imperfect example of this concept.

Steel_drums

This season has a much darker, more mature tone than the majority of the series. This is seen especially in Jeff’s existential crisis, sparked by his fear of being trapped at Greendale for the rest of his life while everyone else gets to leave to pursue their goals. Jeff began to feel this way in season 5’s “G.I. Jeff,” in which he has an Abed-style mental breakdown, complete with elaborate animation and self-aware dialogue, as a result of his realization that he is forty years old and stuck with a low-paying teaching job at a cartoonishly dysfunctional community college. Although he has always maintained the appearance of having it all together, he is actually the loneliest, most insecure person in the study group. He has always dreamed of the good life, which in his mind is the basic American Dream: money, sex, status, success. He wanted this so badly that he was willing to lie his way through life in order to maintain it. As soon as the lie caught up to him, he turned around and prepared to lie his way right back to the top, avoiding any semblance of a single meaningful relationship with anyone. But somewhere along the line, the study group found their way into his heart, setting Jeff on a series-long internal quest to effortlessly make something of himself, while also caring for and serving his friends. In this season’s “Intro to Recycled Cinema,” Jeff almost strangles Abed to death because of his crumbling self-esteem. He sees everyone around him moving on from Greendale (even Chang), and his way of dealing with losing the people he loves is to stroke his ego; in this case, that involves keeping his hilariously long and clichéd death scene in their terrible sci-fi movie. In the season finale, when everyone is pitching their ideas for a “season 7,” Jeff initially plays it off as childish and dumb. But as soon as he finds out that both Annie and Abed are leaving Colorado, he clings to this meta device and imagines future scenarios in which all of his friends can remain together. In this way, Jeff is much more similar to Abed than he would like to admit (see also: “Home Economics”). He truly loves these people and wants them to be in his life forever, but that is just not how life works. So like Abed, and many of us, he filters his emotions through the lens of television or fantasy, allowing him to hold onto the past for as long as possible. Season 6 as a whole seemed to lack the pathos that made earlier seasons so beloved, but Jeff’s existential crisis had been slowly, subtly building up over the course of the season, and it resulted in one of the most emotionally resonant episodes of the entire series. In the finale, Jeff finally realizes that because of his relationships with these people, he is equipped to handle whatever life throws at him, and to actually make a difference in the lives of others. As he tells his friends in the finale, “I love that I got to be with you guys. You saved my life and changed it forever.”

While Jeff’s mental state is the primary through line of this season, every character had plenty of great moments of development. Britta is still the worst (she is actually the best; I don’t care what anyone says), and she spends the majority of the season trying to be taken more seriously by her friends and parents. In “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care,” she finds out that her parents have been secretly financially supporting her and all of her friends for years. Similar to Walter White, Britta hates the idea of being a charity case, so she does everything she can to assert her independence to everyone around her. In Britta’s case, that means being a mediocre bartender and voicing her unpopular opinions, and not running a meth empire. Abed has been continually growing and becoming more of his own person ever since Troy left, and he seems to have fully accepted it in this season: “It needs to be okay for it to get on a boat with LeVar Burton and never come back.” He actually seems to be happier than ever this season, displaying more animated facial expressions than he did in the first five seasons combined. This is a result of feeling truly loved and accepted by a group of people – something that he never imagined he would feel. Abed is also finally taking steps to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker. “Chief Starr and the Raiders of the Galaxy” didn’t allow him the creative freedom he deserves, but he announces in the finale that he is moving to California to work on a new show that he described as “30 Rock meets I.T. Crowd meets… me.” I can’t describe how incredibly satisfying it is to see this character go from being the inaccessible weirdo that he was in the pilot, to a well-rounded, sympathetic person who is following his dreams with the support of his closest friends. Abed is an all-time great TV character, and while he didn’t have quite as much to do this season as he normally does, his ending was absolutely perfect.

Over the course of the series, Annie has grown from a “love-struck teeny bopper” into a woman with real goals and motivations. Just like most girls her age, Annie’s entire identity used to be wrapped up in her crushes on Troy and Jeff. She has always had such great potential, which made her character identity pretty frustrating over the years. With all of the passionate (and completely misguided) shippers on the Internet begging Dan Harmon to bring Jeff and Annie together, the writers were under a great deal of pressure this season to appease this group of fans, while delicately explaining why these two characters should never end up together. First of all, this show is not The Office or Friends. Romantic relationships were only ever present to add depth to characters, or to play around with popular rom-com clichés. Jeff and Britta were never actually going to get married. Troy and Britta never would have dated if it weren’t for the gas leak. And Jeff and Annie never gave us any reason to believe that they could be in a healthy relationship. Jeff liked her because she is young and beautiful; she was a way of maintaining his youth, and nothing more. And Annie never truly loved Jeff, either. She realizes this in her conversation with “herself” in “Virtual Systems Analysis”: “But we love Jeff.” “No we don’t. We’re just in love with the idea of being loved.” The young, childish Annie thought she was in love with Jeff. But season 6 Annie is pursuing her own goals, and she no longer has any romantic feelings for Jeff whatsoever. The writers completely avoided this situation for most of the season, but they handled its conclusion masterfully in the finale.

Dean Pelton spends the season trying to be a good dean, and longing for acceptance from the group (specifically from Jeff). As soon as Frankie arrives at Greendale, she manages to do just about everything by herself, making the Dean feel inadequate. He works hard to demonstrate his worth throughout the season. Sometimes he is hindered by virtual reality systems or Honda, but he proves in episodes like “Queer Studies and Advanced Waxing” that he truly wants to do what is best for himself and for Greendale. He also managed to go the entire semester without wearing a single ridiculous costume, which is great for his character, and it made his hodgepodge outfit in the finale all the more hilarious. Chang, who “frankly hasn’t been well utilized since” season 1, had his best year since the glorious days of Señor Chang. I actually enjoyed Chang’s arc in seasons 1-3; his rapid decline into utter insanity, brought about by the study group’s continual rejection of him, made sense for his character in a weird, Community way. But “Kevin” and whatever he was last year were obvious missteps. This season, he is often more of a Ralph Wiggum-type (especially in “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care,” when he pops up at random times to update everyone on his cat bite), but he actually has a few genuine moments of success and emotion. His surprising acting ability is first discovered in “Queer Studies and Advanced Waxing,” which provides his character a much-needed emotional grounding. This leads him to skyrocket to fame in “Intro to Recycled Cinema,” but when his 15 minutes are up, he realizes that he ultimately just wants to be accepted by the group, just like he always has.

The main character of this season, however, was not any one member of the Save Greendale Committee, but Greendale itself. The school was the primary focus of most of the stories this season, allowing characters like Garrett, Leonard, Todd, Vicki, Dave, Neil, Magnitude, Starburns, and Koogler to really shine. As Hologram Pierce said in “Repilot,” “[Greendale is] a special place. A crappy place, sure. But only because it gives crappy people a chance to sort themselves out.” Over the course of the series, it is made clear that everyone at Greendale is broken and imperfect. And just as the central characters have become more and more whole due to their relationships with each other, the committee was able to work together to actually save Greendale. Greendale has often been used as a metaphor for the show (especially in last season’s two-part finale), and the idea that it has actually been “saved” at the end of the series is a beautiful thing. If you sit down and watch Community from the beginning, it is like experiencing a slow descent into madness, and a subsequent rise back to sanity. In the beginning, it appears to just be a fun, light-hearted show about a group of quirky characters at a unique community college. Over the course of the series, the episodes and the school itself slowly become much more surreal, cartoonish, and dark, until the former Spanish teacher becomes a dictator, kidnaps the Dean, and takes over the school. Then, you’ve got the gas leak, during which everything about the show and the school felt completely off. Once everyone recovered from that, the characters set out on a seemingly futile quest to save Greendale from all of the damage that they had done in the past, while the writers attempted to regain the quality of the “golden age” and re-ground the show and its characters back into reality. Over the next two years, both of those goals were met with opposition and mixed results, but by the end of the series, all was made right. Greendale is saved, and so is Community.

This season, while consistently great, didn’t quite reach the ridiculous heights that the show used to reach in its prime, but it did succeed in serving as a more mature, character-driven season that led to a wonderfully satisfying conclusion. The imperfection of this show, and its complete awareness of that imperfection, is part of what makes it so endearing. Community was never perfect. But life isn’t perfect, either. People leave, circumstances change, and things do not turn out the way we had planned. The beauty of this show lies in its central theme that through all of life’s ups and downs, we can always lean on the people we love. We were not meant to go through life alone. Just like Jeff Winger, if we open up and invest in the lives of others, we will be better prepared to handle all of life’s uncertainties, because we can count on the support of people who love us.

Whatever comes next for Community – hopefully a movie in which the entire study group, including Shirley, Frankie, Elroy, and holograms of Pierce and Hickey, rescues Troy from pirates – I will be first in line to watch. I am incredibly grateful to everyone involved with this series for creating something that I truly relate to; something that can provide comfort and laughter regardless of what kind of day I had. I will continue to re-watch this show endlessly for the rest of my life. I love these characters and relate to them in a way that I never have with those of any other series. This show has everything that I look for in a TV series, and then some; it feels as if Dan Harmon created a show just for me (and so many others feel the same way). Community, with all of its imperfection, has resonated with me more than any other comedy ever has, and I am proud to call myself a Human Being.

Season Grade: A-

Series Grade (assuming this is the end): A

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