Summary: As weird as Community has gotten, it's never gotten this level of weird. The fourth season finale throws out everything it's got in an okay episode that doesn't quite cut it as a series finale---though now we know it doesn't really have to.
If you have not seen this episode yet and don't wish to be spoiled, don't continue reading.
One of the upsides of being on vacation this weekend and not writing this review immediately after the airing is that it can now be written in the approriate context: we know the show has been renewed for a 13-episode fifth season, and this is merely a season finale. That doesn't change that "Advanced Introduction to Finality" was written to be a possible series finale, not unlike last season's finale and plenty of other on-the-bubble fan favorites in the past few years, like Chuck, Fringe and Parks and Recreation. It's become a trope in itself, it seems, for the network to drag out their renewal answer and force the show to repeatedly throw out faux-series finales each year until it officially, definitively says "this will be the final season." It's not always a bad thing, because in a lot of ways that also forces the show to delineate from the status quo; it typically closes its big plotlines in the possible series finale, which means when it gets renewed, it has to get creative to keep the show going. It might make the show a bit rocky and uneven upon completion---Chuck having about five faux-finales led to both creativity and confusion over its direction---but it also means it's that much more interesting to see where the show can go from season-to-season.
All that's to say: Community will need to be a little different next season, even more "different" than season 4 was from its predecessors. And that's good; Jeff has been at the center of this season more than ever before, and while Joel McHale has been one of the strongest factors this year, Jeff's story has been mostly exhausted. "Advanced Introduction to Finality" is solely a Jeff story for better or worse, and now that he's found a family, found closure with his father, and graduated, there's not much more to do with him in the grand scheme of things. He can still have fun little stories and learn more, of course, but what made him so central to the show---aside from maybe his whole situation with Annie, which is more about her than him---is done. And that's fine, because this is still an ensemble show with a half-dozen other immensely complex characters that have yet to be explored to Jeff's extent.
This takes it back to point #1: this would have made a terrible series finale for that reason. The fact of the matter is, Community is an ensemble show. Joel McHale was the "star" in a sense, and Jeff was the catalyst that brought the group together and the glue that held it, but he isn't what the show's about. It's about the community, the family, the entire group of people, and while "Advanced Introduction to Finality" brought about that feeling and gave all the actors fun things to do, it didn't really give a sense of finality to the show as a whole. "Introduction to Finality" in season 3 did a much better job of that, even while having its characters mostly separated until the end.
But this isn't the case, luckily, and the episode earns a lot of marks in that respect. Because, even though it's ridiculous and silly and even stupid in a lot of ways, it's fun. It's not a terribly smart episode, which is frustrating for an otherwise smart show, but it at least knows how to go all-out with the shark-jumping when it needs to. And boy, does it; it's pretty evident from the get-go that this might be a dream sequence, but it continually escalates so much that it almost becomes, "Wait, is the show really doing this? Is this for real?" It's certainly not a shock when Abed reveals it's a hallucination, and it's equally underplayed, but it's taken so far that it honestly feels like the whole cast and crew threw up their arms and kamikazed the entire show's universe in its final bow.
Ultimately, it works much better if that "go for broke" attitude is embraced rather than analyzed. It's all nonsensical, and completely unabashed fan-pandering---after all, the two elements both hardcore and casual viewers alike clamor on about are the darkest timeline and paintball, and that's literally what the entire episode centers on. This season has been a bit frustrating in just how much its referred to its own past for the sake of fanservice rather than telling good stories, but it's so in-your-face about it this time that you just kind of have to sit back and take it. The downside is that Community isn't aimed at passive TV watchers, so having things that aren't really made to be analyzed makes this episode feel really off even when it's doing exactly what it's intending.
This is also Pierce's swan song, and unfortunately it's underwhelming and kind of mean-spirited in that sense. Working with Chevy Chase was surely torturous at the end, but it's sad that a season that's done so well to Pierce tosses him out as an afterthought in the end. It's fitting that he'd finally graduate to one-up Jeff, and at least his character can go off on his own adventures with Gilbert offscreen. But it's still frustrating that the characters kind of ignored him and shrugged him off in their final adventure. I guess every family has the crazy uncle they still love even if they always ignore him, and that's fair, but there's still a certain lack of warmth for him that every single other character gets, and by now he'd have earned a sweeter ending.
But as a single episode, out of this finale context, does it work? Well, it's okay. The cheesy effects and hammy low-budget "action sequences" were silly, but they fit in with the wacky tone. The major problem, though, is that what made the previous paintball episodes so stellar was the creativity involved in keeping everything in-universe and totally plausible, while still going nuts. This episode was able to shed all semblance of reality, but it also shed what made any previous paintball episodes so entertaining. The pacing was absolutely atrocious, too, with shots and scenes moving so quickly and plot points happening within seconds of each other that it felt like a jumbled mess. There were reportedly six minutes cut for length for this episode, which is a lot, and unfortunately it shows. It also yielded some weaker bits of writing, even from a Megan Ganz, who's proven time and time again to be one of the best writers on staff. Now that she's moved onto Modern Family, it's pretty much definite that this was her swan song, too, and unfortunately it isn't her best effort.
In her defense, though, the structure of the episode was so focused on exposition that there wasn't much room for any substantial dialogue or even funny one-liners, except for bad ones like Annie's cliche "No one sleeps with Jeff, not even me." There was probably no way to make this work as a truly great episode, but at the very least, the explanations covered all the bases. And most of the subpar material was within the dream sequence; the bookends of the episode were just fine, and Jeff's emotional last speech, while a bit trite, worked. McHale did sell that this might be the last Winger speech he'd ever give, and the fact that it was meant to be excessively simple and boiled down lowered the bar a bit, since it didn't have to be too profound or clever.
Ultimately, I'm not sure I agree with Abed when he says they "found a way to make paintball cool again," but at least a weird Matrix parody was an unexpected. "Unexpected" is the best way to describe this episode, and while it was disappointing in its lack of substance for the most part, it's at least daring---and that's a facet that much of season 4 has been missing. If season 5 can emulate the "to hell with it, let's go nuts" attitude of this episode while keeping the heart of season 4 and the intelligence of seasons 1-3, we could be back on track with a good show that's still different from its previous eras. I do highly recommend a second viewing of this episode with knowledge that it's not the series finale and that it's all a dream. It plays much better when you're just taking in the ridiculousness, rather than struggling to comprehend what the heck you're watching. It's a fittingly uneven end for an uneven season, but I'm hopeful for where the show can go. If anything, this might be a transition season, and season 5 could send the show off on a much higher and more consistent note.
Odds & Ends
- While the ensemble didn't get a lot of moments outside of the dream sequence, the ones we did get were quite good, particularly Annie and Dean's excitement over the graduwedding and Jeff confiding in Britta once again. Jeff and Britta's strictly platonic, but incredibly open relationship they've developed this season is one of the better quiet developments, and a good example of how a relationship change doesn't necessarily have to be announced in a Winger speech.
- I can't express how happy I was that the show referenced the stupid timeline of this half-season. It was a stupid explanation, but it pretty much confirms that yes, it doesn't make sense, but no, it shouldn't matter. Which is a little condescending, but hey, at least we're all on the same page.
- Troy is apparently still in A/C repair school and has another year to go. Annie switched her major again, so she'll be in school longer. Setting up the six seasons and a movie, I see?
- Jeff's BS credits led him to major in Education. Low blow, guys. Low. Blow
- Evil Jeff's Batman voice is a guilty pleasure of mine.
- Chang's slow motion "Friendship" was an extremely unfunny gag.
- Seeing some of the most prominent recurring characters at Jeff's final graduation, like Leonard, Neil, Vicki, Todd, Magnitude and even Quendra was a nice touch. The reference to a Starburns memorial was also cute.
- "Six Seasons and Movie" on the chalkboard in the background was not that subtle at all, but it was nice.
- The way Chevy Chase sips his drink in the last scene is a funny freeze-frame moment.
- "I'm gonna miss our playful 'get a room already' banter."
- "Must I bear this cross forever?!"
- "I just like when you talk down to me like a child."