Community Season Three: Introduction To Finality

Adam Clarke hit the corner, right on a fresh tatoo.

Did we lose the real Abed this season? Is season three Britta the worst… or the best? And what of Leonard’s crooked wang? It’s time to answer the big questions, friends. In the third and final instalment of this look back on Community‘s third season, I’ll be reviewing the “90-minute finale” that aired on May 10, 2012 and offering some thoughts on characterization, the loss of Dan Harmon and Community‘s future.

Digital Estate Planning

Crib notes: In order to receive his inheritance, Pierce and his closest friends must compete in a retro video game against his late father’s assistant, Gilbert (Giancarlo Esposito).

Choice dialogue: “Worst. Son. Ever.”
– Cornelius Hawthorne haunts Pierce from beyond the grave in 8-bit form.

Grade: “I did it by having friends”. I know some people can’t stand these gimmick episodes, but it’d be one thing if Community just dropped everything to do an extended gag at the expense of its characters. At no point during any of these special episodes have we lost sight of who these characters are. Community never stops being about the study group. This episode, while mostly animated and playing with the tropes of video games, is still a strong story about the group working together as friends and being there for their worst friend, Pierce.

Not that the above should make the episode sound maudlin. “Estate” has some great set pieces like Annie and Shirley dealing with the Blacksmith and the 8-bit opening credits. Not to mention all those nice little touches for video game nerds (I loved Jeff’s Megaman jump). Easily one of Community‘s funniest episodes. A+

The First Chang Dynasty

Crib notes: The Greendale study group plot an elaborate heist to rescue Dean Pelton from Chang and his army of adolescent security guards.

Choice dialogue: “First Chang kidnaps the Dean, then he throws himself a party? It’s just like Stalin back in Russia-times!”
– Britta Perry, still the worst.

Grade: As the previous episode was rooted in video games, here the Greendale gang are put through the tropes of a modern heist flick. So, elaborate disguises, step-by-step plans, slow-motion, people repeatedly saying “I’m in” even when they’re not actually in the room, etc.

While I was never a fan of the Security Chang story arc (or much of what’s happened to Chang after season one), this is a really entertaining episode. Community doesn’t work as a story arc-driven program, this episode throws so many plot threads together that it’s quite exciting to watch. It’s fitting that the episode takes place during a birthday party, as the crazy costumes and go-for-broke silliness feels like a party for the show and its fans more than anything else. This is Community made by those who feared it would get cancelled and opted to go out with a bang. B+

Introduction to Finality

Crib notes: Jeff’s desperate to pass his make-up biology course, but keeps getting dragged into a dispute between Shirley and Pierce. Troy proves he is the truest repairman when he enters the world of air conditioner repair.

Choice dialogue: “Shut up, Leonard! I know about your crooked wang”
“No such thing as bad press”

– Britta vs Leonard

Grade: Mercifully going against the trend of past seasons ending on a small cliffhanger, “Finality” opts to give fans closure in case the series had never returned. Funny, crazy and sentimental in the right places, “Finality” embodies the essence of the show in a script crammed with action. If the show had been cancelled, “Finality” would make a great conclusion to this brilliant series. A-

Community‘s third season got off to an unpromising start. Episodes 301-303 were uniformly poor and 303-305 essentially told the same story of the study group clashing. Of those five episodes, only “Remedial Chaos Theory” and, to a lesser degree, “Biology 101”, offering any kind of depth to the characters. Then we had story arcs that were abandoned because of network notes (Jeff’s dad), scheduling conflicts (the show needed more Vice Dean Laybourne) or just because they realized it was a bad idea.

Another recurring problem was that the show sometimes didn’t know what to do with its characters. While I’ve already written about the inconsistencies with Pierce Hawthorne and Ben Chang (Ken Jeong), I do want to backpeddle a bit in regards to Annie Edison. Annie’s biggest story this season was the half-baked, disappointing “Geography of Global Conflict” and her character was often downplayed. Essentially, Annie was getting treated by the writers the same way Shirley was in season two: no strong stories of her own (Shirley’s pregnancy was really more of a Chang storyline), but she was still given some great dialogue throughout the season.

Annie’s best moments this season had nothing to do with her pining for Jeff or moving in with Troy and Abed. Annie struggling to set up Troy and Britta in “Virtual Systems Analysis”, tell an unexpectedly gory story in “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” and keep Britta from her carny ex in “Origins of Vampire Mythology” resulted in Allison Brie’s best work since season two’s “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design”.

The first few season three episodes were a bit of a let-down for all the characters, especially Shirley. It initially appeared that the writers were going to continue the trend of limiting her characterization to “disapproving Christian”. Season three turned out to be the best year for Shirley Bennett yet, with strong stories about her remarrying Theo Huxtable, her plans to open a sandwich shop, as well as offering a glimpse into her terrifying past life as Big Cheddar, the meanest foosball player of them all.

“This is really crazy and inaccessible…and maybe too dark”
– Abed Nadir

I have mixed feelings about Abed’s storyline this year. In Community’s pilot, Abed is an emotionally stunted, socially awkward movie geek (is there any other kind?). Like most of the show’s characters, Abed’s characterization changed for the better within the first six episodes. The twitchy, sometimes annoying version of Abed in the early episodes became an extremely intelligent, pop culture obsessive who handles the emotions of others remarkably well despite difficulties with his own. Abed was the sane one in the study group and his personal limitations never got in the way of his ability to empathize with and help his friends.

We didn’t see that Abed much in season three, although lip service was paid to this idea in this season’s Halloween episode. In the pilot, Abed’s hiding under the table and emitting a high-pitched scream as the study group fights around him. In season three, Abed’s having regular screaming freakouts over TV shows and Daylight Savings. Watching the season unfold, it often felt like a step backwards for the character. It was sad seeing Abed go from being an unexpected source of compassion and wisdom to a guy with “funny Asperger’s”.

Yes, the Abed in season two and most of season one is a version of a nerd that’s too good to be true, but it worked so well that I was sad to see it go. The contrast between Abed in season three and Abed in the rest of the series is pretty dramatic. In season one, Abed won’t move in with Troy because he knows that living together will spoil the friendship. In season three, they’re living together and often step on each others toes. In season two, Abed’s humiliated when the group discovers his notebook, which he’d used to chart his female friends’ emotional highs and lows (inadvertently charting their cycles) in the hopes of being on better terms with them. In season three, Abed considers his other friends “unremarkables” and actually breaks down when forced to consider their feelings.

Abed was annoying in “Biology 101”, “Competitive Ecology” and “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism”, but the “Evil Abed” storyline resulted in a great finale. I just don’t know if a great finale compensates for the character’s change from “funny weird” to “creepy weird”. Abed’s breakdown was like an ongoing retread of season two’s brilliant “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”, but without the sympathy. By having Abed become alienated and lash out at his friends, the show offered another variation on Pierce’s storyline from season two.

Like Abed, Jeff reverted back to who he was in the pilot for much of the season. Midway through season one, Jeff changed. At the beginning of the series, Jeff was a charming manipulator content to get his law degree and, hopefully, get into Britta’s pants before mid-terms. By season one’s “Comparative Religion” (if not earlier) he became someone who legitimately cares about his friends. The first half of season three saw the character regress to a more sullen version of Jeff from the pilot.

The problem is that the indifferent Jeff Winger of early season three plays against Joel McHale’s strengths as an actor. McHale is charming and charismatic, but having Jeff openly lose interest in his Greendale pals (seemingly for no reason) forces him to downplay the very reason he was cast as Jeff Winger in the first place. At least the Jeff Winger in the pilot uses his charisma to cover up his detachment and self-absorption. Barring some particularly engaging performances from McHale in “Advanced Gay” and “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism”, we wouldn’t see the Jeff Winger we’d come to love until the end of “Pillows and Blankets”.

Aside from that, the show used it characters quite effectively and John Goodman was a terrific, if too short-lived, nemesis. The ensemble all got their moments to shine, but particular praise goes to the use of Greendale Community College Dean and noted “pansexual imp” Craig Pelton. Pelton fared particularly well this season, finally getting his own episode (“Documentary Filmmaking Redux”). The Dean getting a hug from the study group at the end of “Redux” is one of the sweetest moments in the entire series.

Child-like Troy and a somewhat more airheaded Britta were also given a lot to do this season. Britta showed rare competence as a psych major (“Advanced Gay”, “Contemporary Impressionists”) while still making mistakes (or “Brittas” as they’re known in the study group). Sometimes Britta was dumb. Season four Homer in The Simpsons dumb. Nonetheless, I like seeing that side of Britta and Gillian Jacobs has never been better on the show.

Troy was initially a pawn in the game of Vice Dean Laybourne and later became, in one of Community‘s most bizarre and inspired storylines, “the truest repairman”. Britta and Troy’s romantic spark was reintroduced after season two’s “Competitive Wine Tasting” and developed organically during season three. I hope the new showrunners just have Troy and Britta together, already. A relationship doesn’t have to be undergoing dramatic crises every five minutes. Newsradio was at its best when Dave and Lisa were in a steady, happy relationship, so why not Troy and Britta?

While the firing of creator-showrunner Dan Harmon at the end of the season was a heinous thing to do, I’m strangely optimistic about what the show will evolve into without him. As good as season three got, there were signs of rot creeping into the show. In only its third season, Community felt like it was listening to the fans too much. Don’t like the embittered side of Pierce in season two? He’s sorta better in season three! Did you love Danny Pudi’s brief Christian-Bale-as-Batman impression from season one? Here’s half an episode devoted to it! How about a second fake clip show or another documentary episode or multiple episodes with the cast wearing funny costumes?

Most of these familiar elements worked, but this is what you come to expect from a show that’s been on the air for six years, not three. Strangely enough, with Harmon gone, Community‘s third season works a little better in hindsight because these familiar elements feel like a celebration instead of a creative fumble. Community could use a breath of fresh air for its creative team and new showrunners might provide just that. I haven’t seen anything by Community‘s new showrunners (David Guarascio and Moses Port), but I’ll be approaching season four with an open mind.

Season three wasn’t Community‘s best season, but the show deserves credit for finding new ways to top itself. Season three made the best use of the ensemble and its growing list of recurring characters (despite Chang’s pointlessness). As sweet as season one is and as wild as season two is, few episodes in those seasons combined those elements as this season’s best work.

I can bitch about “Competitive Ecology” all I want, but a season of Community that features a decades-spanning jingle about baby boomer narcissism, an episode set in an 8-bit video game and John Goodman playing tuba in a band called “Kelvin And The Zeroes” is better than nearly anything else the 2011-2012 TV season offered. If the next season has episodes as funny as “Advanced Gay”, “Origins Of Vampire Mythology” or “Documentary Filmaking Redux”, we have a lot to look forward to.

Next week: A post that doesn’t mention this show at all, I promise.