It seems like once a year, with Community‘s fate uncertain, that I end up writing a piece about how much it means to me. You can set your watch by it. But honestly? The fact that I have never once titled one of them “At Least It Was Here” means that I deserve some sort of award.
Part of being a Community fan is dealing with its impending end. We lost Dan Harmon and then got him back. NBC cancelled the show and Yahoo picked it up. And it doesn’t seem impossible that it could come back, last week’s finale really felt like the end. (Barring the movie, of course. There’s no way that isn’t happening.) “Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television” was the first time where it really felt like the show was saying goodbye. Seasons Three and Four ended with potential series finals that didn’t close any doors, and Season Five actually had Abed promise the viewer that they’d be back next year. This time, Abed, Annie, and newcomer Elroy headed off for their new lives.
In real world terms, Danny Pudi has an NBC pilot in first position, Paget Brewster has one at FOX, and Gillian Jacobs is doing a Netflix show with Judd Apatow. Ken Jeong has the lead in an upcoming series based on his life, and Alison Brie is always one movie role away from world domination. If there’s a seventh season, it’s going to be a pretty radical departure.
I’ve made my peace with this being the finale. Not only was it a stellar episode, but after one near-death experience, it’s always easier to let go. I was OK with Arrested Development ending with Season Four in a way I never was with the third season. (And now there’s a fifth season on the way.) Futurama‘s return on Comedy Central felt like a victory lap and I never considered a boycott the way I did when FOX cancelled it. Community was cancelled and then it got another thirteen episodes anyway. I feel like I’ve had my closure and I can let Greendale go. (Again, except for that movie. That hashtag will not be proven wrong.)
That said, if there’s an announcement for Season Seven, drinks are on me. I can handle the end, but I’d rather not have to.
There’s a lot I’d like to say about the way the characters grew and changed over six years. I especially like the way that Season Six saw Jeff finding the value of imagination and Abed starting to settle into the real world. And Jeff and Annie’s last scene was wonderful and perfect and I love it. Then there were all the bonkers Season Seven scenarios, whether it was Ice Cube Head (voiced by Harmon’s Rick and Morty collaborator Justin Roiland), Frankie’s scenario rooted in politeness and the occasional fart, or the Dean struggling to write dialogue for Shirley and Elroy. I dearly loved this finale.
And as much as I’m burned out on writing about finales this year (Justified, Parks and Rec, Mad Men, David Letterman, Thrilling Adventure Hour), I want to talk about Community at least a little bit. It’s been one of my favorite shows for five of the last six years, and I even have some lingering affection for the gas leak season. That’s largely due to the cast and the body switch episode, but I can’t write it off.
It’s probably no surprise that I relate to Abed, and I’ve written about that before. Season Three’s “Virtual Systems Analysis” is maybe the most personally affecting episode of television I’ve ever seen, and it helped me to articulate some fears and insecurities in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I’ve spent years getting way too damned emotional over this show. I have friends who will testify that I had tears in my eyes during the Season Five finale, and when asked, I blurted out “Can’t they see that this is hurting Annie?”
Aside from my obvious antisocial tendencies, I always loved the way that Community was about people deciding who they are long after the time when that’s supposed to be figured out. When the show started, Jeff, Shirley, and Pierce were firmly in the “nontraditional” category of student, as were the actors playing the other characters. (Donald Glover did not turn 21 in Season Two.) There’s something about that joy of discovery when you make new friends at a time in your life when you thought you were done making friends. These are the best friends Jeff Winger will ever have, and he was in this thirties when he met them. Community captured the way that you make friends at a time in your life when you’ve settled into your own weirdness and it’s hard to let new people in.
But what really got me in the finale were a couple of speeches. First off, there was Abed on the subject of TV.
“There is skill to it. More importantly it has to be joyful. Effortless. Fun. TV defeats its own purpose when it’s pushing an agenda, or trying to defeat other TV or being proud or ashamed of itself for existing. It’s TV. It’s comfort. It’s a friend you’ve known so well and for so long you just let it be with you. And it needs to be okay for it to have a bad day or phone in a day. And it needs to be okay for it to get on a boat with Levar Burton and never come back. Because eventually, it all will.”
This is incredibly powerful. Those are words spoken by a character who loves TV, written by a writer who loves TV, and presented to an audience of people who love this TV show so much that they followed it to a website. It’s about how much TV can matter and how entertainment can just be entertainment. I love it. But it’s those last few lines that get to something really important.
I’ve talked at length about how much I love creators who pour everything into their shows and genuinely love TV as a medium. Folks like Vince Gilligan, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, Tina Fey, Matt Weiner, Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, Dan Harmon himself, and many others. These aren’t people who let things slide. And unlike certain creators of industry-defining shows I could name, they love TV. It’s not the poor second cousin to movies. (David Chase. I’m talking about David Chase.) But TV, more than most forms of entertainment, is also a grind. Something’s going on the air every week and you have to make that happen.
I think anybody who creates things will admit that they’re not proud of everything with their name on it. Some of them may not be proud of anything, but that’s a different issue. Spend some time on the Internet, and you’ll see that almost any fanbase will take a bad (or even below average) episode personally. That probably isn’t healthy. That’s some Season One Abed stuff right there.
Look. I watch more TV than you do. That’s just how it is. I am watching The Island as I type this. The Island! The families of people on The Island aren’t even watching The Island. And I’m an easy cry. Just get me started on the final episode of The Brave and the Bold or “The Constant” or “I don’t want to go” or Ellsworth’s fate or “Virtual Systems Analysis”. I’ll lose it right here.
But still, the existence of things I don’t enjoy doesn’t cause me pain. A bad episode is a bad episode. It’s a bummer, but not everything is perfect all the time. I’ll maybe complain about it, but I don’t take it personally. Heck, not enjoying something meant to be consumed by millions of people is the very opposite of “personal”. And I think that was Abed’s growth throughout the series – he learned to separate his identity from pop culture but still care about it. The old Abed never could have worked on a TV show – remember his existential crisis on the set of Cougar Town?
And maybe most importantly, it has to be OK for it go get on a boat with Levar Burton and never come back. Every show ends sooner or later and most of them will disappoint you at some point. But that’s the nature of television, an art form literally created to tell people what to buy. We can still celebrate everything that’s good about TV without wrapping our entire self-image up in it, and realizing that is an important step for anybody who takes entertainment seriously.
And the other key speech, and the one I’ll remember for a long time, came at the very end of the tag. The episode ended with a fake ad for a board game that had the family involved realizing the very nature of their existence. That was great, but it was the disclaimer about metafiction at the end that’s important. It’s funny, and it took me a few seconds to realize that was Dan Harmon. After he fast-talks about the board game, he turns it inward and ends on these lines:
“Life may pass by while we ignore or mistreat those close to us. Those close to us may be those watching. Those people may want to know that I love them but may be incapable of saying it.”
If you haven’t seen the Harmontown documentary, and you should, a key part of it is Harmon realizing that he created something that means a lot to people and a degree of responsibility comes with that. And with these lines, he lets the viewers know that they mean something to him. It could come off as cynical or manipulative, but Harmon’s voice catches on that last line and you can hear him trying not to cry. It kills me.
We were all in this together, and it meant something. Yes, it has to be OK for Community to go away or have a bad day, but it’s also OK for it to mean something. If all we had was the Darkest Possible Timeline or Troy and Abed in the Morning, I’d still care about Community. But Community grabbed my heart and showed me that other people understood things that I thought were my own burden. Life is better because Community happened, and that’s all I (and Abed) could ask.