Community: What is Going on at Greendale?
Ever since Danny Pudi’s Abed Nadir ran out of the Greendale canteen shouting “six seasons and a movie”, Community fans have wanted nothing more than this kind of longevity for their favourite show. Indeed, while Abed may have been talking about his wishes for NBC superhero drama series The Cape, this catchphrase has become synonymous with the ambitions of the struggling sitcom. Throughout the show’s turbulent history, fans have passionately fought for Community to be renewed a number of times with flash mobs, letters to NBC and hundreds of internet campaigns. This has left Community as a show almost uniquely indebted to its fans, with the cast and crew owing their jobs to the dedication of the viewers.
While this is mostly a positive thing, after the end of season three it became something the crew had to deal with rather than enjoy. With the sacking of series creator, showrunner and nerd-God Dan Harmon, troubles with main cast member Chevy Chase and the delayed start to season four, fans started to worry for the show they fought so hard to save. Then, as the latest series ran on under the control of new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port, fans started to be more vocal in their criticism. Unpopular story lines, mishandled character development and, frankly, some extremely poor writing angered the zealous viewership. Thus, when Community was renewed for a fifth season in May many fans, instead of screaming for ‘six seasons and a movie’, were wishing for cancellation. So, just what went wrong at Greendale? Here we look at the problems the show faces, and where season five will take the cult NBC comedy.
Much of the controversy has to do with the uncertain position of Chevy Chase in the cast, who quit the show while season four was still filming. Chase has never been the biggest Community fan (calling it a “mediocre sitcom” that “isn’t funny”) and his falling out with Harmon is credited as one of the reasons for the showrunner being let go. While Chase’s character, Pierce, is not the most beloved part of Community, he was still a main character and one that held an important part in the show. Within Community, Pierce had often played the antagonist and, when not the bad guy, was considered as dark comic relief. Now, this aspect will be missing from the group dynamic and may lead to other characters stepping in to fill the void, something that could change the show in a radical way.
The painful manner in which his departure was dealt with on screen was one of the major disappointments in season four. Chase had little screen time, consisting mainly of solo shots, and at one point an obvious body double was awkwardly used. Aside from on-screen troubles, a more practical problem could emerge from Chase’s absence. Indeed, while cast members such as Joel McHale, Alison Bree and Donald Glover may be growing in fame, Chase was the only household name in the cast. With a show such as Community, which is always fighting for ratings, any sort of promotion is important. With Chase leaving they have lost a key way in which to advertise the show. This may not be a primary fear for many fans, but for a show which desperately needs higher ratings, the loss of a key selling point may be yet another blow.
From a fans perspective, the major problem Community faces in the future is rebounding from the disappointment of season four. While not quite the train-wreck some have claimed it to be, the latest season was a clear drop in quality. There were some positives, with the Jim Rash penned episode ‘Basic Human Anatomy’ a clear highlight. However, the bad overwhelmingly outweighs the good here. Troy and Britta’s relationship, Jeff’s Dad, the Inspector Spacetime Convention, the Halloween episode and many more storylines just didn’t work, with the show often feeling like a fan fiction version of the first three seasons.
As well as this, the show suffered heavily from lazy writing and structuring. Even in the successful episodes many jokes fell flat, and storylines were often squeezed into the 21 minutes. Indeed, to take a specific example, let us look at the Thanksgiving episode ‘Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations.’ This episode not only attempted to deal with Shirley’s home troubles, but show Jeff meeting his father for the first time and present an Abed, Troy and Annie Shawshank Redemption parody. While individually these stories and devices would all make interesting episodes, together they seemed wasted as not enough time was dedicated to any one narrative. This resulted in a structurally weak and, crucially, unfunny episode. This was a key problem throughout the season. Albeit, while the first three seasons are not perfect, the hit rate was extremely high. Season two in particular was consistently hilarious, balancing a developing story alongside the trademark Community meta-humour and film references. Season four, in comparison, seems lazy.
In terms of story, Community season five faces some interesting problems with Jeff and Pierce graduating. While Pierce can simply not return, McHale’s Jeff is the main character of the show, and therefore cannot be written out. So, whether he will appear in a revised recurring role (such as Zach Braff in Scrubs season 9, or Dominic West in The Wire season four) or be brought in to play a new role at Greendale (like Screech in Saved By The Bell: The New Class), the show will experience a large structural change. Will other characters step up to fill Jeff’s shoes as leader in the group? Or, will the show introduce a new character to recreate the group dynamic within the school?
A crucial priority is to escape the fate of Scrubs, as mentioned above. With season 8 seemingly ending the beloved show, a ninth season was surprisingly commissioned. This season changed the hospital to a school, with main characters Turk and Dr Cox recruited as teachers, and a new cast of young medical students introduced. Not only did this wildly jump the shark, but it resulted in a significant fall in quality, with many fans rejecting season nine as part of the Scrubs canon. This is a key example of what Community season five needs to avoid. The last thing anyone wants to see is Professor Jeff Winger.
All in all, it seems that Community has a lot to fix before season five comes around. However, it is not all negative news for fans. On June 1st, it was announced that Harmon is due to return to the sitcom. Whether this will improve the show is left to be seen, but it is certainly good news for those who blame the fall in quality on the creator’s absence.
Community has always been a special show for fans. The way it breaks down conventional structures and stereotypical movie troupes, while at the same time working with likable characters is unique. It is an unashamedly intelligent show, and one which the sitcom landscape would be weaker without. Admittedly, even a bad episode of Community is favourable to most US comedies at the moment. But, with the production problems, as well as a significant fall in quality, the question is ‘do we need more?’
Season 5 will be a make or break time for Greendale’s students. With Harmon returning, expectations have never been higher. Will fans once more passionately fight for the survival of their show or will this prove to be a limp finale to the cult comedy? Only time will tell, but Community fans worldwide will be hoping these problems are merely a blip on the road to the once craved for six seasons and a movie.
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