How the final season of 'Community' destroyed and rebuilt itself, over and over again: A visual analysis

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So Community is canceled, whatever that means. The NBC comedy spent five seasons on the brink, and so in a weird way, it’s always felt canceled. Its continued existence was a curiosity, a glitch in the matrix, a referendum on NBC’s inability to reclaim its mojo; a miracle, really. On The Bubble, Barely Renewed, Reduced Order, No Premiere Date, Declining Ratings: These are phrases that loom large in the Community myth. There was turmoil behind the scenes. Dan Harmon, the show’s combination Showrunner-Mascot-God-Devil, was fired after season 3; original star Chevy Chase was already an absent figure before he left the show at the end of season 4; Harmon returned just in time to see Donald Glover depart.

The show had the most culty of cult followings, but somehow Harmon’s return had the effect of quieting the fervor around the show. For the last few months, it seemed so likely that the show would live up to its implicit promise. (#SixSeasonsAndAMovie.) And now, you get the sense that nobody really thinks Community is gone. Won’t it go to Comedy Central? Or Hulu? Or some other heretofore unrevealed content provider, some other media corporation looking to attract an Engaged Fanbase? So what if the cast and crew of Community are currently sending out messages that vibe elegiac? Wasn’t the whole run of Community just a dry run for months, years, decades of Community yet to come?

Maybe not. Maybe we should bury Community. Certainly, we can praise it. On April 17, the show aired its season (series?) finale — a not-so-great episode that ended on a note of victory that retroactively looks either playfully melancholic or aggressively ironic. I’ve been thinking about the finale, and the season that preceded it, for weeks now. Anecdotally, I get the sense that people didn’t love the fifth season. There were complaints about how the show rehashed old ideas (another Dungeons & Dragons episode, a bottle episode, Hot Lava episode that proved a Paintball Episode by any other name is still kinda a Paintball Episode, Chang). Maybe there was something less intrinsically dangerous about the show’s weirdness. Maybe the spin cycle of modern TV viewing has made it hard to love shows that don’t spend their later years escalating the narrative sweepstakes.

Truthfully, I’m just guessing. Because to me, Community Season 5 was incredible: Happy and sad, brilliant and silly, shockingly angry and remarkably kind, brutally cynical and yet somehow hopeful. The 13-episode run was nominally structured around the Save Greendale Committee, and its attempts to rescue their beloved community college. But the season didn’t tell a straight-line story: It destroyed and it rebuilt, it transformed and it deleted, it Apocalypse’d and it Genesis’d. When we talk about Community, we usually talk about the writing — how Harmon and his ridiculously talented writing staff mixed together hyper-detailed laser-fast quips with ambitious curlicue story arcs, creating whole epic sagas in 22 minutes plus commercials. But when I remember Community‘s final act — question mark implied — I also remember a season of fascinating images, portraits of joy and despair. It began like this…

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…with Jeff Winger, a lawyer once again, advertising himself as a ridiculous superhero in a ridiculous costume, in a commercial that was sort of a parody of a cheap commercials, if we lived in a universe where cheap commercials were all directed by Roger Corman. But we quickly segued into this…

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…a very different vision of Jeff, unshaven and undone, watching the repo men carry his entire office away. At the time, Community fans could read this as a bit of autobiography by Dan Harmon — that this was a portrait of Harmon post-Community, his year of podcasting and working on a multicamera sitcom for CBS. (Because Harmon is such a figure, it’s possible to go down several rabbit holes of interpretation with everything he does; there was a period in early 2013 when I argued that Harmon’s career after being fired by NBC was intended as a parody-homage of Conan O’Brien’s career after being fired by NBC, complete with a cross-country tour. Among other problems with that theory, Harmon was actually fired by Sony, but factuality is the nemesis of creativity.)

But this image was also a motif that reappeared throughout the season. Rooms were constantly empty, cleaned out; things were being put in boxes; people were alone, in the cafeteria and the study room, lost in contemplation or lost in memory.

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Unlike most buzzy comedies in the post-Office era, Community never aspired to realism. The sets all looked like sets; the walls were all strange colors; Greendale could seem as big as a city, or it could be three rooms and one reused corridor. There was a strong sense of mortality lingering over the whole season, even before one lead character died; there was a sense that the characters were dealing with the death of their own show — with their own world, really. (Remember Left Behind? It was like that, but funny and not terrible.)

In the premiere, Jeff was quickly back in the Study Room. It was covered in detritus – a forgotten room, a non-place, a storage facility, no evidence that anyone had ever used it for anything. Tristram Shapeero directed the premiere, along with five other episodes in the season, and he helped to define the show’s season-5 visual palette. In the first resonant image of the season, the reunited study group clears off the table:

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The table is (was?) the center of Community‘s universe: Its central setting, its freefloating metaphor. It represented the promise of the show’s title — a community, a connection between people — but it could also feel at times like a prison. Community desired human connection but was also suspicious of it. Everyone was terrible to each other; without each other, they were nothing. In the fifth season, the table most of all represented how things change, and how they stay the same. Because Community liked to frame its characters on the Wes Andersonian X-Axis, screenshots from the Troy end of the table compose a formalist time lapse of a show in evolution:

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Troy and the absent Pierce; Troy and Old White Guy 2.0 Hickey; Troy and the late Pierce (and Walton Goggins); Hickey and Chang: The show carefully transitioned us into a new status quo, two beloved familiar faces replaced by a less-beloved familiar face and a new guy entirely. Community had to create a new Community, because the old one was leaving. It should have felt depressing, cut-rate, a show with a reduced budget and new actors pretending that nothing has changed: The X-Files after season 7. It definitely felt mournful: Pierce said farewell from beyond the grave, and Troy said farewell from atop his boat. I suppose there are some people who checked out of Community when that happened — when it became clear that the new Community would never be the old Community. To me, those episodes felt graceful. Parts of your life will end, but life always goes on.

Community is often compared to Doctor Who — mainly because the show constantly compared itself to Doctor Who via Inspector Spacetime — and in season 5, it felt like Harmon was zero-ing in on the most iconic aspects of Community in the same way that Doctor Who abides through the decades with a few key visual icons. (The Study Table = the TARDIS.) There is another timeline where Community runs forever, replacing old characters with new characters, somehow turning “Scrubs Season 9″ into an operating aesthetic. (Imagine a Community 50th Anniversary episode in Bizarro-2059, with Joel McHale filming a cameo appearance as The Janitor.)

Community frequently engaged in all-out parody; one episode this season was a quietly lacerating David Fincher deconstruction, another was a spot-on visual riff on GI Joe. At the risk of turning this essay into its own kind of parody, something about the study table reminds me of Jean-Paul Sartre: The characters all trapped together, driving each other crazy. But it also reminds me of the meeting table in the latter half of Deadwood, where a group of amoral-at-best men built the laws of their new land. (There’s a college-level course in the comparison of Deadwood and Community, two shows about how misfits and liars come together to build civilization.) The show’s formal visual style can create fascinating and touching connections. A shot of Shirley mildly annoyed by Annie in the season premiere gets answered, eleven episodes later, when Shirley reaches over to comfort Annie:

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In the thirteen episodes of Community‘s fifth season, there were a few Hall of Fame masterworks – “Cooperative Polygraphy,” “Geothermal Escapism,” “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics.” (Between “Geothermal Escapism” and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Joe Russo has directed and co-directed my two favorite action movies of 2014.)

But the episode I keep coming back to — maybe the last great defining statement for Community, unless Hulu — was “App Development and Condiments,” directed by Rob Schrab and written by Jordan Blum and Parker Deay. An app with the ridiculous-yet-completely-believable moniker “MeowMeowBeanz” invades campus. It’s a kind of combination Facebook-Yelp, allowing people to rate other people.

Within minutes, an entire science-fiction society has taken over. High-rated people are basically the Eternals from Zardoz, and low-rated people are basically the Brutals from Zardoz; lest we miss the implication, Starburns dresses like Sean Connery in Zardoz. But the episode isn’t a direct parody. It’s a distillation of the show’s myriad perspectives on human beings — the paranoid suspicion of both communities and of individuals. Initially, the cafeteria becomes a vision of Order, with Shirley presiding over a talent competition shot like fascist propaganda:

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But the new order quickly becomes overturned by a newer order: Britta leads a revolt of the low-rated Ones against the royal Fives. It’s the show’s cartoon version of a Communist revolution — complete with Britta modeling an anarchist’s beret, while her minions lay about. Note how they’re shot to directly contrast the pristine uniformity of the earlier shot; and yet, note also how the pristine uniformity has been replaced by a kind of chaotic conformity:

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Semi-rhetorical question: What do you think “App Development and Condiments” is about? Is it yet another anti-popularity screed by a show that was eternally devoted to misfits? Shirley becomes popular only because she is so “nice” — is “niceness” then meant to sub in for all those sitcoms that were more popular than Community, dumb and congenial and filled with “likable” characters? But if that’s the case, what are we to make of the episode’s portrait of Britta: A rebel who becomes the new monarch, an individual who advocates freethinking individuality and winds up leading a mob?

Community said so many things — remarkable, since its characters were so bad at communicating with each other. In the show’s universe, the best way to connect with people was pretending: Epiphanies occurred in the land of make-believe, with the characters “playing” other characters. (A few episodes before Britta was a communist revolutionary, she was a post-apocalyptic road warrior.) There’s a great little moment in Troy’s goodbye episode when Jeff tells his departing friend: “I’ve never stepped foot outside of Colorado.” It’s one of the most moving line readings Joel McHale ever had on the show – and McHale is such an accepted thing in pop culture that it’s easy to overlook just  how much he brought (brings?) to Jeff Winger, the rage directed inwards.

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There’s something intimate about that shot, and something sad: Jeff’s moment of revelation can only really come when he’s not looking Troy in the eyes. And there’s a connecting moment in the season finale. Part of the reason I didn’t like the final episode (ever?) the first time I watched it was the central deus ex machina: Trapped underground, the gang escapes because Jeff puts on a helmet and feels emotions.

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It’s so silly; it’s a storytelling cheat; but it also feels completely in line with a show about people who feel things — and feel things so hard — yet struggle to find a way to express those feelings. (Abed expresses feelings with pop culture references — and Community frequently suggested that this made him the least messed-up person on the show.) At the risk of rabbit-holing: Dan Harmon went to Marquette, a Jesuit school, and something about these images reminds me of the Confessional at my old Catholic Church, a room where you bared your soul to someone who couldn’t see you:

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It seems fitting somehow that Community got canceled the one time we thought it was coming back. Certainly, the final episode of the fifth season doesn’t vibe like a series finale. Greendale is saved. People dance. Abed got in a funny line about how, if the show doesn’t come back, it’s because the world was destroyed by a meteor. (After today, is that canon?) The final shot (ever?) was ridiculously casual — Jeff bringing down the gavel, framed by two regulars and a frequent guest star and the top of Alison Brie’s head:

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It’s a weird image to end on, after a season of far-flung transformation — of parody and homage and set design that seemed to build whole worlds on a shoestring. (ASIDE: Perhaps now we should sing the praises of an unsung hero, production designer Denise Pizzini, a presence on the show since 2011. END OF ASIDE.) On one hand, I feel sad when I think of Community ending there. I want more Community; there, I said it. (The 2012 iteration of me wouldn’t have said that; clearly, I’ve become more optimistic or more desperate.)

But it’s also weirdly appropriate — the same way that Deadwood‘s non-ending looks more and more like a perfect ending. Let’s leave our characters there, in a moment of peace, in the space between creation and restruction, between death and rebirth. Happy, for a moment; together, at the table.

Their world was always going to end, eventually. But Community‘s fifth season taught an important lesson: The world only ends so a new one can begin.

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#FiveSeasons

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