It’s been a long and bumpy road for one of the most fun, inventive and well-written shows on television, but Community will finally be back on the air with its fourth season premiering February 7th. However, many are worried about the possibility of Community returning as a show quite different from the one it was through its first three seasons as a result of NBC’s firing of creator and showrunner, Dan Harmon.
I understand and even to some degree share this sentiment. After all, Harmon gained something of a “control freak” reputation during his time with the show, so the loss of his influence may very well be palpable. Still, many of the writers (including noted Harmonite Megan Ganz) remain on staff for the forthcoming season. Furthermore, the main characters of Jeff (Joel McHale), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Abed (Danny Pudi), Annie (Alison Brie), Troy (Donald Glover), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and Pierce (Chevy Chase) are so perfectly established and brilliantly performed by the lead actors (before Chevy Chase walked off the show at the tail end of the season, at any rate) that Harmon himself has argued that much of the show as we’ve come to know and love it will likely remain intact.
Still, whether it’ll be drastically different or not, the series is entering SOME sort of new era. So what better time than now to take a look back at Community’s third season? It goes without saying that this will involve spoilers.
Now, though I’ve been a huge fan of Dan Harmon since before Community and I would never call NBC’s decision to get rid of him the right way to go, I don’t think the man is without flawl either. And, that said, I feel it necessary to say up front that I found Season 3 of Community to be by far the weakest (though there were also times the show served up some of its best ever work).
Community is a fascinating series to revisit because of how, over the course of three seasons, it changed so incredibly in format, characterization and setting. Going back to the pilot, the majority of which took place in the gang’s study room in the library of Greendale Community College and focused on the well-worn plot device of a selfish, yet cool and charming guy (Jeff, a disbarred lawyer) and his simple goal of bedding a smart, hot, seemingly unobtainable chick (Britta).
Britta’s character underwent one of the most drastic transformations in Season 3. Though she technically had a misguided, anti-establishment attitude from the start (explaining how she dropped out of high school because she thought it would impress Radiohead), her cool aloofness fell away almost entirely to reveal a socially-awkward goofball whose attempts at rebellion are so confused they’re surreal, as evidenced in the second episode of the season in which she caged herself on college property and proceeded to squirt red paint on a globe she then attacked with a hammer.
Jeff’s jerkiness sort of went into remission. He was still snarky and standoffish, but there was no doubt he was sticking with the study group for the long haul (or till the completion of his degree at least). His goals in Season 3 morphed into something less definable than having sex with Britta, considering they got that out of the way back in Season 1 (and kept it up well into Season 2). Jeff was now sort of just vaguely coming to terms with who he is now and whether he is comfortable with it. This partially included a theme about fathers, since Jeff never really knew his, and is something addressed most blatantly in the episode “Advanced Gay,” where Jeff rants at Pierce’s overbearing father till the guy keels over and dies.
Another continuing plotline saw Abed, in a way, filling the role Jeff had at the beginning of the series as he tried to learn how to better function within his social group and society. Some of this led to good stuff (such as the mostly good two episodes covering a campus-wide pillow and blanket fort war), but (and I recognize I may be in the minority here), I’ve never been a fan of the show directly working out Abed’s psychological issues. Things always seem to slow down when this happens and the show forgets to make jokes, so I wasn’t really into having all the stuff going on in Abed’s head explained (often with a lot of CGI) during scenes in the Dreamatorium, Troy and Abed’s room in their apartment set aside for having imagined adventures.
Troy was mostly around to drive Abed’s plots along, though he also had his own story about being pursued by the president (played by John Goodman) of Greendale’s Air Conditioning Repair School Annex due to his uncanny air conditioning repair abilities. But, like many of the other recurring plots in Season 3, this only showed up from time to time and didn’t become a big deal until right at the end. (Admittedly, part of the reason for this was scheduling issues with John Goodman, but it still affected the quality of the story.) Also, Shirley got remarried, but, seriously, did anyone ever care about this? I love Yvette Nicole Brown, but sorry, Shirley.
We came a long way from the “Jeff wants to have sex with Britta” plotline as, overall, Season 3 (arguably welcomingly) largely abandoned romance, with only brief instances of Britta and Troy now lightly crushing on each other. But even this was never more than an occasionally referenced storyline. Really, it felt as though episodes became more focused on outside issues that the group had to confront, like their Biology project being sabotaged, or the (apparent) death of fellow classmate Starburns (a guy with stars shaved into either side of his head) or Subway occupying the campus shop space where Shirley was previously promised she could open her own sandwich shop, or Chang (Ken Jeong) growing mad(der) with his power as campus security and taking over the school. The stakes were raised in a way that was very often still about the characters, but it wasn’t handled as well as it had been in the previous seasons.
Probably the biggest problem I had with Season 3 was it felt like it was having difficulty deciding how to grow, both in terms of characterization and format. Season 1 had a very clear arc about Jeff shedding his guardedness and integrating himself into not just the study group, but Greendale Community College on the whole. We also got side-plots about romances for the other characters (which sometimes came back to Jeff) and watched Troy and Abed’s friendship develop. In general, we were just learning how these people would come to coexist with one another. Presentation-wise, it was a much more conventional sitcom based around character interaction but, around the first Halloween episode, some unexpected weirdness started creeping in and it became full-blown with “Modern Warfare,” which for one episode turned the show into an all-out action movie (with paintballs), preparing us adequately for Season 2.
Season 2 was the season of overambitious theme episodes with nearly each one an homage (like “Basic Rocket Science” recalling Apollo 13) or a tackling of a different genre (such as mockumentary in “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”). We also got to see the characters’ lives outside of the college and saw the insides of some of their homes. It was a sharp contrast to the campus-centric early half of Season 1 and was repeatedly, wildly entertaining and surprising. With characters, Season 2 was about testing the strength of the study group’s dynamic. There was the ever looming possibility of Chang wanting to join and, most importantly, there was Pierce acting like a villain amongst his own friends, pretending to be on his deathbed as part of a ploy to pit them against each other in “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” or sabotaging the secret on-campus trampoline discovered by Jeff and Troy (a plotline as surreal and silly as it sounds). A lot of fans hated Pierce this season (which is part of why he was unwisely shunted into the background later on), but I believe his antagonism was the most solid story thread of the entire season and was what really held it all together.
Season 3 seemed less clear on what it should be doing. There were scattered homage and genre episodes (like the Ken Burns style “Pillows and Blankets” and the episode that took place almost entirely in a video game, “Digital Estate Planning”) and some episodes tried to merge the more normal sitcom feel of Season 1 with the genre-hopping theme of Season 2. For example, there was “Competitive Ecology,” which examined how the group appeared to Todd, an outsider, which was a very funny concept. But the episode also had a B plot about Chang imagining himself as a detective in a noir film, which felt sort of half-baked.
The characters seemed to have fewer obvious issues to work through, so their relationships just got more fleshed out. Shirley and Jeff found common ground (and a surprise history together) over foosball. And Annie forced Troy and Abed to mature some by moving in with them. Perhaps most important, some tension arose between the heretofore unflappable friendship of Troy and Abed (which was a long time coming), but they got past it quickly enough that it didn’t feel like as big a deal as it was probably supposed to. Then there were the aforementioned father issues for Jeff, but this felt underdeveloped, making the shot of him Googling his father’s name in the season finale seem somewhat unearned. Furthermore, in the season finale DVD commentary, it’s mentioned that Jeff’s final speech in the finale is meant to be the definitive moment in which he rejects his old lawyer life and accepts Greendale and his new friends. But Jeff’s absorption into the study group was such a foregone conclusion already that I didn’t recognize this as the huge development it was supposed to be.
Listening to the commentaries on the Season 3 DVD, Dan Harmon makes frequent reference to just how little money the show had to work with this time around (and, in fact, Greendale’s dean, played by Jim Rash, makes a meta-reference to it in the season premiere episode saying, “This year will be like last year, only with less money.”). Perhaps this had something to do with why, even as the stakes ramped up, the show felt a little smaller and less adventurous. However, I suspect a bigger issue was simply that it had less of a plan about where to go. Season 1 was orientation and Season 2 pulled out all the stops. With everything Community had already accomplished in two seasons, Season 3 floundered a bit. Frankly (though these were in no way rehashes), three of the episodes even went ahead and revisited premises from the last season: giant blanket forts, documentary film and clip shows. (Though, in fairness, Season 2 had already done a second paintball episode.)
But I’ve been negative throughout almost this entire article and Season 3 did at times manage to reach the heights a fan would expect and hope for from Community. As mentioned, the characters didn’t take as many leaps forward as in the past. However, there were still those moments where the show reminded us of just how incredible it could be at exploring and developing relationships. The best example of this was in “Remedial Chaos Theory,” the episode that split the events of one night into six different timelines, showing what would theoretically have happened in each one. This was a fascinating way to analyze these characters. It was sad and interesting to discover how Pierce and Jeff were still the ones most outside the group and great to see some of Shirley’s pent-up anger about Britta’s life choices bubble over. But the episode was also fresh format-wise. It felt like a genre episode, but there was definitely nothing quite like it in Season 2. Simply put, though I felt let down by a lot of Season 3, this was one of the best episodes Community has ever done.
It was also a season that felt in some ways over the top, both in characterization and presentation. I can’t say, for example, that I totally support where they went with Britta. It had been established she was awkward and a screw-up, sure, but there were now times where she came off as just plain stupid, such as in her pronunciation of “oedipal” as “edible.” Her dumbness was even directly addressed in “Course Listing Unavailable,” when Jeff says, “When we met I thought you were smarter than me.” To which Britta responds, “Thank you.”
Still, I can’t deny Britta’s ridiculousness had its payoffs as well. I loved that her attempts at rebellion included kicking over a garbage pail (and failing) and interrupting a conversation the gang was having with a police officer to quiet the room with her interjection: “Look, I hate cops.” Furthermore, in the Christmas pageant episode, it gave us Britta singing a song from her heart, featuring the brilliantly terrible lyrics she came up with: “I got a Christmastime for me. I got a Christmastime for a tree.”
Plus, presentation-wise, we got some pretty crazy action-oriented episodes. I don’t think the marriage of character development and awesomeness was as eloquently pulled off as it was in, for example, the finale of Season 2 which was as much about saving Greendale from going out of business as it was about Pierce apologizing to the group for how he’d acted all season. This time, it was more about saving Greendale as the gang had to rescue the Dean, who’d been kidnapped by Chang so he could take over the campus. However, it made for an awesome heist episode (a genre the show had yet to cover) and it was wonderfully composed. Additionally ridiculous was Troy’s climactic battle with the new president of the Air Conditioning School, which somehow achieved dramatic heft, even when considering we’d gone from a show once about a group studying Spanish to watching two guys fight to the air-condition-repair death in something called “The Sun Chamber” (basically a box that gets hotter and hotter until the AC unit inside is repaired). Lastly, though they were revisited concepts, the documentary and clip show episodes felt like awesome, uber versions of the originals, coming off not as retreads, but refinements.
Finally, at the end of it all, especially with the knowledge that Dan Harmon was on the way out, the season finale felt very much like it could be the SERIES finale and was elegantly executed. It reminded us how far the show had come and hinted at where it might go in the future. It was an erratic season but, at the end of it all, Community forced me to remember all the great moments it had given me and all the emotions I had invested in it. So, regardless of what happens next to one of my favorite shows of all time, come February 7th, I’ll just be glad to see my friends from Greendale Community College back on TV.