The period between Seasons 3 and 4 of NBC’s Community was a pretty tumultuous time. Rumours had long been floating around during the back end of Season 3’s airing in 2012 that, behind the scenes, things were a little bit hairy. The latter half of Season 3 was already being postponed, although it was to make room for the last season of 30 Rock, and news of the growing agitation with creator and showrunner Dan Harmon from NBC executives and Chevy Chase, who played Pierce Hawthorne, was common knowledge at this point. No-one really expected, however, that Dan Harmon would leave the show but, as shooting began for the fourth season, it was announced that Harmon was to no longer serve as showrunner and he would serve as “consulting producer” though Harmon himself has stated that the title meant very little.
Season 4, then, was already off to a bad start. Having lost the main creative voice behind the show, as well as many others who were so integral to the show who left with Harmon such as Chris McKenna, Anthony & Joe Russo (who left to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and Dino Stamatopoulos, who, as well as writing, also played Starburns, those left in the writers room were forced to somehow grasp what it was that made Community so interesting without the one man who knew what that magic ingredient was.
It’s one of the main problems of living in a world where showrunners mean so much to TV by creating a specific voice that is difficult to recreate. Mad Men is Matt Weiner’s, The Sopranos is David Chase’s, Buffy etc are Joss Whedon’s. Though each show has a variety of writers, their creators are often synonymous with show itself. You need only to look back at the case of Twin Peaks to see what happens when that guiding voice is gone. Creators Mark Frost and David Lynch only had minimal involvement in its second season, leaving to pursue other endeavours, and, once the central mystery of who killed Laura Palmer was solved in the season’s seventh episode (the spectacular “Lonely Souls” which both had heavy involvement with), the remaining writers were left without a paddle, with ABC wanting them to keep rowing as they threw the show all over the schedules. What we were left with was a show that was trying so desperately to recreate the Lynchian weirdness that defined Twin Peaks that it seemed to be trying too hard. David Lynch has a way of crafting weird characters that still seem to have a purpose, but season 2 introduced characters that were weird yet seemed to only exist to say “look how weird we are!” Storylines became ridiculous (as much as I love Ben Horne’s Civil War based breakdown, it is pretty stupid) and it wasn’t until they managed to establish an interesting idea, that of the Windom Earle arc, that the writers were able to nail down what made Twin Peaks as they were able to explore the mythology of the world. By this point, however, it was too late and the show was cancelled, leaving the show with what looks to be a permanent cliffhanger. Similarly, The West Wing tried to imitate Aaron Sorkin’s voice once he left after Season 4 to no avail; the dialogue was fast and flowed but it lacked that trademark Sorkin wit that punctuated every stroll through the White House corridors.
Community’s fourth season suffered as much from this lack of Harmon’s voice as it did everything else being thrown its way. Its premiere was scheduled for October 19th 2012 but it ended up being pushed all the way back to February 2013, with several shuffles of its slot in NBC’s schedule between October and Febuary. Community was being dealt bad hand after bad hand, with threat of cancellation no doubt the elephant in the writer’s room. Without Harmon, Community became a pastiche of what it once was. Its humour was broadened, no doubt to rein in more viewers and keep favour with the network lest the usual pop culture reference heavy humour alienated potential audiences, and it became too overly reliant on the big concept episode that had proved so popular in the past (I will still say that, despite how patchy Season 3 was, “Basic Lupine Urology” is still one of my favourite episodes; a sign of how to do concept episodes right). However, most of those pre-Season 4 concept episodes, regardless of how ridiculous the concept, often developed organically. It somehow seemed to make sense that a school would devolve into a warzone when the prize for a seemingly innocent paintball competition is priority registration for next year’s classes or that a trip into Abed’s psyche would lead to an imaginary Claymation world. Season 4 seemed to try too hard, almost as though these concept episodes were an obligation that didn’t seem organic nor provide some character exploration as the previous concept episodes somehow managed to pull off in spite of their ridiculousness. Only “Intro To Felt Surrogacy” managed to capture that feeling which is why it’s one of the better episodes of Season 4. Community, though, was never a show that dealt with the broad humour. It’s place in the world of comedy was to celebrate the misfits, the losers, and the outsiders but they were all relatable outsiders, not wild exaggerations, and this move to a broader humour made the show feel a bit lifeless.
This is why, when the fifth season was commissioned, fans were not overly keen on the idea. Many felt Season 4 was the show’s death knell and to carry it on would be flogging a dead horse, but then news trickled in that Harmon and McKenna were to return and the entire writer’s room was to get a bit of a makeover (which, unfortunately, meant the departure of Megan Ganz, who was moving over to Modern Family; the one person who really knew what to do with Shirley). But things were still not going so well for Community, as Chevy Chase’s departure at the end of Season 4, and Donald Glover’s plan to leave the show after just a few episodes of Season 5, meant that the show had lost two of its principal cast.
And yet the season which could have been marred by the sheer amount of departures, managed to keep itself afloat by going back to its roots and exploring these characters. It’s probably no coincidence that the cause the brings the former Greendale students back to the school is a campaign to “Save Greendale”, a slogan that fans too can rally around to go with the staple “Six Seasons and a Movie”. The concept episodes were toned back, although they don’t work nearly as well as they used to, “App Development and Condiments” in particular feeling as empty as Season 4’s concept episodes although “Geothermal Escapism” worked as a nice close to the Abed/Troy relationship, and the focus was now mainly on the study group (renamed the Save Greendale committee). Particular focus should be made on “Cooperative Polygraphy”, this season’s bottle episode which sees the gang figuring out who they were and where they stood in life courtesy of a lie detector test established as part of the execution of Pierce’s will. It’s not flashy, it’s not fast paced, but it’s loaded with jokes, realisations and a real character driven story making it perhaps one of the best episodes of the show. It feels like such an organic exploration of these characters we have followed since 2009 that it acts as a sigh of relief that the show is finally going back to focusing on the characters as actual people rather than hollow joke delivery machines.
Of course, the season isn’t without its flaws, particularly in regards to Jeff, with whom the writers seem to have struggled with. While he still acts as de-facto leader of the group, his own storylines often felt a little clumsy, particularly his accidental OD; it’s almost as if they’re scraping the barrel for what to do with him (though, granted, the season’s thirteen episode run might’ve hampered how much these arcs could’ve been explored and put a constraint on what could’ve been done). The show is also still bad at working out the Jeff-Britta-Annie love triangle which is the reason why the season finale felt extremely lacklustre. However, the addition of Jonathan Banks to the crew and the return of John Oliver worked as adequate replacements for Troy and Pierce, giving the story new places to go, and the expansion of the world of Greendale through more great guest stars such as Walton Goggins and Mitch Hurwitz (easily the best thing about “App Development and Condiments”) made this a world that felt like it still had some life in it.
Season 5 might not be a return to the highs of Season 2, or even the freshness that came with Season 1, but is a return to the Community that I actually bother to watch each week. It’s inevitable that it’s going to have lost some of that old spark, just as any show might, but Community’s fifth season at least feels like the old Community as opposed to some broad pastiche trying to appeal to more viewers. It’s perhaps not quite the “must-watch” show it used to be, but then again neither is Parks & Recreation. Both shows, however, do still have that something that make you tune in each week, although I must admit I wish that both shows would end soon to at least preserve some of the legacy they both created.