Is ‘Community’ Stuck?

I am, and I suspect many of you are, excited for Community’s return to NBC’s airwaves tonight and for the possibility of a fourth season of the much-adored, little-watched experimental sitcom. But a dissenting voice comes from Larry Fitzmaurice in GQ:

In real life, the desire to have friends doesn’t excuse decaying, bigoted excuses for human beings. Yes, this is television. It’s unreasonable to expect a portrayal of real life from a show that considers zombie outbreaks and runaway monkeys a part of its balanced breakfast. Still, for a show as episodically self-contained as Community, watching these characters step on the same rake over and again has devolved into pure frustration. In “Comparative Ecology” the beloved study group were branded the “Mean Clique.” But, more accurately, it exposed their toxic, mob-mentality inertia. A frequent third-act gambit involves Jeff, the group’s alpha male, giving a clear-hearts-full-assholes speech about how all conflict must be resolved with the group dynamic fully restored and faults forgiven because it’s essentially better that way. That’s it.

This is a fairly succinct recapitulation of the reason most of Community‘s critics can’t find a way to emotionally attach to the show, and it’s one I can kind of understand. But I think there’s something interesting about the fact that we’ve had a decade of television in which we told ourselves we were morally sophisticated for sympathizing with monsters on dramas, and yet anyone would object to the idea that a comedy isn’t working because its characters are merely stuck or unlikable.

That’s part of what I like about Community, actually, the prospect that this is essentially as good as it gets. Abed is probably not going to grow up to make nationally-distributed movies. Troy seems likely to go into a trade. Shirley’s never going to open her brownie business—she’s returned to her husband rather than getting some sort of revenge on him. Jeff may return to his swinging lawyer ways, but it’s not really clear that he was genuinely happy in that life, either. Pierce is a fixed curmudgeon. Annie and Britta’s destinations have yet to be determined, which does mean the show’s invested its potential for fully surprising trajectories in two women, one who returned college sadder and somewhat wiser from her jaunt into the world, another of whom never even got out into it before heading to rehab. Not everyone gets their dream job, and an apartment with a lot of brushed steel and big windows, and the perfect relationship. Everyone plateaus at some point.

And if that’s not the narrative of most sitcoms, that doesn’t make it untrue, or uninteresting. Norm is not less funny or less warm on Cheers for essentially being the same person over the course of the show’s run. Ron Swanson plateaued at a place that’s very, very funny and complex but that doesn’t exactly open up enormous potential for emotional growth. That doesn’t mean I’m bored with them and their flaws and virtues—just that the writers have to be very smart about a very narrow window they’ve been given. Community‘s wild inventiveness is a testament to how that show’s writers have found their lanes and are working miracles within them.