The precipitous decline of Community

When I wrote about “History 101” in February, I started my review of Community Season 4’s first episode with this: “It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, but it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped.” I was referring to the fearful expectations for the first installment of Community post-Dan Harmon, the show’s brilliant but reportedly-difficult showrunner who was fired off the show last year.

By the end of the season, it was just about as bad as I’d feared.

There's no better way to ruin your best episode than by beating it to death in subsequent episodes.

There’s no better way to ruin your best episode than by beating it to death in subsequent episodes.

As Season 4 went on, it seemed to get worse and worse. There were a few bright spots (most notably “Basic Human Anatomy,” which was tellingly written by Dean Pelton’s Jim Rash, not a regular member of the writing staff), but the show as a whole was a slog, with extra mud and junk piling up toward the end of the journey.

It all came to a head on Thursday with “Advanced Introduction to Finality,” probably the worst episode the show has ever done (rivaled only by the previous week’s “Heroic Origins”). In it, Community’s writing staff demonstrated everything the show has done wrong this year in microcosm, heaping hacky reference upon stilted joke until the whole thing crumbled into a distasteful mess.

It’s enough to make you wish that the “new” version of the show won’t be back, but NBC announced this weekend that #sixseasonsandamovie will get one season closer next season. I may have to sit it out.

Community had many problems this year, from a lack of grasp on many of the characters to the jokes just not being as funny. However, its major problem was simple: it became a fan-servicing, “gif-able” stream of self-reference, a snake that could barely stop eating its own tail long enough to say “Pop Pop!”

I love Dean Pelton and his costumes, but this had to be the 80th time we've seen him in a dress this year.

I love Dean Pelton and his costumes, but this had to be the 80th time we’ve seen him in a dress this year.

Of course, it would be disingenuous to suggest that “old” Community was not a show that was completely obsessed with itself. The difference lies in the execution. In seasons 2 and 3, Harmon examined himself, Community and television at large relentlessly, but he did so in the form of self-criticism, metatextual commentary and intensive study of character dynamics (he and his staff also wrote very funny jokes, something that cannot be said of this year’s efforts).

Season 4, on the other hand, was chiefly concerned with giving fans what they already knew they liked, repackaging something old in hackier, emotionally lewd trappings. You liked it when Abed made comments relating movies to real life? Good news, because now that’s all he ever does. You liked Inspector Spacetime, or how Annie would get fluttery around Jeff? Great! Prepare to get both of those things thrown in your face ad nauseum during “Conventions of Space and Time.”

There were brief respites. The aforementioned “Human Anatomy” turned the tables by making Troy, not Abed, the employer of a pop culture trope as a form of avoidance, and the underrated “Alternative History of the German Invasion” brutally recontextualized some of fans’ favorite moments. But these bright spots became fewer and farther between, finally culminating in “Advanced Introduction to Finality.”

The episode plays like a checklist of empty references designed to excite the fans of a much more vapid media franchise. There’s a Starburns poster (probably not appreciated by actor Dino Stamatopoulos, who quit the show in protest after Harmon’s firing), evil Chang, the fake Dean, the real Dean in a dress, Troy and Abed in the Morning, and a heaping helping of the Darkest Timeline. Oh, and the climax of the episode showcases a paintball fight between the “real” Greendale Seven and their evil counterparts, complete with Abed saying, “We finally found a way to make paintball cool again.”

No, Abed. No you did not.

NO MORE OF THIS.

NO MORE OF THIS.

I understand that it’s hard to transition between showrunners, particularly when the person you’re replacing is revered at an almost cult-like level. But in trying to please as many current fans as they could, the current writing staff didn’t break any new ground or really even tell any good jokes.

Ironically, Community felt least like Community when it was trying its hardest to act like itself. If this is what it’s going to take to get to six seasons and a movie, I would have preferred three seasons and out.

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