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Community Season 5 Retrospective

by David Frank

As the doors of Greendale close on another season of laughs, passable ratings, and general chaos, we the fans are left with questions.  How did this season stack up to its predecessors?  Where will the show be going next season?  How can we survive without Troy and Abed in the Morning? In this retrospective, we explore what things were new, what things were the same, and what the overall arc of the Community story lies.  So, naturally, SPOILERS are sure to follow.  First things first, however.  Let’s talk about Dan Harmon.

Looking Back At Season 5

Harmon is a unique voice in the TV business because he is constantly trying to subvert the expectations of his audience.   He has a very clear idea of the way plot structures work and the way characters develop in a sit-com setting, and the way he constantly eschews the clichés and pokes fun at the standard sit-com formula has been polarizing.  While fans of the show have praised Harmon for his witty parodies and self-fulfilling meta-humor, some critics find it to be alienating.  After being booted as show-runner for season 4, ratings were lower than ever, as many fans felt it was simply not the same show it was before.  So, did Harmon’s triumphant return for season five herald newfound quality and ingenuity?

The ratings certainly seem to suggest so.  The viewership for this season rose back up to season 3 levels, so one can assume that the fans were back on board.  Whereas season 4 tried to force plot points to get the show moving forward, season 5 shows that the results of these changes weren’t so positive.  In episode 9, “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing,” the show passive-aggressively notes how Abed’s forced relationship with Rachel was introduced and forgotten in one episode of season 4.  The season even opens by showing that Jeff’s decision to move on from Greendale resulted in a failed law firm and landed him right back at Greendale as a failure.  Dan Harmon isn’t exactly into touchy-feely stuff like happy endings.  His have to be bittersweet.

The arc of Community as a whole seems to be the journey of the characters to accept mediocrity in their own lives, but to correct the failures within themselves.  All of the characters start out with “perfect” lives.  Shirley is happily married, Jeff is a successful attorney, Annie’s a straight-A student, and Troy is a football star.  But then some tragedy befalls each of them and they end up at the most mediocre community college in the country.  The first season covers their budding friendships as they form the study group, while the second starts to delve into the psychological issues that led them to Greendale in the first place.  The third season tests the limits of the group and delves into the co-dependent relationships between the characters.  The fourth was a departure and tried to get the characters to let go and accept change.  According to Dan Harmon’s plot circle, final two seasons should be a descent into failure followed by a change in character and an active achievement of success.

Season 5 in retrospect follows this perfectly, as the characters find themselves back at the school they were trying to leave behind and have to actively work to make their school a better place.  At the end of the season, they finally “save Greendale” by sorting out their interpersonal problems and banding together to stop the malicious Subway usurpers.  Based on that the sixth season, which I assume will be the last only because of the “Six seasons and a movie” will be about the group learning to be happy and fulfilled at a Greendale without the issues of the past five years.

So, I’ve talked enough about where the show is headed, but how does this season compare to the ones before it?  Well this definitely was a season that felt different than the last four.  The colors are duller and the lighting is dimmer.  Pierce is gone and Troy leaves soon after.  It’s no longer a study group, but a save Greendale committee.  Probably the most important distinction is that the members of the main cast are no longer just students, but peers with the likes of Duncan and the Dean.  This allows the interactions between these characters to be more fluid and their actions to be more impactful.  Rather than simply being affected by the issues at Greendale, the group is forced to face and actively confront the problem.

On the topic of the Greendale staff is the issue of Professor Hickey (played by Jonathan Banks), the criminology teacher introduced into the group this season.  His character pleasantly surprised me as instead of simply being diet Pierce, he really differentiated his character by being completely uninterested in the schemes and plans of the group.  Much like Jeff in the first season, Hickey can’t stand the coddling nature of the group and this clashes with the overly dramatic nature of the committee’s escapades.

The other characters all click well even without Troy and Pierce.  Chang is given a comedic role without a lot of substance, but it works for him.  His subplot in  “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality” was one of the funniest bits in the season.  In the same episode, Duncan and Jeff form a closer friendship that feels natural given their characters.

Where the season falters a bit is with the individual stories.  Around half are the high-concept overly-meta stories Harmon is famous and infamous for, but they seem to fall a bit flat this time around.  Maybe it’s just become harder for him to surprise us, but episodes like “Geothermal Escapism,” feel like rehashes of the other game-for-ridiculous-prize episodes.  “Advanced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” tried to subvert our expectations by playing the idea straighter and less dramatic, but instead it felt cynical and not too interesting.  The best part of the episode was Dean Pelton’s ridiculous messages to his “father,” Jeff. Still, the writing is definitely an improvement over season 4 and some of Harmon’s stories are just meta enough to keep us interested.  “App Development and Condiments” represents the best of what this season offers, with a high-concept parody of the Hunger Games series that also develops the dynamic between Jeff and Shirley.

Wherever the series goes from here is up to Harmon and the NBC executives to decide.  The story seems to be drawing to a close, but the characters and in-jokes we love still shine through.  This season is definitely a return to Harmon’s style from season 3, so fans should definitely check it out.  It does little to pull in new viewers, however and some of the stories feel a bit forced or overwritten.  Even so, Community season 5 is fun, unique, meta, and worth the watch.

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