This post contains spoilers through the Nov. 17 episode of Community.
“We have more effect than anyone because we decided to tell it. And we decide how it ends…Will your story acknowledge the very nature of stories and embrace the fact that sharing the sad ones can sometimes make them happy?” -Abed Nadir
I agree with almost everything my fellow critics have written about Community this week. Maureen Ryan is correct that the show gives NBC an aura of principled investment in creative television. Jace Lacob is right that the show acts as a spur to more conventional sitcoms — not all shows should be like Community, but it sets a much more ambitious outer limit in the direction of creativity and experimentation. And I agree with Emily Nussbaum about the consistency of Community‘s delights — not all of its experiments were right up my alley, but I don’t think there’s been an outright bad episode of the show since it premiered.
But all of that said, I think that “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” would have been a near-perfect series finale for “Community,” if it came to that. The episode was an assertion of both the importance of structure and genre and the value of self-consciousness and self-examination, two of the core values that have distinguished the show, making it both a deft alchemical experiment and a deeply heartfelt social story. It was full of wonderful little flourishes: the Dean describing the study group as the “most diverse, hispanics notwithstanding;” Leonard inaccurately but cuttingly snarking Jeff; the stand-ins for the network executives who want more of “that wacky Chinese guy” in the Dean’s ad, and who could not have arrived in this show at a more opportune time. And in creating a finished product that’s ready to go out into the world and that’s also an act of empathy, Abed’s story — if Community is, in fact, Abed’s story — felt like it had reached a nicely grown-up place.
All of that aside, the episode itself did a couple of things I appreciated. First, it spotlighted the Dean in a way that didn’t make him a sexual harasser or completely pathetic, even if he does end up smearing himself in ash and running around the campus naked. I’ve long said that Dean Pelton needs a win, and if the episode didn’t quite give him that, it gave him some self-awareness. Luis Guzman called him out on a long-running trait, a sense of insecurity about Greendale that’s come out in the Dean’s clashes with City College, telling Pelton, “You’re ashamed of this school…don’t worship the people leaving Greendale. Worship the people who are here.” It sends him into a spiral, including the nakedness and the burning things, with Pelton confessing that “It turns out that the only thing wrong with Greendale is that it’s run by an insecure wreck.” Pelton doesn’t need to be insecure about being gender-ambiguous and sexually rapacious. He needs to stop worrying about whether he can be something that he’s not — especially when, as Abed’s film points out, Greendale under Dean Pelton is a pretty good place. Pelton may have faith in the wrong people — I’m not sure his investment in Ben Chang is going to pan out — but he’s built a school where people can become good friends, and where those who haven’t done very well in the outside world can get made whole.
Second, I appreciate Annie getting in over her head and realizing on her own that she’d bought into something ridiculous. Her transformation into a sexily nerdy hilarious assistant to the Dean was great, as was her response when Abed asked her if she’d heard of Stockholm syndrome: “Is it something the Dean invented? Because if not, I don’t care.” Annie is always someone who will invest heavily and without reservation. And like the Dean, that isn’t actually a trait she should lose. What she needs instead is to learn when to cut her losses, to accept when the time and emotion she’s put into something aren’t going to produce an equal return.
Community‘s been the rare thing that has repaid that level of investment. I trust it’ll be back in the spring. I hope it will be back for another year, because I don’t think all of these characters’ stories are over, and I trust Dan Harmon’s fevered brain to keep moving them forward. But if it does end this fall, we’ll have had this charming, ambitious statement of purpose, a reminder for all the shows to follow of what’s possible, and even vital, in sitcoms.