Saturday, May 14, 2011
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Final Thoughts on Season 2 of Community
As I wrote last week: stakes. More than that though, the final two episodes of Community seemed to remember that the characters populating this show functioned better as human beings than sitcom archetypes and Meta commentary devices. (The outstanding James Poniewozik, who is kinder to Community than me, touched on that here.)
Here's the thing: Community is funny. Even when it was terrible — so, most of 2011, which featured some of Community's worst episodes ever — there were still jokes that landed. How could there not be? This is a show that features comedy titans like Joel McHale, Donald Glover and Alison Brie, a trio that will go on to bigger and better things in the next decade. Toss in Danny Pudi (a perfect television invention) and even Chevy Chase, and you've got a recipe for tons of laughs. Yet there needs to be something more. Bearing in mind that Community is never going to possess the heart of Parks and Recreation or The Office, the show still needs something beating for audiences to latch on to. Some kind of humanity. After all, while 30 Rock and Arrested Development are the forefathers to Community's brand of cynical and reference-heavy structure, neither of them were that cynical: 30 Rock might be mean-spirited, but the Liz/Jack relationship is often warm, soft and cuddly; Arrested Development may have used incest as a punchline, but the family dynamic between Michael and George Michael was touching, always.
On Community, those relationships don't exist. Dan Harmon had a chance to do it with Jeff and Annie, but cowardly backed away from that at the onset of season two (a sign of things to come), and eventually tore Jeff down completely. He's gone from being the curmudgeonly group leader (and the audience surrogate), to the "group leader." Harmon is more interested in mocking sitcoms using a "Jeff" character than actually using his own Jeff. That's a problem. Once again, the question for Community becomes: who do we root for? Who is our image on the show?
In the finale, it was Pierce — the same incredible jerk who personified so much of what was wrong with season two of Community. Like with Jeff, Harmon seemed more interested in pushing the boundaries of how hateful a single character could be for the audience with Pierce, all while playing up the fact that Chevy Chase has always been perceived as an asshole. It didn't work — except for the faithful — if only because Community never made it clear why the group would put up with Pierce, and the show never made it clear why Pierce went from the old racist idiot to Bond supervillain.
Harmon still isn't clear on that, of course — he told Vulture that the group stuck with Pierce because he was like a grandfather everyone hates. (Right, because this random group of non-friends in a study group would feel loyalty to a jerk they met 18 months ago in the same way they would feel loyalty to a relative. Ahem.) Fortunately, though, the show does seem clear on Pierce. Chase's monologue at the end of "For a Few Paintballs More" was something that needed to happen — sincerely — much earlier this season. He needed to talk about his issues with the group, instead of faking his way through them like in the interminable hospital episode, or the one where Pierce blackmails Annie. Instead, likely drunk on his references, Harmon let Pierce run wild, never reigning him in while he singlehandedly tore down the show. "Paintballs" brought it all home, but it also rendered much of what happened before totally moot. Which ends up being fine: the less said and remembered about season two, the better.
But back to the monologue: what Pierce did in that spot was basically act like the Community naysayer; the person who isn't keyed into the references that Harmon seems to write for the soul purpose of getting some 21-year-old to create a Tumblr blog. Pierce knows the group is a cluster, knows that it's unhealthy and has washed his hands of it. That was a nice moment for Community, if only because for the first time since season one, there was someone not in on the madness.
Which is not to say that Community is in the clear. Going forward, that surrogate needs to be Jeff again. The reason "Modern Warfare" worked so well is that Jeff was initially reluctant about everything happening in the episode, and slowly warmed to his action hero role; that kind of slow build never happened in season two. Jeff was in for zombies, bottle episodes, paintball, murder mysteries, and whatever other stupid trope Harmon decided to mock. For the show to succeed in season three, that needs to change. I don't think it will — Harmon is content to create the show he wants for the audience he wants — but it's nice to end the season with a bit of hope. A new hope, as it were.