Usually a show begins to lose its way around the fifth season – loss of major cast members, running out of ideas, jumping the shark, no more high stakes or will-they-or-won’t-they suspense. This is, however, not the case with NBC’s Community. The sitcom began in 2009 and is currently bouncing back in its fifth season with great panache after drama with low ratings, a fired showrunner, a weak fourth season (in his absence), and the loss of one of the major cast members.
The show follows a cast of misfits attending Greendale Community College: The former high school jock, the single mom returning to college, the neurotic overachiever/recovering pill addict, the activist/former Peace Corps member with “life experience,” the trust-funded Baby Boomer perpetual student, a pop culture-obsessed young man who lies somewhere on the autism spectrum, and a disgraced former lawyer.
Ironically, the secret formula to its success is that it is not formulaic, and much of its originality comes from its spoofing of formula and meta references. The tone and style of the show can shift dramatically from episode to episode, lampooning or paying tribute to genres and tropes from TV and movies. For example, in the episode “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics,” the study group looks to Abed to solve a crime using his “special gifts” as an autistic. He pretends to scan the scene of the crime rapidly and emotionlessly before saying “I see a man using a social disorder as a procedural device. Wait, wait, wait. I see another man. Mildly autistic super detectives everywhere. Basic cable, broadcast networks. Pain. Painful writing. It hurts.” (Take that Bones, Mentalist, Sherlock, Monk, etc…).
Comedian Chris Hardwick referred to Community as “the nerdiest show on TV.” And that’s saying something – as runner of the Nerdist podcast, he knows something about nerd culture. Despite its core audience of extremely enthusiastic super fans, the show has never achieved high ratings, and in fact, the ratings have declined each year. It might just be the smartest show that no one is watching (a title previously held by 30 Rock). On a panel, the cast mentioned explaining what they do for a living to people who were surprised that the show they had never heard of ran on NBC.
The show’s creator and executive producer, Dan Harmon, has a reputation as a controlling micromanager who demands perfection and is prone to meltdowns. Low and falling ratings combined with Harmon’s artistic temperament led the network to marginalize his role to the point where he quit before the fourth season.
Needless to say, the show that was so connected to the inner world of its creator that it suffered in his absence. Community became flatter, duller and more like a traditional sitcom to the disappointment of its core audience. Also, there were inconsistencies involving details from earlier seasons and plot lines left artlessly dangling. In response, frustrated loyal fans took to social media, excoriating NBC’s decision to drive Harmon away from the show.
The efforts of fans were successful in the end, and Community was brought back from the brink of cancellation with Dan Harmon restored to the role of showrunner once again for the return of season five.
Season four had ended with the study group graduating, and many fans were wondering how the show would transition without the cast together as a study group at Greendale. Cleverly and without too much artificial plot device, in season five’s first episode, the return of Harmon coincided with the return of the study group to Greendale. In “Repilot,” Jeff returns to Greendale as an unsuccessful private-practice lawyer for a lawsuit against Greendale by a former student. The other members of the old study group are recruited by the dean to join a Save Greendale committee, but realize that their lives since graduation have gone downhill. Long story short, the Dean hires Jeff on as a teacher, and Britta, Troy, Shirley, Abed return as students to recapture their glory days and try different majors the second time around. Albeit a little farfetched, many millennials have similarly discovered in recent years that when things don’t work out in the real world, the best way of avoiding it is returning to college, regardless of how much sense it actually makes.
As for damage done to the show during Harmon’s absence, although season four can’t be unwritten or unaired, he’s taken a novel approach to handling some of the issues from season four, chalking it up to a gas leak. For instance, when Abed encounters a girl in season five that he had romantic interest in for precisely one episode in season four before she was never seen again, without any explanation of what happened to her, Abed explained “that was the year of the gas leak.”
Community has fully recovered, and has actually come out stronger because of the difficulties it has had to overcome. The loss of Chevy Chase is not entirely a bad thing; there are only so many clueless racist/homophobic Pierce quotes one can stand, and there was internal drama between Chase and other staff on the set of the show. Since the loss of Pierce brought about the development of criminology professor, Buzz Hickey, played deadpan by Jonathan Banks from Breaking Bad, this can actually be seen as an improvement. Combined with plenty of John Oliver as the sleazy psychology professor, what’s not to like?
Harmon appears to thrive under pressure, saying “Rambo lives in the jungle” referring to their approach to their less than optimal time slot and other difficulties. Community naturally has a longer shelf life than many sitcoms because the plot does not revolve around a romantic relationship (like Jim and Pam in The Office), so it will likely continue to surprise us for years to come. Once again fans of Community can fly their E Pluribus Anus flags high.