A Look Back on Community: The Little Show That Could

Community Poster

The darkest timeline unfortunately came into fruition. As reported by multiple outlets on Friday, May 9, 2014, NBC cancelled Community. My initial reaction, as well as the reaction of the other numerous other die-hard fans, was anger and disappointment. Community was the truest definition of a cult show: beloved by few, but not by enough casual viewers to keep it off perpetual life support. In that sense, the collective feelings of fans were not strong enough to make a difference in keeping the show on the air for one more season.

The show spent years grasping onto mediocre ratings and just barely avoiding cancellation, all the while being possessed by a presence and energy that propelled the show forward and made it seem like it was destined to make it through to the very end. The phrase “six seasons and a movie” evolved from a running joke into a legitimate possibility. Season five even ended with a direct joke regarding the uncertain future of the show. Community was equivalent to the kid in school who never looked like he had anything remotely special about him, until you ran into him and realized he was one of the coolest and most unique people you had ever met–even if you couldn’t exactly explain the appeal to others. All that mattered was that they meant something to you.

Earlier this year, on a Thursday night, I sat in the kitchen having dinner with my father. Both of us robotically shoved spoonfuls of chicken breast and salad into our mouths as we stared at the small television that we had set up on top of the counter. 8 p.m. then rolled by and an episode of Community began to play, with the main characters all sitting around their study table and throwing verbal barbs back and forth at each other. I chuckled at every joke and casual pop culture reference that made its way onto the screen, occasionally glancing back to see if my father shared any sort of interest. Instead, he looked at me and asked, “What is this show?” I told him it was one of the funniest shows on television, filled with vibrant characters and hilarious situations. However, as I found myself trying to explain the complexities of the show and its overall appeal, I froze; there wasn’t any way for me to really convey my love for this program.

The night went on and I finished the episode on my own, as I always did for every previous episode of the show. Thursday nights became a ritual whenever Community aired. I would take in every moment that unfolded with pure bliss, exhilarated at watching a show that was unafraid to do something different every now and then—such as an episode with nothing but puppets or an entire episode with G.I. Joe characters—without ever being worried about what outsiders thought about it. Community truly wasn’t like any other sitcom on T.V.

Abed and the rest of the study group in season two, episode 11, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas."
Abed and the rest of the study group in season two, episode 11, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”

Community’s strength came from breaking down typical sitcom tropes with its ability to showcase real human emotion through the prism of its characters and its community college setting. Most sitcoms on television are perfectly contempt with simply providing a few hearty laughs and formulaic emotional response to the problem at hand by the end of each episode. A character will have an issue to deal with, for example, and by the end they will have figured the problem out with no lasting consequence or significant emotional response to it in the future. However, in between the rapturous laughs and pop culture references, Community wasn’t afraid to tackle deeper themes related to the negative aspects of life, such as insecurity and failure, and see just how it impacted its characters in the long term.

Everyone on the show represented both the positives and negatives present within all of us. It showed that while people grow and adapt emotionally, there will always be those few friends that appreciate and embrace your perfections and imperfections. Greendale Community College served a prison for those who felt as if they had failed in some portion of their life, while simultaneously being a rehabilitation center for those people to discover what it really meant to be happy. Episodes such as season two’s “Mixology Certification,” “Critical Film Studies” and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” were perfect examples of these characters sticking with each other despite the disappointment each of them possessed within their own hearts. Community always found a way to analyze these characters’ emotions through a variety of creative ways.

The show’s use of ambitious concept episodes further exemplified its ability to stand out from it sitcom competitors. When asked for a favorite episode of Community, most people would refer to the incredibly well done “Modern Warfare,” the action movie homage that revolved around a paintball competition on the grounds of Greendale. It was a standout 20 minutes that was incredibly fun and arguably the pinnacle of the show’s foray into concept episodes. These episodes would stray away from the traditional structure of sitcoms and instead solve whatever problem the characters were going through by different means. Whether its focus was action-driven or character-driven, other concept episodes throughout Community’s run would range from takes on zombies (“Epidemiology”), Law and Order (“Basic Lupine Urology”), and Dungeons and Dragons (“Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”). They all served to make the show that much more unique then its peers and to further analyze its characters, while also being ecstatically funny. The concept episodes were another ingenious part of a show that lasted much longer than anyone expected.

Jeff Winger avoiding a paintball grenade in season one, episode 23, "Modern Warfare."
Jeff Winger avoiding a paintball grenade in season one, episode 23, “Modern Warfare.”

In reality, most shows do not have the luxury of lasting as long as Community did. Television executives get worried at the first sign of bad ratings and often dump a program before it even has time to get into a creative stride. Community lasted for 97 episodes mainly because of a rabidly passionate fan base that did things like flash mob NBC to keep it on the air, along with the fact that NBC didn’t ever find a suitable replacement to take the timeslot. It also never helped that the show had to compete during the same time with the highest rated comedy on television: The Big Bang Theory. However, time and time again, the show proved naysayers wrong with its yearly return, churning out hilarious and inventive episodes week after week.

Though, it’s hard to deny—even for the show’s most hardcore fans—that Community started to run out of creative steam throughout its fifth season. The return of creator and showrunner Dan Harmon momentarily reinvigorated the program and provided a renewed sense of confidence that was missing throughout season four[1]. Still, after a couple of early standout episodes, such as “Cooperative Polygraphy” and “Geothermal Escapism”[2], the season started to feel flat. Community never reached the heights of its first three seasons; instead, it crawled to the finish line with a storyline that presented no clear indication of where else the show could go from there. Greendale was saved from takeover and the emotional journeys of the characters since season one were essentially over. Maybe it was time for the show to finally say goodbye.

Community castDespite its cancellation, there is hope for fans that the show will be picked up by another service for a sixth season (and then possibly a movie production afterward). However, for those who remember Troy’s realization while eating a giant cookie during the season one finale, too much of a good thing can be bad. If something has a terrible ending, it tends to mask some of the good that came before it (e.g. the How I Met Your Mother series finale). Therefore, sometimes it’s better to just let things go before they get ruined. Regardless whether or not another season and/or a movie happen, the Community of the last five years was unlike any other sitcom on television. It presented a unique environment that held paintball wars, Halloween parties, movie homages, meta-commentary, and a school dance for just about any random celebration; this all occurred while being populated with a merry bunch of characters that could feel incredibly real.

As time goes on, hopefully the show’s popularity will grow and more people will experience the same enjoyment that I, along with numerous other fans, have experienced over the past five years. Community’s relationship with its audience was like Troy and Abed’s secret handshake, a special relationship that was blissfully uncaring for what others on the outside thought about it, but more than willing to let them in if they were ready to embrace what came next. Ultimately, Community will be remembered as the little show that continually survived. It was a show that was able to trigger a multitude of emotions in a matter of minutes and perfectly reflect the emotional struggles that plenty of people experience themselves. As an audience, we were lucky to watch and appreciate this show. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Community got cancelled. It was probably bound to happen. The surprise we should all agree on is just how great and enjoyable this show actually ended up being.

[1] Dan Harmon’s firing from the show after the first three seasons and his subsequent rehiring is well documented, adding another interesting wrinkle to this already interesting program.

[2] These are otherwise known as the finale episodes for actors Chevy Chase and Donald Glover, respectively.

Works Cited

Littleton, Cynthia. “NBC Cancels ‘Community’ After Five Seasons.” Variety, 9 May 2014. Web. <http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/nbc-cancels-community-1201176577/>.

Rose, Lacey. “‘Community’s’ Dan Harmon Reveals the Wild Story Behind His Firing and Rehiring.” The Hollywood Reporter, 17 July 2013. Web. <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/communitys-dan-harmon-reveals-wild-586084?page=show>.

Trumbore, Dave. “COMMUNITY Flash Mob Occupies NBC’s Rockefeller Center.” Collider, 1 Jan. 2011. Web. . <http://collider.com/community-flash-mob/>.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Journalism student at the University of Maryland (2016). Pop culture enthusiast. T.V. shows, movies and sports are a lifelong love. Follow me on twitter @Gio_Insignares

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29 Comments

  1. NBC has become such a joke. Why did they even bring the show back then. What is even left on the network? I pretty much stopped watching Leno but it was all the network had and they obviously bombed that situation. They are ruining Fallon and Meyers late night show is just terrible. Who honestly makes these decisions? Frustrating to think about.

    • Giovanni Insignares

      You may not like what NBC is doing, but the network just finished first in ratings for this past season in the 18-49 demo (for the first time in a while). So, it looks like they’re going to keep doing their thing.

  2. The first three season were comedy gold. Some of the funniest material I have ever seen. However, when Harmon left the show in season 4, it just wasn’t the same. When he came back for season 5, it still just wasn’t the same. The absence of pierce and troy were very noticeable and sorely missed. It was clear this show had it’s best days behind it, and that’s ok. All amazing things come to and end.

  3. Marticulas
    0

    freaking season 4 ruined everything, season 5 was awesome and hilarious. they did just fine without troy, and it’s not like dan didn’t want donald, don left on his own. This show has to get picked back up it’s just too funny to not be.

  4. Galindo
    0

    Why the good shows always get the axe?

    • This show started to deteriorate as the seasons kept on going. It was great in the first 2 seasons, then it went south. I felt that the writers were just making random material because they didn’t have anything else to write about. What I really did enjoy though was the randomness that happened like the 8-gig but episode and the paintball wars they had. Good times…

    • Well unfortunately Americans tend to trend towards generic formulaic comedies that they don’t have to think about and often rely on a laugh track. A prime example would be The Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men.

      Also, “good” shows are often deemed as such by the younger generation whom gets their media from multiple sources on their own schedule which hinders a shows chances for renewal as the networks rely on live + next day views for charging advertisers.

  5. Burke

    I really like your point about too much of a good thing. I mean, I love Community and I didn’t feel like it started to grow flat (barring maybe the season finale, but I even enjoyed that). In fact, if they made a season 6, I think they’d have the energy to make it work. But I hate saying things like, “I like the Simpson – but before season 11,” or “I like Psych – but before season 5,” so I suppose that Community was cancelled prematurely has a silver lining.

  6. Christina Cady

    I was not that surprised of the news that NBC cancelled Community. I enjoyed watching the first two seasons, but I agree with one of the comments above that the show began to deteriorate. I do, however, agree with a point in the article- Community, at its best, provided a progressive view of what a sitcom could be. That being said this was a nice homage to a interesting and overall hilarious show. Thanks!

  7. Brian Primm

    Fantastic article. The show is so much more than just a comedy in NBC’s Thursday comedy block, but it’s a show that brought people together to rally for something they wanted to see. It’s rare to find such amazing fans that can get behind something so passionately. You have to give NBC credit for listening to its passionate audience with shows like Community and even Chuck. It’s hard to place blame on NBC because they are a company that needs to put out a product that’s going to do the best business for them, unfortunately that can include cutting a show that has a small, but passionate fan base.

  8. Robyn McComb
    RobynzEggBlue
    0

    I totally agree with your point about how Community is so lovable…but hard to explain why. At face value, it’s actually a stupid and pointless show. But it has heart, and if you follow the episodes, you do notice deeper themes about failure and insecurity and even sexuality and friendship, issues that appeal to all of us because we have all suffered these issues in our lifetimes. This show is also great because it is not afraid to break TV boundaries, even dedicating whole episodes to cartoon or claymation, having Spaghetti Western paintball fights and professors who drink their own pee, the pillow and blanket fort competitions and the “der” fight with much younger kids. The weirdness and departures from reality make it fun and bring out the kid in all of us; and they prove this show is fearless, all heart! The characters are lovable liek old friends – even if they’re selfish, like Pierce, Jeffrey, and Britta. They also realistically reflect college friendships and the unique people you run into in the world. The show did begin to run out of steam, however, and that is why I am not too disappointed it was canceled. The plot did not have enough of a base to last forever. I do hope they make a movie, however. And I will always enjoy revisiting old episodes and my beloved characters, and remembering late nights with friends watching this show over Bud Platinums and Jack in the Box. Part of me regards this show as real, and I have fantasies that these people never graduate and drift apart, which unfortunately is the sad inevitability of life. But hey, this show did depart from reality often, so maybe we can avoid that reality of drifting apart post-grad! Suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy this show and so I will suspend my disbelief of a heavenly afterlife for these characters.

  9. Mignon Smothers
    0

    The challenge Community has always had is that it’s been just a little too smart for regular television. Here’s hoping it gets picked up on Netflix or another streaming service (preferably one I can get in Canada…).

  10. I was a huge community fan but I have to agree that the show was nearing the end of its lifespan. Honestly though I don’t think that people should be sad about its cancellation. The work that Community has made on breaking out from the traditional sitcom paradigm is only going to allow future shows to do the same. I also have to agree that the show was running out of ideas and direction, but ending isn’t such a bad thing. Take Breaking Bad for example, that show was so popular it could have probably lasted for another 4 seasons, but it made sense for it to come to an end. Just because a show is popular doesn’t mean it has to become perpetual, some shows can teach us a lot more by ending on a good note.

  11. This show is one of many cult classics, watched by many, loved by a lot, yet will be remembered by few. It was an incredibly unique show with both light and heavy content. However, one-in-a-crowd shows can only go on for so long. There is only so much original material, and over time the quality would suffer. I’d much rather see a great show end at its time than be dragged out painfully, such as, say, How I Met Your Mother? That last season was all fluff. Better that this show ended now, while it still had some quality left to it.

  12. I wasn’t one of the people who watched Community from start to finish, just caught a few episodes here and there (including the Christmas episode you reference – an example of great TV), but I really see a comparison with this show and 30 Rock, another NBC program recently cancelled. Both shows constantly make fun of themselves and their ratings.
    While it is saddening that both of these shows are over, I think it’s important to applaud NBC on their willingness to even air Community and 30 Rock at all. If NBC chose not to pick up these unconventional shows, we would never have gotten the chance to get to know Abed, or Troy, or Liz Lemon. I think NBC has realized there is a market and an audience for these “weird” shows, and because they are steering away from the cliche sitcoms, the network is finally becoming successful again, ratings wise. I hope they keep taking chances.

  13. This show is too good for television. It tries things no other half hour comedy would dare attempt.

  14. I was hoping Pierce would make a comeback in Season 6, since Chevy’s allowed to return to the set after the year ‘ban’ is over. Now even if it gets picked up by Netflix or Hulu, there’s no way Chevy would be interested in it. I have to accept the death of Pierce now. Damn it NBC!

  15. Michael T.
    0

    For a show that was hanging on the edge of cancellation every year ,I am very happy that Community was able to get 5 seasons ( Which is great now that the show is in syndication ). Wouldn’t be surprise if it came back for a limited engagement just to wrap it up properly for the fans.

  16. I think you meant content instead of contempt. I love Community for all of your reasons as well as it’s setting was modeled after the community college I and Dan Harmon went to, Glendale Community College in California. This current system of ratings is problematic and there’s been some conversation about the trade offs between how many people love a show, web series, book, or movie and how strong the people love that show, web series, book, or movie.

    • Giovanni Insignares

      You’re right, I did mean content. My eyes didn’t catch that error, thanks. Also, I agree with your point about the ratings system. The bottom line is always numbers, with little regard to everything else. Sub-par and even mediocre shows will survive simply because more people watch them, not necessarily because they are beloved.

  17. Really good article. I haven’t watched the last two seasons, I thought the first three were amazing and the beginning of the fourth season was so disappointing that I wrote it off. Might go back and try to watch it now.

  18. While I am a gigantic fan of this show and was very sad upon hearing that it had been cancelled, I don’t think that Season 6 would be particularly good. Season 5 already started to show the cracks and started to crumble upon the departure of Troy.
    For me, what made the first three seasons so great was the interplay between the members of the study group. While the show did occasionally give a secondary character a day in the limelight (the third season documentary episode with the Dean comes to mind), the show had a tight focus on the study group.
    As season 4 and 5 came around and Pierce and Troy left the show, Community lost some of its magic because of the broken focus. There no longer was the tight-knit study group which led to a much less focused and precise show.

    That being said, season 5 does have some jokes that should join the pantheon all-time classic Community gags (namely the Dean’s Pay Day rap and “IT’S A BEAR DANCE!!!!”)

  19. I really enjoyed Community when it first came out. Reminded me a lot of my comm college experience and while I’ve stuck with it and watched every episode I didn’t get where the show was going. No one can take away that it was an interesting often amazing show, but the last few seasons were a mess. Yes they had bright spots (this season especially) but I think it’s biggest misstep was it became a show about everything. I really hope it gets Netflix’d.

  20. “there wasn’t any way for me to really convey my love for this program.” I really agree with this! I’ve tried explaining my love for it to friends before and I just can’t. It really is a show that you can’t prepare for. For instance, I was about to watch an episode the other night and all I knew about it was that someone gets shot, but nothing would’ve prepared me for the hilarity that I witnessed!
    I really hope that another network helps them get that 6th season and a movie out.

  21. S.A. Takacs

    Great article. While I’ve felt that Community has been struggling for the last few seasons, the chemistry between the characters is great, and the paintball episode is awesome. I know I’ve tried to explain this show to others, and it’s difficult to put into words.

  22. Community was a work of genius. I like that you discussed how different Harmon dared to be with the show. I watched every episode with my parents and at first my mom was taken aback by some of the weirder episodes like “Digital Estate Planning” in which almost the entire episode is a video game. She doesn’t like anything that is “too out there” as she put it but after a while she began to warm up to what the show was doing and the concept episodes became her favorites. The 2 part episodes of “Pillows and Blankets,” are an example of this, giving a nod to civil war documentaries as Troy and Abed go to war in their respective forts. These 2 episodes are hands down our favorites because they do such a great job of emulating a genre and at the same time keeping honest with the show’s characters. This is what Community is all about. Being an almost nonsensical parody of different genres while simultaneously developing these characters. It’s interesting because the characters in Community are contrived and almost ridiculous themselves. They’re essentially just satires of sitcom personalities but because they are so blatantly cliches and because the show is so self-aware of this, it makes it work. Often the characters are even conscious that they’re on a TV sitcom.

    The characters are predictable to the point where in one episode Abed and Troy make a chart where they mark off when a characters says something they know they’re gonna say. The episodes almost always follow a specific formula where the study group has identity issues then go through something crazy together and Jeff closes with a speech revealing what they’ve learned about themselves in that episode. The show and characters are pretty much predictable but because of this we really get to know the show and its characters in and out. We learn to love their habits and quirks.

    Community was parody and trope embodied. It was all about diagnosing sitcoms in a comical way. Like The Simpsons and Family Guy, Community was not afraid of referencing anything (even the most obscure) or making fun of anything including NBC and itself. The show was a nonstop laugh, but because it was so satirical and comical, when Harmon did pause for a brief moment or two every to be serious, those serious moment those moments became doubly emotional and meaningful for the viewer because they were rare. These serious moments were almost always character background and helped the viewer understand our characters’ sorrows and weaknesses. Community was all about the characters. Viewers grew to love every one of them even the self-destructive racist, Pierce. The characters were incredible individually but even better when they were put around the same table. Their dynamic is unrivaled by almost any cast I’ve ever seen except maybe the crew on Parks & Rec. The expression “They never missed a beat,” would describe them perfectly. In the final seasons with Troy and Pierce missing, the dynamic was in fact thrown off, and though it was still exceptionally funny it was not the same and perhaps it was time to move on.

  23. Jane Harkness

    I’m definitely sad that Community is over! I’m not all caught up on recent episodes, but my group of friends in college often watches it together and we all found it hilarious. It’s shame that it just didn’t have the ratings, even though it was one of the better shows on TV during its run.

  24. I am so happy to see love for “Mixology Certification.” I always feel like that is one of the episodes that tends to slide under the radar when people are talking about some of the best moments of the series. Although I disagree that the fifth season started to feel flat (I personally place the fifth season above the third season, although the third finale beats the fifth), I can certainly see where you are coming from. And with the news that Collider is reporting, with Hulu possibly give us a sixth season, I am very torn, because the show is not what it once was, but I still love my study group. we will have to see.

    http://collider.com/community-hulu/

  25. Asis the way with many series (tv, movies, books, everything), Community fell victim to the creators trying to extend it beyond its means because people liked it. It can happen with comedies, with dramas, with soaps.
    It’s easiest to happen with comedies thought, I think, as the show builds and establishes its careful balance between humour types. The longer a show runs beyond its mission statement, the more likely this balance will be thrown off and descend into clunky half/jokes and forced drama. Or else, content outside its norm that actually provokes cancellation.
    It happened to Heroes; prompting a critically dumped final season and reboot attempt.
    It happened to Scrubs, which some would say finished at the exact right time; also leading to a frowned upon reboot.
    It happened here in Australia to Cheez TV (an early morning cartoon presentation programme in the 90s); prompting network disownership and a clunky replacement.
    Community seemed to have a clear end in sight from the off, but it kept extending from the middle and collapsed under its own longevity.

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