(Disclaimer: If you are enjoying this season of Community, please stop reading. I don’t want to take away from something you enjoy. But if you, like me, feel like the show has died, I invite you to take part in this review: half coroner’s autopsy, half wake.)
You have to let something die before you can understand how it works, and sadly, this fate has befallen NBC’s comedy Community.
Last summer, die-hard fans of the show were worried upon hearing that Dan Harmon, Community’s creator and showrunner, had been fired. The show has a unique chemistry all its own, and many were concerned that the new management would make changes that take away from what made Community great. The fears were founded.
The nature of the season’s first episode made it too early to judge, but last week’s episode confirms: the magic is lost.
Community has been no stranger to change: each season has undergone a gradual escalation of zaniness, and the characters have slowly evolved as the series progressed. But there were elements of timing, comedy, tone, and character that remained consistent, even as the style shifted and adapted. And these crucial elements are what has changed.
Perhaps the first change that stands out is the timing, which manages to be both too fast and too slow. The show lingers on scenes and jokes that aren’t funny (the sitcom segments, the Hunger Deans, the Scooby-Doo screams, etc.). At the same time, the fast-paced banter that the show has mastered is…well, too fast-paced. The verbal volleys bounce too many times, and reactions aren’t given time to land. The characters have three years’ worth of established conversational rhythms, and changing this makes the jokes fall flat. Our minds have to adjust to the new pattern, and we no longer respond naturally to the…
One show’s comedy is different from another show’s. Jokes from How I Met Your Mother won’t work in Arrested Development, and you can’t take dream sequences from Scrubs and wedge them into The Office. One kind of comedy may not be better than the other, but you can’t change horses midstream.
Community has (well, had) a very individual, delicate balance of humor all it’s own. Among other shows, it’s closest cousin is 30 Rock. Both shows feature a warped “normality” sprinkled with moments (or entire episodes) viewed through different dramatic lenses.
Though it mimics many movies and TV shows, Community generally avoids straight parody in favor of tropes. Tropes are recurring plot devices in fiction, while a parody is a line or scene humorously adapted from another source. (For example: Spaceballs is a parody of Star Wars; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe plays off science fiction tropes.)
The most recent episodes have altered Community’s comedic make-up in a few different ways. First, there’s more dependence on parodies than tropes–the horror movie spoofs, The Hunger Deans, Greendale Babies, etc. Secondly, the show’s sense of “normal” has shifted, causing a change in…
As mentioned before, Community has a very bizarre sense of normality. The characters are highly aware of social habits and television tropes, and they talk with complicated, stylized dialogue. These have been hallmarks of the show since the first episode.
But starting with this season, the tone shifts. The dialogue is shorter and snappier, and much of the wit is replaced with snark. More humor is based on painfully awkward/annoying catchphrases (Being annoying on purpose doesn’t make it less annoying) and cliched sitcom moments. They may be trying to make fun of the cliches, but if you use the cliche without altering or lampshading it, nobody can tell.
Other moments also suffer from vagueness. For instance, Gilbert’s role in the second episode of this season: Pierce’s black half-brother who can’t find purpose without his white family to play servant to. Is this unintentional racism, or too-subtle satire? This ambiguity could have been averted with Pierce say something characteristically racist to call attention to/defuse the odd situation.
There’s also much more humor that relies on the characters being socially awkward and self-unaware, making scenes feel like they were ripped out of an episode of The Office or Modern Family and sutured into place. Which brings us to the most important change: Community has lost its sense of…
Community’s new showrunner said they’re trying to give the show more heart this season. It’s clear they’re trying, but the fact is Community already had it. I don’t just mean the show’s tender moments–the show had heart because of the characters.
In the pilot, Jeff’s shark week speech, though self-serving, drew attention to the insecurities all the characters bear…and that we carry ourselves. “You are all better than you think you are. You’re just designed not to believe it when you hear it from yourself.”
In the new season, these characters have become stereotypes of themselves. Jeff is more of a jerk, Britta is more of a dork, Troy is more ignorant, Annie is more Disney Channel, Abed is more autistic, Shirley is more “Oh dear”, and Pierce is more…Pierce.
These traits were always part of the characters, but they were tempered with moments of self-awareness: Britta’s realization that she’s not as cool as she thinks; Pierce’s frustration at not being appreciated; Abed’s fears of not being accepted; Troy’s embarrassment at a mistake; Shirley’s struggle between her faith and her friends; Annie’s need to excel; Jeff’s prison of self-image. These vulnerabilities showed us that these were people we encouraged, teased, harassed, ignored, fought with, joked with, built up, put down, and at the end of the day, missed when they weren’t around. We laughed with them, because they were friends. They were us.
Without that self-awareness, they become smug and self-assured, vehicles for jokes and little else. We can’t laugh with them now…only at them, because they don’t open up to us any more.
Community was more than a sitcom. It was an oddball assortment of friends. We didn’t always get along with them, but liked them just the same. It was…well…a community.
Now it’s just a TV show.
I’ll still see it through to the end, as should you. It’s only right to be there for an old friend’s dying breaths. But its early passing should not go unmarked. So raise a glass, and drink with me.
Community is dead. Long live Community.
Now let’s go start a riot at the memorial service.