A week after the cancellation of NBC’s Community, FreakSugar’s resident superfan, Jed Waters Harris-Keith wanted to share why the series was so special to him, and how the season three finale offers not only a perfect summation of the series, but of what it means to be a decent person.
I started this article at least three different times and scrapped it just as many.
I learned about the cancellation of NBC’s Communitylast Friday via a friend’s Facebook message while on the road with my wife. I was gutted, sad, and completely unsurprised.
Since the end of probably season three (maybe even season two), Community has been in danger of facing the network scheduling guillotine – either from low ratings, creative disputes, or some combination of the two. The show, despite the loyal fanbase’s Chicken Little cries that the sky was falling, always managed to come back, to sometimes uneven and mixed results. (I’m looking at you, season four – and, to be fair, parts of season five.)
The actual cancellation, however, felt different. Dan Harmon, Community’s showrunner and creator, had been let go at the end of season three due to those “creative differences” with cast members (namely Chevy Chase) and NBC. Harmon had always been vocal about his personal conflicts online and with his Harmontown podcast, so when the axe dropped and left him shut out of his own show during the series’ fourth season, it was shocking but also not a real surprise.
But when Harmon was brought back into the fold for the show’s fifth and most recent season, it felt as though it was to right a ship that felt like it was sinking during the previous season. I always suspected that if season five didn’t set the ratings ablaze that it would bode ill for my favorite television series. With the fifth season as uneven as it was, the Facebook message, “Is it true that Community was cancelled?” hurt, but it didn’t come out of left field.
I immediately messaged managing editor Charles Webb of FreakSugar and asked if I could write a eulogy of sorts to the show. I had so many things churning that I wanted to say, to expound on about this show that had touched me like no other show had. Charles gave me the greenlight, and I began to mentally outline what I wanted to say as my wife and I rambled toward Kentucky and family.
(“Point to the place on the doll where the show touched you?” *points to heart*)
This show that, even when it was awful and embarrassingly painful to watch, was better than most of what network executives regurgitate on TV screens. A series that both embraced and lampooned not just the sitcom genre, but storytelling tropes as a whole. This show that seemed to be talking directly to me, in terms of my sensibilities concerning storytelling, humor, and message about the nature of humanity. A series that made me want to be both a better writer and a better person. I felt that it was up to me not to bury Community, but to praise it. To drink one for me, one for my Greendale homies.
When the dust of the weekend had settled, I stared at the computer screen and… Nada. Bupkes. Every time I tapped away at the keyboard, I scrapped it or saved it on the desktop under “Garbage.” Community deserved better, and I was better than what I was giving the show.
And the best I can do to encapsulate what the show means to me is by pinpointing the moment I knew I would always be in love with Community.
My favorite episode of Community isn’t any of the paintball-themed episodes — though they do hold a special place in my heart — or the season two episode “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” — even though the show’s writers make a roleplaying adventure enjoyable to watch and brimming with real stakes. No, when I think of Community today and in the years to come, I imagine that the season finale of the third season, namely, the final few minutes, will be the exemplar of what the show is, was, and always could be at its finest.
The end of third season had been fraught with chaos for the students of Greendale Community College. The study group, led by Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), discovered they are being forced to retake a biology course after their professor quits in the aftermath of fellow student Starburns’ “death” (he totally faked it) from a meth lab explosion – a meth lab created with stolen biology department equipment. Jeff and company’s anger leads to a riot during Starburns’ wake at the school, triggering a series of events that lead to former Senor Chang (Ken Jeong) taking over the school as a warlord. The study group saved the school, but not without a price: Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) had to agree to attend Greendale’s air-conditioning repair school, run by Vice Dean Laybourne (a criminally underused John Goodman), in return for the school’s help.
(Whew. Got all that? Maybe I can understand complaints from causal viewers about how it’s difficult to jump into an episode uninitiated.)
This brings us to the final minutes of the season finale: Jeff must defend Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) in campus court against Chevy Chase’s Pierce for control of ownership of a proposed sandwich shop at Greendale. Pierce’s attorney is Alan (Rob Corddry), Jeff’s old colleague who got him disbarred from practicing law, and the same colleague who threatened to prevent Jeff from getting his old job back at the firm if Jeff didn’t throw the case. Shirley encourages Jeff to do what he wants to do so he doesn’t come up against any trouble from Alan. When it comes time for closing arguments, Jeff makes one of his classic Winger speeches. And this is when I knew I would love Community forever:
Your honor, I have no closing statement because I’m throwing the case.
No, no, it’s okay. It’s fine, don’t worry. My client, Shirley Bennet – my friend for three years, she told me that it was okay. She said what I want is more important. She’s right… right? I mean, guys like me, we’ll tell you there’s no right or wrong, there’s no real truths, and as long as we all believe that, guys like me can never lose. Because the truth is I’m lying when I say there is no truth. The truth is…the pathetically, stupidly, inconveniently obvious truth is…helping only ourselves is bad and helping each other is good.
Now, I just wanted to get out of here, pass biology and be a lawyer again instead of helping Shirley. That was bad. And my former colleague wanted so badly to keep his rich client that he just asked me to roll over in exchange for my old job. So I guess we all walked in here pretty bad. But now, Shirley’s gone good. Shirley’s helping me.
It’s that easy. You just stop thinking about what’s good for you and start thinking about what’s good for someone else.
Then you can change the whole game with one move.
Now, if you like this idea, you can make it true by doing something good for everyone here: throw this case out of court, it’s dumb. That is all.
And all the while, an “evil” version of Abed from “the darkest timeline” wants to cut off Jeff’s arm in order to make the normal timeline more dire. And Troy is competing with the new Vice Dean in the Sun Chamber to prove that Vice Dean Laybourne was murdered. And Dean Pelton keeps changing robes — Judging Amy or Judge Judy? — in his role as adjudicator of the sandwich shop case.
And, weirdly and improbably, all of it serves to reinforce the core message of the episode: the show’s name has always been a bit of an on-the-nose play on words: Yes, the characters attend a community college, but the conceit of the show is how a community, a family, can be formed by any group of people. And in order to maintain that family, to sustain it and nurture it, its members have to take care of one another, to think beyond themselves for the good of the whole. That is why I always love Community: It’s a show that uses meta-context in the sake of humor and cleverness, sure. The creators use homages to bring on the laughter. But, in the end, the series is most concerned about its characters and speaking to how we should treat one another with love and respect. And without that core, the madcap adventures are hollow. That’s why I’m not sad that Community has ended. I celebrate the time we had with the series. Because the show celebrated each and every one of us.
We are Greendale.
That is why I’ll miss Community.
(That and the Dreamatorium.)
(And Dean Pelton’s outfits.)
(And “Troy and Abed in the Morning”.)