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Why NBC's 'Community' Deserves a Second Chance
Real talk: season four of Community was not very good. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather watch Abed Nadir hallucinate Muppet Babies parodies or Jeff Winger hit on Caprica Six by impersonating a praying mantis creature than catch even the end credits of most of today's multi-camera comedies, but the first two seasons of Community are nearer and dearer to my heart than perhaps any show I have ever watched.
Obviously new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port had some big shoes to fill.
And here’s the thing: I’m willing to let them have this one. Community was one of those rare shows that put its best foot forward directly out of the gate. It’s faltered since, and it will never be that good again, but by all rights it never should have been that good to begin with. Fellow Comedy-Night-Done-Right shows The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation debuted with weak, forgettable first seasons, only to increase their quality a thousandfold their sophomore year. From a production standpoint, season four of Community was in many ways a massive reset button being hit on the show. Dan Harmon had steered his ship into rough waters, and instead of trusting their talented but eccentric captain to bring them safely home, his investors turned on him, throwing him overboard and replacing him with two new co-captains who had never before set foot on this bridge.
For the first half of the season, they floundered, and May 9’s season finale was a disappointment on almost every level it’s still possible to be disappointed by this show. But during the five episodes in between, from “Herstory of Dance” to “Heroic Origins,” Community 2.0 started to come into its own, to recapture some of that old spark that had burned so brightly in seasons one and two. Guarascio and Port will never be Dan Harmon; their biggest mistake was trying to be. They know that now, and their ability to right their sinking ship mid-season speaks only good of what they could accomplish a year out from Harmon’s formidable umbra.
Do I suspect some miraculous turnaround, an unprecedented rise in quality to match or exceed the Harmon Era? Of course not. The show has gone on too long and lost too much to behind-the-scenes drama and politics to ever again become its ideal self. But nor am I ready to throw in the towel and be satisfied with the adventures of the Greendale 7 ending on an image of two evil doppelgangers from a parallel reality. That’s just silly. So I’m going to call a mulligan on season four; I think the new showrunners have earned that, if nothing else. After all, the first season of even Seinfeld is almost unwatchable compared to what it would eventually become.
Obviously, not everyone is going to be in favor of granting amnesty. Before Community’s renewal for a fifth season was announced, Maureen Ryan of The Huffington Post wrote an article called “‘Community’ Season Finale Should Be Its Series Finale: Why Some Shows Need To Die.” Supposedly, this was an argument in favor of Community’s cancellation due to its declining quality, but the article itself offers very little specific reasoning for this beyond the author's dislike of the season finale. Mostly it just serves as a sounding board for Ryan’s belief that some shows deserve to be forcibly euthanized. A fine topic for an opinion piece, perhaps. But why pick on Community specifically if you’re not going to make a specific argument?
The one line in particular that jumped out at me was when Ryan admits, “I was a ‘Community’ doubter until Season 3’s ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ turned me into a full-fledged fan.” Now, “Remedial Chaos Theory” is a great episode. But if a show takes 53 episodes to catch your interest, how interested in it can you really be? Community fans are uniquely possessive of their show, a survival mechanism honed by years of schedule tampering and dwindling viewership, and my gut reaction was to dismiss Ryan as not a “true fan.” That attitude, however, is both unfair and unworthy. It’s up to the individual to define the qualifications for his or her fandom, and I would no sooner deny Maureen Ryan’s claim to be a fan of Community than I would refuse someone who only likes Return of the Jedi the right to call herself a Star Wars fan.
That said, I don’t understand the rationale of someone who appears to be a fan of only one quarter of the show at best (and a single episode at worst) deciding that the show should end because it no longer meets her personal niche of standards. There are levels of fandom, and while there’s nothing wrong with the casual fan who watches infrequently, didn’t really care about the show until season three, and even then didn’t care about it enough to go back and watch the episodes she’d missed, this is not the type of fan who is qualified to say what Community should be and when it is no longer capable of living up to that ideal.
Ryan even admits that, if Community is renewed (which it since has been), she can just stop watching it. This line of thought should have been the end of the matter. In a 2011 article where she asks fans to recommend the best episodes because she doesn’t have time to watch them all, Ryan confesses that the shows she favors “aren’t usually obsessed with meta-commentary and often aim for emotional immediacy and aesthetic realism.” She classified Community as “Has its merits but just not for me” and stopped watching halfway through the second season. She wrote a letter to NBC Chairman Robert Greenblatt protesting Community’s midseason removal from the 2011-2012 schedule not because she loved the show, but because she admired how much other people loved it. And now that she has again lost interest in a show that was never really to her tastes in the first place, she’s calling for it to be canceled without even the dignity of a real finale. She can always stop watching; why should the fans who loved the show for years before it caught her interest be forced to do the same?
I say all this not to attack Ryan’s credentials as a fan or as a TV critic, but to point out the untenability of her position on Community. I don’t deny that she is, or was, a fan of the show, but it’s clear that it was never special to her. She may have enjoyed it, even loved it on occasion, but it was never hers. If it was, she wouldn’t have been so reluctant to embrace it, and so quick to cast it aside. Community fans are possessive; they support their show with such ferocity not because it’s their underdog cause of the week, but because it’s their show, just as surely as it was Dan Harmon’s. Like the Greendale 7, Community and its fans are a group of oddballs who found one another fumbling in the void, and, against all odds, came together to create something special, and to recognize something special inside each other. Fan is short for fanatic, after all. From what she’s written about the show, it seems that the strongest feeling Maureen Ryan ever had about it was that it needs to die.
In an episode from early season two, an episode which Ryan must have seen but found unremarkable, Pierce’s mother admonishes him, in a message from beyond the grave, “Life is only worth a damn because it’s short. It’s designed to be consumed, used, spent, lived, felt. We’re supposed to fill it with every mistake and miracle we can manage, and then we’re supposed to let go. I can’t force you to do that for yourself, Pierce, but you can’t force me to stay.” I don’t want Community to last forever. Despite the occasional moments of brilliance it still musters, it will never again be as special or meaningful as it once was; the magic of the Harmon Era is irrecoverable. But I want all those miracles and mistakes, and to watch the study group experience them in that special place where they found each other and invited us to become part of their community. Guarascio and Port deserve a second chance, and Community deserves more than to be shot in the back of the head, pushed into a shallow grave, and forgotten. It deserves an ending.
Six seasons and a movie sounds about right.