Community: What Went Wrong in Season 5?

Is the Community that got canceled the one we fell in love with in the first place?

I had a dream.

Remember how bad Community was without its creator, Dan Harmon? Season 4 was a confused mess that attempted to emulate the “wacky” plotting of the episodes that had come before it but without a real understanding of the soul—the characterization, the risk-taking, the evolving—that had made the series brilliant. Ray of sunshine that I am, I even wrote an article halfway through the season about how the show was doomed!

But then, the unbelievable happened. Dan Harmon, it was announced, would be coming back. He was going to fix everything! Season 4 would be nothing but a gas-leak-fueled bad nightmare, tidied away never to be mentioned again.

And then I had a dream. A couple of months before it actually premiered, I dreamt that I sat down to watch the first episode of Season 5 of Community. And it wasn’t that great. Sure, it wasn’t that bad either, but it was… well, it wasn’t that great. And, yes, I’m serious. I had this dream. My dreams are boring.

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The scary thing was my dream came true. “Repilot” was okay. It wasn’t fantastic, but maybe it never had a real chance to be. With so much stuff from Season 4 to explain away and fix and with the need to reorient us all to the world of Greendale Community College, there just wasn’t much time left for the episode to bust out the wildly creative comedy chops that had earned the show its dedicated fanbase.

Anyway, the second episode was a little better. Also not exactly amazing, but definitely better, and it introduced the idea of Jeff as a professor, which, though maybe an obvious way to keep him around, started to sound like a fun, new launching pad for potential school-centric storylines.

And then there was the Ass Crack Bandit episode, which was really good! And the one about Pierce’s death, which was also good!

But then something happened. Episodes started getting sloppier and less funny. Concepts that sounded ambitious on paper somehow ended up flat and unengaging in execution. A few more good moments and at least one standout episode still showed up, but by and large it was as though Community had forgotten about the importance of the characterization, the risk-taking, the… oh dear.

Season 5 of Community had a strong start but there was a clear dip in focus and quality as it went on. In fact, I would argue it went out with a finale that was the worst episode of television Dan Harmon has ever been involved with. Here’s what I think went wrong.

1. “Repilot” my ass.

The season premiere, as well as the season itself, was supposedly meant to ground the series. Season 4 managed to be totally weird and hardly about a community college at all, not unlike most of the episodes produced under Harmon’s guidance after Season 1, yet in a way that managed to completely miss what most fans wanted out of the show. Season 4 was therefore off-putting to both newcomers and diehard followers of the series.

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Before his firing, Harmon’s original plan was to gradually move the group farther and farther away from the Greendale campus, until eventually it was a show entirely about a community of people, rather than a community college. The violent hiccup caused by Season 4 forced him to retract this plan entirely. The show now needed to be reintroduced and set back on course for viewers old and new alike.

However, clearly an understanding of how to actually accomplish that eluded Harmon and team. From the start, “Repilot” (again, perhaps unavoidably), was stuffed to bursting with exposition and general oddness as it scrambled to pack away all the mistakes and mishaps that had taken place the season prior. The exposition-heavy nature coupled with a decidedly dark tone hardly made it the most welcoming episode for a new viewer. Furthermore, there was insane crap like Chang living in cardboard boxes in the middle of the study room. I mean, the episode reached its catharsis based on a speech given by a hologram of Chevy Chase, for goodness’ sakes.

Yes, it was just one episode and it was one that had to do a lot of heavy lifting in the wake of what had come before it, but it was an omen of the season to come as well. This would not be Season 1 again. This would not just be a show about a community college. It would continue to be a weird-ass, oft-misunderstood curiosity, which had the potential to screw up in a lot of ways.

2. Too many concept episodes.

In the past, Harmon had always claimed that homages would be driven by story. The writers wouldn’t ever throw out a parody needlessly; it would only happen if there was a solid story to be told with the characters that worked within the context of, for example, an action film (“Modern Warfare,” which was actually about Britta and Jeff finally having sex) or a mockumentary (“Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” which was about Pierce turning the group against one another).

However, Harmon announced off the bat that he’d be doing a new Dungeons & Dragons episode for Season 5 with no knowledge of why or what it might be about. And, indeed, we got a hollow retread of what the first time around had been one of the series’ all-time best episodes.

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A repeated idea has the evident potential to feel unambitious and boring, but the issue is that even ostensibly new concepts had no sense of freshness to them. “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” was one of the season’s best, but it didn’t seem hugely dissimilar from the Law & Order episode of Season 3. “Geothermal Escapism” tried to do something new with a “the floor is hot lava” premise, but it unavoidably felt as though it was just cribbing from the paintball episodes. “G.I. Jeff” was essentially “Jeff’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”

Still, that these premises can be pretty easily compared to past premises isn’t the main issue. The core problem is that the homage episodes stopped being about bolstering character-driven plots and became more about the homages themselves. “G.I. Jeff” spent most of its time just being a G.I. Joe homage with much of its comedy reliant on an appreciation of the cartoon, only revealing near the end that it was actually about Jeff in denial of his age (and it wasn’t a very shocking reveal either). “App Development and Condiments” was a lot of silly fun, but was centered on an almost meaningless conflict between Shirley and Jeff set off by a misunderstanding about dinner plans.

It’s not easy, I’m sure, to make emotional, affecting character-centric episodes that also happen to be about a student body unnaturally obsessed with chicken fingers or bad army surplus taco meat turning everyone into zombies. But Community used to manage it. It used to pair these things. In Season 5, instead of doing the work to pull off some real character development, they simply dropped the characters into parodies and had them act ridiculous. Something that had once defined the show as ambitious had become its crutch and a replacement for meaningful characterization.

3. Where the hell were the characters?

This was a massive, colossal problem. Not only was there little in the way of character development, there were hardly characters. Multiple episodes, like the finale, “Basic Sandwich,” for example, spent most of its time simply shoving the characters along the plot. It hardly mattered which character was onscreen because they were all simply there to force along the plot of a labored premise about a guy building gold emotion robots in the school’s abandoned basement. There’d be the occasional reminder of who these people were (Annie and Abed get to have a nice little heart-to-heart) but mostly they were just there to go “Buried treasure?! Huh!? The deed to the school!? Bwuh?!”

Edo, a frequently insightful commenter on my Community reviews, brought up a great point that in Season 5, Chang seems to be regarded as no different from anybody else in the group. Even though he tried to kill all of them once, his interactions with other characters at the study table felt like they could stand in for anybody else’s. He became simply, and with little fanfare, one of the gang, which just felt wrong.

Jeff, who the season premiere seemed to be reestablishing as the protagonist, was oddly relegated to the background in subsequent episodes. In “Analysis of Cork-Based Networking,” he’s so characterless he doesn’t even quite seem like himself. In fact, he’s lumped in with Shirley and Professor Duncan in such a way that none of them really matter. They’re just supports for Chang.

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Compare Season 5 episodes to those from the first two seasons. Even at its most outlandish, classic Community remembered to be a sitcom, unafraid of creating dramatic, emotional moments from simple, honest interactions between its characters. Notice how rare it is in Season 5 to see the gang sitting around the study table, talking not about the plot (e.g., the Save Greendale Committee’s goal in each episode), but about their relationships with one another. The only episodes in Season 5 that pulled this off in any noteworthy capacity were “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality,” which I would argue was the best and most grounded episode of the season, and “Cooperative Polygraphy,” which couldn’t resist undercutting its emotional bits with a bizarre plot twist about Troy sailing around the world and the introduction of a bunch of sperm canisters (not that those weren’t funny).

4. It’s probably been on too long.

The losses of Chevy Chase and Donald Glover were clear evidence of the series’ gradual breakdown. Coupled with the damage done by Season 4, Community had probably just been dealt one too many blows. The show did its best to soldier onward in spite of its losses, but piling Chang, Professor Duncan (John Oliver), and Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks) onto the study group wasn’t the tidiest solution; arguably, it only highlighted the severity of the missing characters. Troy especially was a solid source of positivity. All the other characters have dark streaks running through their personalities and the brightness Troy brought to the group was never replicated.

But truly, Community probably should have ended years ago. You may have noticed I didn’t suggest comparing Season 5’s quality to that of Season 3. That’s because, though Season 3 never reached the lows that the tail end of 5 did, the problems of 5 simply feel like the inevitable culmination of mistakes that began before Dan Harmon’s firing. Again, Season 5 did not succeed as a reboot. It did, however, get the show back on track, as it felt convincingly like, in terms of tone and quality, we’d picked up right where we’d left off before Season 4 derailed everything.

Unfortunately, the track Season 3 had been on was an unsound one, headed for an overly cartoonish, louder, and dumber version of Greendale. I had this sense back in Season 3 that the show needed to end before it did serious damage to itself and it seemed Harmon did too, based on the finale, which felt far more conclusive than the crap endings Seasons 4 and 5 served up. Too bad one year later he’d apparently forgotten about all that.

Most sitcoms work fine for years upon years because they let their characters and setting operate in a sort of limbo in which everything more or less resets from episode to episode. There are no huge consequences or developments, meaning a new viewer can jump into any episode from any season of 2 Broke Girls or The Big Bang Theory at any time and feel just as welcome as a longtime fan. Community rejected this conventional sitcom approach early on, challenging and developing itself and its characters constantly. This is what made it so exciting and rewarding for fans, but it’s also an extraordinarily difficult format to sustain. The more ambitious a show is early on, the more it will struggle to maintain that level of ambition later and, unfortunately, unlike The Big Bang Theory, which can comfortably churn out the same crap for eons to come, if your show is defined on ambition, even a hint of stagnancy stands out as a grievous misstep.

5. There was a lack of ambition and development.

This was one of the complaints I constantly leveled at Season 4 that I thought functioned as perfect evidence that the crew working on the show at that time had no understanding of a basic Community tenet. In characters and concept, Dan Harmon’s Community was always about challenging and changing itself. Characters evolved and learned new things about themselves (Jeff in the first season) or reached different stages in their relationships to each other (Troy and Abed fighting in Season 3). Homages tried to bring the series to unexplored territory and if a concept was brought back (like with the paintball or mockumentary episodes), it was with the intent of expanding on the original idea or looking at it from another angle.

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Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, this recent Harmon-helmed season went ahead and repeated concepts or did lazy variations on them with no apparent reasoning aside from “well, that’s what Community does.” Worse, in a season that at first appeared ready to embrace the change forced upon it by the departure of two major characters, Season 5 ultimately championed anti-growth. Perhaps a bit of the blame can be put on Season 4’s derailment of Harmon’s original plan to distance the study group from Greendale, but that doesn’t excuse the almost total character stagnancy here. I can find precious little to point to as examples of character evolution aside from Hickey teaching Abed a lesson in “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality” and Annie reaching a new level of maturity represented by her Winger-esque speech in the final episode.

But the real slap in the face came from the very end of the finale, which implied Greendale was saved, all was well, and that the gang was ready to do it all over again next year. It was the blandest, most clichéd, bad-sitcom resolution the show’s ever served up. Contrast it with the (in retrospect, just about perfect) Season 3 finale, which completely embraced the series’ dedication to change and growth, showing every member of the group making small, yet important next steps in their lives. Sadly, Season 5 went with an even more conservative ending than the abysmal finale of Season 4, which at least had the chutzpa to graduate Jeff and Pierce.

6. It broke its own rules.

Community was a show about change that used its finale to crap all over the very concept that defined it. But Season 5 broke more of the series’ own rules beyond that.

When Harmon was rehired, many wondered if he wouldn’t just pull an “it was all a dream” with Season 4, but Harmon unequivocally rejected the idea, saying it wouldn’t be “very Community of me to negate anything.” Indeed, Community has always brushed up against the dream world but has always made a deliberate point of committing to its craziness. Everyone turned into zombies for an episode; it really did happen, Chang and Shirley really did hook up, and the consequences of this resurfaced later.

Without Harmon, this dedication to reality was forgotten, resulting in the garbage Season 4 finale that took place almost entirely in Jeff’s head. But “G.I. Jeff” this season did almost exactly the same thing. It made clear it was a dream early on rather than using it as a lame twist, but it was still an almost entirely pointless half-hour; the events that took place could effectively be swapped for any others as the only important new character information showed up right at the end. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” and the Dreamatorium episode from Season 3 (neither of which I’m a fan of), pulled a similar thing, but at least there was meaningful development between Abed in relation to other characters throughout the episode. It wasn’t all confined to the episode’s ending.

Another former Community rule voiced by Harmon on more than one occasion is that the series isn’t meant to have villains. There can be misunderstood people, people who have goals that differ from the main characters’, but nobody should be evil for the sake of it. However, the finale finally turned those school board guys into unabashed jerks who apparently hate Greendale just because. They’re lame characters and just one of a number of aspects of the finale that gave it a bad Hollywood comedy vibe.

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Lastly, there was Abed’s reveal that he knows he’s on a show, talking about being in a story and shooting knowing glances at the camera. This felt like a step too far and, in fact, Harmon himself once claimed, “I don’t like to break the fourth wall. I don’t like to even vibrate it.” And now, well, here we are.

7. It had become self-aware.

It’s no secret that the drama behind the scenes informed the subject matter of the show. The darkness of Season 3 parallels the mood Dan Harmon was in at the time as well as his strained relations with the network. He even wrote a season finale with Abed heading into the Dreamatorium, leaving everyone else behind, because he had an inkling that he (Harmon) might not be back.

As it went on, Season 5 began to reek of self-righteousness, churning out some of the most inaccessible stuff the show had ever produced. Seriously, look at “G.I. Jeff” again: a cartoon homage coupled with an old toy commercial homage plus occasional flashes to a guy in a hospital bed? In “Basic Story,” Abed outright name drops the different stages of the story circle Harmon uses to write episodes with. This was a show assured that everyone watching was firmly on board with not just the show but the man and the myth that had been generated around it.

The network, aware of the mistake they’d made with Season 4, was largely leaving the crew alone this time around. Harmon was a hero to critics and his fanbase. There were already murmurs of the movie that would simply have to happen. It felt like the show could do whatever it wanted and a sixth season was inevitable. As Harmon said, “The only thing weirder than getting a sixth season would not be getting a sixth season.”

And so we got this odd ending that truly smacked of a lack of care, a tossed-off episode in which Abed confidently claimed “We’ll definitely be back next year. If not, it’ll be because an asteroid has destroyed all human civilization. And that’s canon.” Then he looked at the camera, like a smug douche.

As it turned out, the weirdest thing did happen. In the world of Community, everybody’s dead now, I guess. It’s a lame ending, a silly ending. The series went out hobbling erratically, full of misplaced confidence. Of course fans are rallying to get Netflix and other online media outlets to pick it up, but do you really want more? Truly?

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I’ll admit that a better, realer ending would be appreciated. And it was good to hear that Dan Harmon was aware of the growing number of fans interested in a true grounding of the show: “It would be nice to get a sixth season and grant this wish that some people seem to have that it’s just a show set in community college with these characters that we love. I’d like to see if it’s possible to grant that wish.” 

I have some interest in seeing if it would be possible to grant that wish too. But I have little faith that, even if the show came back somehow, this wish would ever come true. Wasn’t this season we just had meant to ground us some already? Season 5 had some great moments, maybe two or three good episodes, but grounded it was not. And at the end, I can’t really say it was producing anything of notably higher quality than what I was complaining so fervently about in Season 4.

Community was once a show about embracing change. So let’s not cheer on the broken version of it that it became. Let’s learn from it from back when it was good, accept this change, and move on.

It’s not about six seasons and a movie for me. It’s three seasons. You only have to watch three seasons.

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