It’s strange to think that most never thought we’d see Community complete its fifth season; a few short years ago, many of us doubted it’d make it past the third or fourth. “Six Seasons and a Movie,” a mantra originally introduced in season 2 of Community’s classic faux-clipshow “Paradigms of Human Memory” as a joke on The Cape, has become less of a pipe dream and more an attainable goal. It hasn’t been renewed as of yet, but given how much NBC has utterly tanked when it comes to comedy—as spoofed on the season’s best and last tag—it’s actually got a chance (knock on wood.)
The first four seasons of the show centered on sitcom characters desperately trying to break away from being sitcom characters. At various points, Shirley was the mother hen trying to become a queen in independent business, Jeff was the sarcastic jerk refusing to admit he loved a ragtag group of misfits, Troy was the naive and fun-loving youngster who grew into a man, etc. They’ve changed quite a bit from their first appearances, so much of the character-breaking was not done once, but twice. But either way, the show was about Greendale bringing these characters together so they could help each other grow and move on to the next stage. By season 4, this made the show pretty sappy at points—not that it’s bad to have a heart, and at time this was season 4’s greatest strength—but there also wasn’t much of a direction for the show to go.
So, as much as season 4 seemed like it was a transition season at the time, season 5 really, truly is. This whole season is about trying out new things and moving in new directions while still keeping things familiar enough for this to be remain Community. The upside to this is it makes sure any experimental stuff is organic; the creators are honest-to-god trying to do something new because they need to, rather than simply pandering to the audience. The downside is that the results will inevitably be hit-or-miss, which results in a season that never feels particularly bad, but often feels quite off even with Harmon back at the helm. The first couple of episodes do a nice job resettling in while still feeling new, particularly with the utter darkness throughout “Repilot” until its hopeful ending. The rest of the season fluctuates between feeling comfortable while reaching higher (the season’s high point in “Cooperative Polygraphy”), and not quite knowing what to do with itself (“VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing,” which has some good bits and a great performance from Vince Gilligan, but is not clear on what it’s trying to say about Annie and Abed.) No episode in season 5 is bad or unfunny, and all 13 have some kind of joke or moment that will stick with the show. But aside from “Repilot,” “Cooperative Polygraphy” and “G.I. Jeff,” there aren’t many that stick out as a series-great or memorable episode like past seasons’ line-ups did.
The introduction and re-introduction of supporting characters turned out to be one of the season’s biggest successes, though. Jonathan Banks as Professor Buzz Hickey had potential to be nothing more than a Pierce replacement, but Banks is so game for anything throughout the season that he’s a perfect addition to the cast. Hickey is a different type of old guy, a representation of a grittier version of the world the cartoon-y characters of Greendale try to forget exists. It’s a great contrast to the exaggerated, surreal world of Greendale, even when he’s playing along with the shenanigans like in “Geothermal Escapism” and “App Development and Condiments.” Hickey’s down-to-Earth advice and old-fashioned badassery, combined with the grandfatherly juxtaposition Banks was famous for in Breaking Bad, work great as Hickey, even if he’s basically playing the same character. John Oliver’s return as Professor Ian Duncan is also successful, even allowing him to get some character development that he was never granted in his original two seasons on the show. It’s clear that the writers were thankful for getting these two on board, as their material never falters.
After the weirdness of the Changesia plot last season, Ken Jeong gets some downright great material as Chang, keeping him on the periphery unless he can make a big, funny splash. His ghostly adventure in “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality” is the season’s standout, and he’s fun to see as a villain who’s “just mentally ill” in the finale, too. The way the season quietly inducts them into the core group as the “Save Greendale Committee” turned out to be very smart, especially since none of these three feel like specific replacements for Troy or Pierce. What it doesn’t pull off as well is the giant roster of guest stars, who are generally wasted in weird bit roles that don’t provide much (“Analysis of Cork-Based Networking” stands out as the worst offender.) But that’s a small complaint, and there are certainly exceptions mentioned below.
Season 5 is a massive improvement over last year in terms of organic running gags, like the frequent use of Dave Matthews (real fans call him “Dave”), and more specifically, one-time jokes that automatically become part of the Community lexicon. “Fat dog it,” “Bear down for midterms,” and “Jim the Duck” are weird things that don’t feel forced at all, yet will surely be remembered down the line for fans. And retiring gags that ran their course like Inspector Spacetime or anything dealing with the timelines works wonders for keeping this season fresh. Even though many of the concept episodes are basically sequels to classics, nothing feels like too much of a pandering retread. Well, “Advanced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” sort of feels like that, but Abed at least acknowledges this within the episode. And in that case, it’s executed with enough freshness that it’s still one of the better installments of the season, especially thanks to the involvement of David Cross and letting Dean Pelton in on the game.
The season’s treatment of season 4 is also admirable, keeping the bitterness about it down for the most part, aside from a sly reference to last year’s “gas leak.” Season 4 in general allowed this season to be humbled a bit; as meta as the show had been, its most self-deprecating wasn’t much more than “This season was dark/weird/etc.” With season 4 as a bit of an old shame for the show, there are ways to acknowledge that, no, it’s not the perfect show people made it out to be in its heyday, but it’s reflective of the show’s characters similarly embracing the flaws of Greendale. Conversely, one of the best parts about season four, Brie Larson as Abed’s love interest Rachel, returns for a couple of episodes. Rachel as a character isn’t used terribly well in the season, pretty much becoming the “girlfriend” trope she was initially meant to parody, but she gives Abed a new direction to go in post-Troy. And frankly, Larson is just lots of fun to watch on screen.
That said, there are also points when anything else season 4 did right is actually a bit backtracked. Jim Rash doesn’t get a whole lot of material compared to last year, for one. But the real shame is how much of a step back things are for Shirley. She gets to do some cool stuff in “Geothermal Escapism” and “App Development and Condiments,” but overall, Yvette Nichole Brown is right back to being sorely underused. The fact that she doesn’t get to be underground with the rest of the original cast in “Basic Sandwich” for Jeff’s big emotional moment, in particular, is extremely disappointing.
If there’s anything that holds season 5 back, it’s how it carries its baggage of the show’s torturous behind-the-scenes history. This good write-up nails what was both good and bad about the season’s baggage: that even at its least weird, season 5 is still a fairly self-involved meta-commentary that doesn’t always make sense out of the context of the making of the show. That was the best part about it in the first couple of seasons, where it was often just a typical sitcom that was aware it was a sitcom. Even when it veered into the ridiculous and, by season 3, pretty much became a full-on cartoon (which certainly wasn’t a bad thing when done right), its sights remained squarely on the characters and the utterly ridiculous main plot. The finale of season 5 has shades of season 3’s amalgam of strange plot with strong character development—a solid gold robot that learned to love is intercut with a big revelation for Jeff about Annie, for example–but there’s very little by way of character development throughout the season. “Repilot,” “Introduction to Teaching,” “Cooperative Polygraphy,” and “Geothermal Escapism” all did, but those were particularly character- or event-focused episodes.
Once Troy leaves the group, though, there’s a certain lack of focus up until the end. It’s not that the show isn’t entertaining, as episodes like “Advanced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” still hold up fine. And Community certainly doesn’t need a serialized plot to be successful. The focus in this sense is episode-to-episode; many storylines feel like ideas put up on screen without the character-driven throughline that made the show so good in the past. “Advanced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” forces a plot about Hickey in there and acknowledges how forced it is, but does “App Development and Condiments” really say anything about the characters at the end of the day?
“G.I. Jeff” is an odd one; it’s an astoundingly well put-together homage/parody of both G.I. Joe and every cheap 80s cartoon that’s getting a gritty reboot now, and that makes it one of the most inspired episodes of the series. But its core story of Jeff coping with his aging feels shoehorned in as an afterthought, a tacked-on excuse to do the episode rather than a character beat branching into a story. Maybe if that episode came a few seasons ago it would have played out as genius, but after having seen “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” do something similar, season 5’s variant comes off more like a gimmick than it should. It’s not a case of saying “the old ones are better!” so much as wanting these new episodes to proportionately push the envelope rather than stay on the same level, especially if they’re going to be riffs on classic Community ideas. Granted, they don’t come off as pandering in the way season 4 did, because we are getting new ideas. And again, not every episode needs to have gigantic revelations or plot developments. But even the most sitcom-y episodes don’t feel like Community: the self-aware sitcom anymore, but Community: the crazy show that’s being super meta about the real-world drama behind it. In season 5, the show became less-focused on the characters, and more on Greendale as a representation of the making of the show.
That said, this shift into focusing on Greendale in general, representative of the show or not, is not automatically a bad thing. On the flip side, the most rejuvenating aspect of the fifth season is that Greendale truly does feel like a place we’d all like to attend. At that, season 5 isn’t just about retooling the show to get the characters back in Greendale post-graduation. As the season unfolds, it becomes clear that the entire mission ha changed. There’s a common joke about how a show about Community College stopped being about Community College by season 2, but season 5 more quietly changed it. It went from being a show about Community College, to a show about a Community College: Greendale. It’s a small distinction in concept, but its execution changed the show, for better or worse.
The “worse” part is that, just because of how steep in the real-world media troubles it’s become, the show will never be able to get back to its heyday; no one can shed that baggage. It also means this is a show that is, unfortunately, a bit less focused on the characters that made it great in the first place. Season 5’s character development is lacking compared to previous seasons, emphasizing that it’s still a sitcom after all, and the rules must be bent a bit to keep them in that world.
But the “better” is that, while this surely isn’t the show it once was, Greendale is still a place we want to be, despite its myriad flaws and history. Season 5 created a setting where everyone would want to stay for a long time, not because they’re aiming for a degree, but because it’s where they’re the happiest. It’s totally nonsensical in the context of the show, especially considering most of these characters don’t work and yet somehow have the money to pay for school. But it’s also a bit of wish fulfillment—wouldn’t you want to relive the best part of your college years without worrying about tuition, and occasionally have it break out into genre-bending games and essentially alternative universes?
The two-part finale, “Basic Story” and “Basic Sandwich,” show that this fact wasn’t lost on the writers or the characters. The finale gives everyone a choice: let Greendale close and their story end, or keep it open and let a neverending story continue. The first choice has Britta and Jeff get married (and have a spin-off that won’t last six episodes) and everyone reluctantly move on to the next boring phase of their lives, but hopefully grow as people. The second choice doesn’t allow them to move forward at all, but they remain at a place their love, where they can keep going with as many genre parodies as time allows. Even if the show is cancelled and “Basic Sandwich” is the series finale, the characters end where they choose to be—Greendale, the one place they never realized they’d want to stay. Again, it’s all a meta-commentary on the show itself, but that commentary is the kind that works. It doesn’t speak for the show’s off-screen problems, but for the nature of TV sitcoms as a whole. We want these characters we’ve grown to love to be able to move on and live happily ever after, but we’d also like them to keep up their shenanigans for six seasons, a movie, and beyond. Community ends up having its cake and eating it to here at the end, in a way.
That culminating message is what lets the season excel beyond the issues it has preceding it. And qualitatively, the good far outweighs the bad. The show isn’t as funny as it once was because of the baggage and cynicism, but when it nails it, it nails it. The two-part finale alone delivers examples of the show’s keen eye for pop culture (“What is this, an hour-long episode of The Office?!”), its own self-flagellation (“This is as boring as when Troy and Britta dated!”), and a keen ability to keep even its most tired meta shenanigans feeling fresh (Abed’s fourth-wall breaking “It’s canon” bit at the end.) Season 5 had to deal with the loss of two core cast members, another shortened season, and an absolutely uncertain airdate that prevented any holiday episodes. Even with Dan Harmon on board, it had a lot going against it. At that, season 5 at its worst is only a bit too bitter, and often doesn’t have as clear of a sight for where it’s going, but can still pull out some solid laughs and brilliant bits of insight. It doesn’t feel like the show it once was, but it’s engaging and fun at its best, which it’s at more times than not this season. It’s still the most unique and interesting show on TV, and not for always for the wrong reasons.