Thursday, June 19, 2014

'Community' Post-Mortem: Jenn & Jaime's Great Big Discussion

It’s not a surprise, really, that I found Community’s fifth and final season to be lacking. This little-show-that-could will always (I repeat: ALWAYS) be near and dear to my heart but as someone who has learned to watch television critically over the last few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that writing a good comedy is difficult but sustaining one is even more difficult. I have a massive amount of respect for all of the time, effort, sweat, and tears that went into the creation of this cult hit’s fifth and final season, but that doesn’t negate the problems I had with it. I am not alone in my critical analysis of the series, as my best friend/co-conspirator/brilliantly articulate blogger Jaime of Stories in the End agrees. So, we’ve decided to combine our powers and present our Community season five post-mortem. We’ll critically analyze some of the flaws that were uncovered in this season (that, quite truthfully, did not originate in this season but have been existent for years), but also discuss some of the things that this show did right.

You are always welcome to disagree with us, but know this: we’re not watching Community (or most shows) like a vast majority of people do. We are not writing this post from the perspective of fandom, but rather the perspective of critics. I’ve found that being a part of a fandom is extremely lovely. It’s a joyous, wonderful, unique experience like no other. But sometimes being a fan of a series creates blinders – we only see the good parts of the show, not the parts that need to be improved. I’ve been guilty of this for years. I see what I want to see in a show; I flail because of shipper moments and I fail to acknowledge anything deeper within the recesses of the show because of it. So this post isn’t focusing on attacking anyone or anything; Jaime and I would simply like to pinpoint the areas we feel the show overlooked and could have improved upon. 

So venture below the cut to read our analyses, if you dare!

Well, let's start off by discussing some of the things Community did all right with this season before we dive into the critiques.

JENN: I think that when the show was great, it was when it realized that it didn't have to shove a message on its audience. The writers and producers and Dan Harmon always seemed to recognize that their audience was smarter and more perceptive than most. So I think little things this season (like the callback to Britta's iPod nano or "Come Sail Away" playing as Troy departed) were the things the fans really appreciated because it allowed us to connect with the show all over again. 

The show also always had this great ability to really emotionally resonate with the audience through its characters, even the unlikable or barely mentioned ones. "Cooperative Polygraphy" is still one of the strongest episodes of the series, in my opinion, because it reminded us that the study group was bound together by something bigger than themselves and that they truly did become a family. Pierce got redemption, which I think is always central to television characters, yet the writers still remained true to his voice and personality and flaws in the process. (That scene with the gifts made me sob a lot.) So when Community soared was when it reminded us of the humanity of these individuals without trying to beat us over the head with their quirks or shortcomings or trying to make us believe that they were some sort of heroes. When it excelled in season five, and all the prior seasons, it was because it treated its characters with delicacy and respect.

JAIME: I agree, and I think those little moments that you mentioned were especially kind of hints from the writers that they thought this would be the last season, and they were small little attempts at bringing some things full circle. It was their way of saying, "Hey, we know you've cared for a while, and that you care enough to understand this." And I liked it; they felt like rewards for watching the show, in a way, and I think especially in the case of Troy, helped it feel organic, like a natural evolution from things we've seen before.

I think "Cooperative Polygraphy" is a great example of something the show did so, so well when it gave itself the opportunity, and that's its ability to let the characters shine. Every character is just so unique and has such a strong, individual voice, and so many of the best episodes are the ones where it's just the characters bouncing off each other (I mean, look at "Cooperative Calligraphy" and "Remedial Chaos Theory"). And that's exactly what "Cooperative Polygraphy" does: it has an initial concept of why they're here, gives a few restraints (having a mediator there, having certain questions that each character has to answer, etc.), and just lets them go. I think that's absolutely when the show is at its best, but it was used so rarely, like the writers didn't trust themselves to pull it off? And that's one of the most upsetting things about the show's reception, that it got put in this box of being weird and quirky, that I think the writers felt they had so much to live up to, so each episode felt like it needed to gogogo. But so many of the best moments came in episodes like "Cooperative Polygraphy," where the characters, plot, and writing just got to breathe and play out organically.

JENN: I agree with you especially in regards to Troy. I think that Danny Pudi mentioned in a recent article that he felt Abed grew up more this season than he has in the entire series, and I think the same applies to Troy. We've always seen Troy as the lesser leader, you know? Like, Jeff has always been the "real" leader of the group but the past few seasons (especially evident in "Mixology Certification") we have seen Troy really step up and be selfless and prove himself as the real, sacrificial leader of the group. I think you even noted that when you helped me take notes for "The First Chang Dynasty." So Troy's departure felt organic; it was one of the things the show did right this season because I think they knew they needed to stay true to the character. And staying true to Troy and his evolution meant sending him off in a way that would prove how much he has grown and how much he still desires to grow.

You hit the nail on the head with "Cooperative Polygraphy": this was an episode where the theme or homage wasn't the star (a problem I had with "G.I. Jeff," as I'm sure we'll get to later on), but the actual CHARACTERS shone. Each study group member is so nuanced and unique in how they handle everything in life, especially tragedy, that it was wonderful to see these people handle those emotions and express themselves. It was, as you noted, so organic in its bottle episode-ness that it felt REAL. That episode allowed the writers to focus solely on the characters -- there was no real fanfare, no A/B/C plots to juggle, no insane shots to capture or homages to reenact. It was reminiscent of season one (a season I found myself longing for more and more as the series wore on) in that regards. I think that you're right and that the show, in its later years, felt this need to one-up itself. If they did "Modern Warfare," then they had to be even MORE inventive in season two and if season two had a fully claymation episode, then they needed to find some way to do one better than that in season three, etc. etc. 

The show was always an outlier, you know? It was always this small, weird show and I think that it was both an advantage and a disadvantage for it in the end, creatively speaking. So now that we've briefly discussed some things the show did right in season five, let's talk about some of our qualms with how the series ended its run.

First of all, I think it's important to talk about the "theme" of this season and how it became a disadvantage to the show in the end.

JENN: What I always admired about Community was that each year, the study group would take a different class together and that class would somehow be the thematic thread that wove itself into the stories that year. Year one we had Spanish, which was purposeful because it was a foreign language and these people were complete and total strangers who needed to learn how to work together cohesively, in spite of their barriers. Season two was all about anthropology, and that season was one of great conflict (with the Britta/Jeff/Annie triangle, etc.) between the study group. It was probably the series' most emotionally fractured one, as the group really broke and then had to spend the entire year figuring out how to mend itself. Season three, we studied biology and we learned a lot about what made each study group member tick ("Remedial Chaos Theory") and how they would protect their own, which was evident in the season finale. Season four, for its flaws, had a cohesive theme of history -- we looked at what made each study group member who they were in their pasts and focused on the question of how that affects the future. Episodes like "Alternative History of the German Invasion" and "Heroic Origins" were examples of this.

But what was the theme of Community's fifth season? There was talk of a theme of "saving Greendale," but here is my problem: that theme was only given weight in the season premiere and season finale. A theme is something that cohesively ties a season together and connects the season from episode to episode. This season of Community felt extremely disjointed, like the writers and Harmon were trying to do every episode they've always wanted to do in ONE season. It was almost like... the leftover season, you know? Just a bunch of random episodes strewn together with an extremely loose "theme" binding them.

JAIME: And I think that's a really interesting idea, that Troy's journey throughout the whole show has been growing up and becoming his own man, and so it's interesting to realize that his story ended with him moving away from Greendale and (at least physically) away from his friends. That's not really an idea you see much in any kind of media, because usually, stories are about people growing closer together. I mean, look at any season finale that ends with a character moving away, or getting another job, or something; you're always left thinking, "Okay, but they'll find their way home next season." And obviously it was Donald Glover's choice to leave, it wasn't something the writers planned, but I kind of love that Troy's story ended with him realizing, "Okay, I love these people, and I want to be close to them, but I have to go away for a while to really understand who I am."

I totally agree about the season as a whole, though, honestly, I don't think the themes of the previous seasons were in any way a conscious decision on the writers' part. I've said it before, and I'll say it again here because I think it's going to be kind of important in how we talk about season 5 in comparison to other seasons, but the thing is, Community's problems didn't start in season 4 when Harmon left. It's always had some problems, it's just that they used to be better at hiding it. And I think you can see that thematically, especially if you view each theme as a connection to the class they took (which, incidentally, is an awesome idea, one I've never thought of before). The first four seasons' storylines were much more built into the idea that this is college, so storylines would be about classmates or problems in class, we'd see the characters in class, etc.  So it becomes a lot easier to say that aspects of a season connect to anthropology when we're seeing certain storylines play out in the anthropology classroom. 

I think, more than anything, at least in terms of the writers' intentions, they used the classes to ground each season. And then in season 5, they might have thought, "Well, we know these characters well enough now. We don't need a class to unite them; they've earned the ability to only connect in the study room, and it'll feel just as valid as their connections in the previous seasons." And it could have. But it didn't. Largely, I think, because the emotional connections between the characters were next to nonexistent this season, but more importantly, thematically speaking, I think it's exactly as you said: they were just kind of doing whatever. This was the season of burning out whatever ideas they had left, doing whatever concepts they hadn't been able to break in the last four years. Every episode became about "proving" what they thought Community was, not realizing that Community has always worked - and ONLY worked - because of its characters and their journeys.

JENN: I absolutely love your take on Troy's growth process. It's almost like when John Green talks about how the true hero's journey is from strength to weakness: Troy's journey was one from comfort and familiarity to being independent and self-sufficient. Brava, Jaime Joan, because I never really thought about this before.

I think there are a few things that the writers do on purpose and then I think there are a LOT more things that we, as fans, read into. We want to believe they're doing certain things purposefully, like putting a character in a color or making someone's hair different. And Dan Harmon lightly poked fun of that fact with "Paradigms of the Human Memory," in regards to "reading into some things." And you're exactly right: this series didn't suddenly fall apart because Harmon was fired. It, much like a sinking ship, had tiny holes. And, like someone trying to patch a sinking ship with a Band-Aid, the writers attempted to cover up those holes with homages and shipper moments and I think that for me, it worked. I didn't really notice the cracks until later on because I was too busy flailing. The problem is that Community, as a show, is only at its best when it is focused on the characters as a number one priority. When it removes them to second priority (or worse), that is when the cracks start to show. That's the problem I had with "G.I. Jeff." This was an episode that the writers wanted to do. They wanted to do an homage to G.I. Joe, and gosh darnit, they were GOING to do it. Instead of building the episode around the characters (like they did with "A Fistful of Paintballs" or "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"), they constructed an episode and tossed the study group into it. And that simply doesn't work. The homage became the main character of that episode and that's just not okay, especially not when you're so close to your season/series finale.

If there is no cohesiveness to a season, it feels like a string of loose threads waving in the wind. And that's really what season five WAS. I enjoyed some episodes, sure, but I'm not going to sit and pretend that it was revolutionary or amazing. That lack of a thematic thread bonding the story together is one major element that detracted from what could have been an overall decent season.

Since we've discussed the plot threads (or lack thereof) in Community's fifth season, why don't we kick off a discussion of the characters?

JAIME: Ohhhhh boy. Well, you brought up a really great point a while ago, when you realized that outside of Troy and Abed, no other friendships exist on this show. 

I mean, there have been, what, three episodes focusing on Jeff and Shirley's friendship, and each time, it consists of them realizing they don't hang out, realizing they get along really well, and ultimately deciding to hang out. Then the next Jeff/Shirley episode comes along two seasons later and the exact same thing happens. And we got that this year: it had been two years, so it was time for a Jeff/Shirley episode, and apparently, the events of the previous two episodes never happened. That's one of the major things I mean when I say that Community has always had problems, but I think it's never been more evident in this season: these characters don't exist outside of the scenes we see them in. There's no sense of evolving relationships offscreen, and especially no real indication that these characters even hang out outside of their meetings in the study room. And for such strong, unique characters, five years into the show, you shouldn't have the feeling that these characters only exist to say the words the writers deign to give to them, you know? They should feel like they exist on their own, like they have a whole and full life going on.

JENN: I remember bringing up that fact and it's so interesting, is it not? For a show that boasts about being all about friends-turned-family, the only two people we saw voluntarily hanging out with one another outside of school or school-related shenanigans were Troy and Abed. Britta and Annie never went to the mall together. Shirley and Troy never went to see a movie. Jeff never hung out with Abed if it wasn't for something related to the study group or school. And I think what's sad is that season one was trying to establish those dynamics and was doing a really good job of playing around with the pairings in the group. But then season two utterly fractured all of those pairings (especially any shot at normal Jeff/Annie/Britta interaction), and never really reconstructed them. For people who are supposedly close-knit, they don't really spend a lot of time together outside of school. No wonder Annie was worried they would fall apart -- they DID ("Repilot"), clearly, without Greendale. And you're SO right when you say that we should feel as if these characters have a whole and full life going on. The problem is that we do not. We only know what we're told through dialogue and sometimes like in the case of "Cooperative Polygraphy" where it's revealed Annie has been dating people who are not Vaughn or Jeff throughout her career at Greendale, we're blindsided by the revelations that these characters DO have lives and we're just not privy to them. That's kind of a breach of trust in a sitcom, you know? You want to feel like these characters exist without the writers pulling the strings -- that there is actual canon of these people having other non-Greendale lives, but there was never enough support in Community to prop that theory up. 

The Jeff/Shirley-ness that you mentioned is one of my greatest qualms with the character development of these two, or lack thereof. Community always gave us "token" episodes: a token Jeff/Annie shenanigan one ("Debate 109," "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design," "Basic Lupine Urology," "Basic Intergluteal Nuministics") or a token Jeff/Shirley one, like you noted. It's almost as if the writers thought: "Okay, how can we make sure everyone is happy this year? Let's write episodes where every single audience member can be pleased with SOMETHING." That's the great qualm I have with the romantic writing on this sitcom, a point we will get to later on. And as you mentioned earlier in our discussion, Jeff being a teacher? It was a topic literally for an episode or two and then dropped. The characters are at their best when they get to breathe and grow and I don't feel like season five did that at all. I feel like it held them down against their will, strapped them to the table at Greendale, and said; "THIS. This is where you live." The writers really took the idea of "re-piloting" too seriously because it felt like they had literally only watched the pilot and then wrote the characters for season five.

The most important question to ask after a season ends is this: how did the characters GROW this year? When it came down to it, I don't feel like any of the characters (except maybe Abed) really DID grow. How did Jeff grow? He realized his love for Greendale and the study group years ago. He literally learned nothing more this year than he did the previous four. And the same goes for Annie, Britta, and Shirley. How did THEY grow? Well, the answer is that they didn't. They remained the same people that they have been and for a television series' end, that's just maddeningly disappointing. I wanted to see Jeff be okay with leaving Greendale because he realized that the love of the school and the group could propel him into the unknown with a sense of confidence (something that the writers did BRILLIANTLY in "Advanced Introduction to Finality." That episode is the definition of character-related closure, really). Instead, we were told that Jeff and the study group NEED Greendale. They cannot actually function without it. And that's a message that I just don't think the show should have built toward. It's weak and it's quite depressing, when you really think about it. Community literally told us that the study group could not be fully functioning members of society ("Repilot") without Greendale and therefore needed to stay at/save the school forever because that's literally all they could do right.

So, needless to say, I am not a fan of seaon five's character "development."

JAIME: It's so strange that for a show that's supposed to be about growth and, you know, community, the only storylines we got about friendship were about the destruction of that friendship. You brought up the Jeff/Annie/Britta thing, and that's the perfect example of it - Annie and Britta's fight in "Anthropology 101" probably wasn't supposed to be the end of their friendship, but after that point, we almost never saw them interact, so we have to assume that after that, they stopped hanging out.  

So when you take that in conjunction with the idea of them growing towards their realization that they need Greendale... it just makes for a hugely messy season. I mean, yeah, Greendale is important, and they've been through a lot there, but ultimately, it's a school. These characters never realized that they need each other, but they're constantly realizing that they need their school. And that's such a strange and sad message.  I mean, I've made a bunch of really great friends in college, but I've never for a second gone, "Okay, well, this is great while it lasts, but I know our friendship would never last in the real world." I mean, that's what college IS - becoming the person you're going to be, and learning to adapt to the real world.  

But you're right: they started this season off with a new pilot, and viewed the whole season like a new start, and they made the show about Greendale. About a school. And in the process, completely lost sight of its characters.  I said it a lot while the season was airing, but it got to a point where you were just watching people with familiar faces say funny jokes. It lost that sense that a Troy line was very different from a Britta line, which was very different from a Jeff line. That specificity of the characters, and their reactions to whatever was going on, was completely lost in the show's attempt to have homage after homage and prove what they could do when they were firing on full cylinders. And in doing that, they... whatever the opposite of "firing on all cylinders" is. Stalled on all cylinders? Anyway, they did that. It's like you said - there was no growth, and no attempts at growth. At all. For the final season of a show who only existed this long because of the audience's love for the characters, there were zero signs of what made us all fall in love in the first place.

JENN: I will forever lament the loss of a Britta/Annie friendship and I think it's so interesting that you brought "Anthropology 101" up: there's a very good chance that they never MEANT to end that particular friendship but the way they chose to write Jeff, Annie, AND Britta in that season premiere ultimately destroyed any chance of a normal relationship between the three of them ever again. It's amazing how one decision in a writers' room can ultimately unravel any future threads of character development, too.

That highly messy season and what you've noted is so important because you're right; in season five GREENDALE was the star of the show and it was the show's main character. They seemed to cater the writing to the school, not to the characters. And what happened, as you said, is that the lines began to feel generic and the jokes didn't feel as special or specific to an individual character as they once had because the focus had shifted. The series was no longer character-driven and that makes such a noticeable difference when you go back and study the actual quality of the episodes. You have to ask yourself, when watching most of season five: "Will these episodes stand the test of time?" And the truth of the matter is that I don't believe most of them will. We've said it before in discussions but the problem with Community (that was never more evident than in its later years) was that it was a show that subtly boasted about character growth, but that growth only ever seemed to arc from episode to episode in a season. When a new season started, it was like the writers hit the refresh button and the characters reset to their predisposed natures and personalities. Annie grew up a lot in season 1 and then in "Anthropology 101" (my second least favorite episode because everyone is unbearable in the premiere), the writers hit "reset" and suddenly Annie was acting like a child. The writers tended to give us moments of growth, but - like dew - those lasted only for so long before they seemingly became bored with that progress and needed some sort of conflict. It was during those times that we saw Jeff see-saw between admitting feelings for Annie and backing off, then admitting and backing off, then returning to Britta and backing off, and then suddenly - in the eleventh hour - going back to Britta, and then backing off.

A see-saw or carousel is really what the writing felt like this year and it pains me because, as you said, the show used to be GOOD at hiding its flaws and working around them. This year they were more blatant than ever.

In the same vein, let's discuss one of our biggest qualms about this show: its handling of romance. How did season five do in this department?

JAIME: HA. HA HA. HAHAHAHAHA. For my thoughts on how romance was handled in season 5, please see this Youtube video. It is intense laughter set to the tune of One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful." 

So, okay. Jeff/Annie fans have always been jerked around. And you know what, really, it's fine for writers of a show to come forward and say, "Okay, we know they have great chemistry, but honestly, it just doesn't fit into our plans for the show." That's a totally legitimate thing to say, as long as they're able to work around that chemistry and enhance other aspects of the show so viewers can understand where their attention "should" be directed.

But the writers of Community would say that about Jeff/Annie and then not give us anything else to care about, relationship-wise. I mean, like we've already said, they don't write any of the characters as friends, so it's not like they could suddenly make us realize that Jeff and Annie are better as friends, or something. Instead, what the Community writers did was tell us not to care about Jeff/Annie, then keep writing them together because they knew Joel McHale and Alison Brie played off each other so well - and because they knew it would keep the fans invested. There was such a strong Jeff/Annie moment in the finale, when his feelings for her turn the computer back on, and I hated it. Absolutely hated it. Because once again, they were giving us a clear moment that literally could not be interpreted as anything but that Jeff has incredibly strong feelings for Annie, and it was going to mean absolutely nothing. Because that's what the relationships, platonic and otherwise, on this show came to mean: nothing.

I mean, look at Britta and Troy. They dated for a year, and unfortunately, that year happened to fall during season 4, so when season 5 came around, it became a casualty of the feigned need to fix everything that had happened the previous year. I think we got one mention in season 5 that they dated, and it was in Troy's last episode.  This big, huge, monumental thing had happened to two of the main characters, and as soon as the storyline was over, it was like it never happened. Because it's exactly like you said: new seasons, or arcs, start, and everything resets. There's no carryover at all.  It's no wonder the writers never seriously attempted a romantic storyline - they must have known they would have failed at it. Epicly.

JENN: You make a lot of great points about how the show treated relationships during its run, including how they handled (or didn't handle) Jeff/Annie. I could have done without romance altogether, really. That's fine if you choose to go that direction. Personally, I think you lose something fundamentally human if you choose to ignore romance in your television series, but that's another blog post altogether. What you've noted is extremely astute: the writers gave us absolutely nothing to fall back on in regards to these characters. We either shipped them or we did not. We had no basis for friendship apart from the friendship we saw portrayed at Greendale. Jeff and Annie never hung out, apart from being at the college together, nor did Jeff or Britta. So how were we really supposed to do anything BUT ship them?

The problem arose when we were thrown bones rather than character development. We were given cutesy little scenes to incorporate into our fan videos or fanfiction and were told, essentially, that "that should hold you over until next year." And it was the same cycle every year: the show refused to drop Jeff/Annie, but they also refused to develop them. So we, as viewers, were stuck in this infinite loop of confusion and frustration, being told that certain scenes were not meant to be read in a shipper light and yet... those were all we were given. I definitely think that the Joel McHale/Alison Brie chemistry was a benefit (it helped to anchor some episodes like "Intro to Political Science" that were otherwise messy) but also that chemistry was abused because the writers knew they could throw the two together in a scene and placate the shippers.

One thing you never want to do in a series is placate shippers. And again: these issues did not result from Dan Harmon's firing; he was just as guilty (and admits to) allowing the chemistry between the two to smolder while not doing anything to progress their relationship or dissolve it altogether. And I agree with your assessment of that final Jeff/Annie scene in the finale -- I loathed it. It's primarily because I was bitter and jaded by the end of this series as a shipper that I didn't WANT to believe it meant anything. As you said, what was the point anyway? It didn't matter if Jeff's sudden burst of passion was because of Annie because had the season extended into one more, it would not have made any difference. I've heard people lament the end of Community by citing that if we "only had one more year, then ____." And it breaks my heart because I want to scream: "We COULD have had character development or relationship development. One more year would not have made any difference. We had FIVE and the writers still chose not to do anything about Annie, Jeff/Annie, etc. What would have made season six any different?"

It pains me, because Community did a lot of things well in its run, for as many qualms as I have with how it ended. But the one thing it never even attempted because it never gave any weight to is the one thing that is so utterly and completely HUMAN: the idea of romance and romantic relationships. That, quite frankly, is more important than any paintball episode or animated homage.

JAIME: Yeah, I think it's important to point out that this isn't just anger that Jeff/Annie didn't work out. Their inability to write romances has been shown constantly, with so many different pairings. Look at Jeff/Britta - she dated Troy last season, their whole thing was kind of forgotten, until suddenly it wasn't this season because the episode needed Jeff to be jealous to work.

And you're right, losing romance is just... dumb. That's such a dumb decision. Obviously it doesn't have to be the focus, but in five years, how many romantic partners have these characters had? It makes sense to not see every girl that Jeff dates, or whatever, but for Troy? Annie? There are ways where a romantic storyline can mean more than just hooking two characters up to watch them make schmoopy eyes at each other. I mean, Annie was supposedly so young and innocent when the show started. So why not see her in a serious relationship? That could have been used as a way to chart her growth. But, nope. No one got to date, unless it was relevant to the plot or inside the group - but then when it was inside the group, it was seen as weird and not working by the writers, and had to be stopped. Even though, if it's not working, it's because it's the writing that's not working.

And you're so right about the cries for a sixth season. What is going to improve in one more year? It's just going to be another season 5: lots of references to earlier seasons to make you nostalgic and remember why you love this show, lots of half attempts at emotion that ultimately fall flat. Lots of emotional manipulation to get you to remember why this show was once so special, that blinds you to the fact that it no longer is.  

And like I've said, Community had problems in its first three seasons, but those don't necessarily matter. What matters is how it ends, because then, all of the threads that had been left open through the first three years could finally come to a fitting conclusion. And instead, we got season 5. And the fact that it brought no real ending to the show and its characters just sullies the earlier seasons, because it could have been so, so much greater. And it wasn't.

JENN: I think you're so right in regards to Annie as a character and perhaps that is one thing that could have been done with her to really flesh her out. How would her characterization have been different if Rich had stuck around and been her boyfriend? I'm not saying that we need to see every little thing that Britta or Annie or Jeff or Troy or Pierce or Shirley or Abed do in their spare time, but I think little hints would be great. It felt less organic for Abed to have a girlfriend this year than it would have felt for Annie or Britta to have a boyfriend. And as I've said before, if this show was so insistent that its characters are somehow asexual (like The Big Bang Theory used to assure us with Sheldon Cooper), then that would have been fine. But the fact of the matter is that they wanted to dip their toes into both waters -- they wanted that strong shipper fanbase because, as it's stated in "Romantic Expressionism," there could be potential for anyone in the group to hook up with each other. However, they also didn't want the show's characters to have real relationships. I've noted this to you before, too: no one in the study group ever had a lasting, functional relationship.

Think about it: Jeff never had a girlfriend who lasted; Shirley's marriage dissolved; Troy broke up with Britta and the blonde never found love; Annie never got a happy ending with a guy; Pierce died without a wife or girlfriend. Abed is the only person who ended the series (presumably? I presume he and Rachel were still together) with a relationship and even THAT wasn't something that was explored the entire series. It was dabbled in during season 4, made slight mention of in season 5 and bam, done. But none of these characters found stability in a relationship. And I'm not saying that we had to see Annie ride off into the sunset with some guy or Jeff settle down and become a husband but... isn't it strange that seven people ranging from mid-twenties to early seventies NEVER found anyone to be happy with? That's what I mean when I say that something is fundamentally missing when you remove romance from a sitcom. I never expected this show to give romance the same kind of weight that shows like The Mindy Project or New Girl did, but... look, even The Big Bang Theory - THE BIG BANG THEORY - managed to evolve a character to the point where Sheldon actually willingly kissed his girlfriend Amy. I never needed Community to focus on romance, but I did need for it to give it some sort of respect, at least.

You're right in this regards, too: threads that are left frayed and flying in the wind inevitably sully experiences and dim them somewhat. These characters were good, but they could have been SO much better if other opportunities had just been explored even a little bit, especially in regards to human interactions (like romance) and character progression, rather than regression.

I know we've talked a lot about Community and discussed some of its merits and flaws over the past years and, specifically, in season five. Before we close the post, let's talk briefly about what we've learned as we've started to watch television more critically. In particular, what has watching Community critically in season five taught you?

JAIME: In regards to your earlier comments, you're exactly right. I mean, of the two seasons, Rachel has been in two episodes. Even if they're supposed to still be together and be super functional and happy, that's a terrible way to write a relationship, because we have zero idea what's going on. It's like in season 4, when fans would ask every week, "Wait, so are Britta and Troy supposed to still be together?" because unless the plot specifically called for them to be a couple, they didn't act like a couple. Which doesn't mean that they, or any other relationship on the show has to be, like, pawing at each other every time they're in the same shot, but for there to be no discernible difference whatsoever between a friendship and a romantic relationship is just so telling of the show's attitude toward romance. I mean, yeah, it makes sense for Britta and Abed to not be constantly talking about their partners, or acting super lovey-dovey in public, but Troy? Annie? People respond so differently and individually to relationships - or ANY situation - and to make it easier on themselves, the show made all the characters react the same way to the same things, and then tries to justify it. "Well, Annie doesn't know what she wants, so that's why she's not in a relationship," or, "Jeff feels guilty for the way that he feels." It's all just misdirection from the fact that they don't know how to do it, so they don't do it.

As for watching television critically, I think watching Community has made me realize what exactly I loved about the show so much. I mean, for as much as I've talked about the problems the show has, I do love it. I wish it had a better ending, and a better last season overall, because it deserved that. It deserved a fulfilling ending and a proper chance to say goodbye to the characters - the characters we knew for five years, not the recognizable joke machines they turned into by the end. I do think it would have been so much harder to handle the cancellation if my feelings didn't change so much this season, though. But watching critically helped me realize that the show has had problems all along, but that's okay - I still enjoyed the experience of watching it, and more importantly, it led me to becoming friends with so many great people who I wouldn't have met otherwise.

JENN: You hit the nail right on the head, Jaime Joan: I have problems with how the show has handled certain things and the way that it ended, but I think that watching television critically has made me able to pinpoint what I love and don't like about sitcoms, characters, plot, and structure. And just because I have problems with the series doesn't mean I don't still immensely love it; it still holds such a special place in my heart (for both nostalgia's sake and for also the way that it introduced me to so many amazing people). The Greendale Seven deserved everything in life, really: they were brilliantly nuanced characters. Heck, Annie Edison is one of my favorite female sitcom characters of all time and I owe Dan Harmon a lot for the creation of her. I do wish that the character had been maintained better, but those feelings don't diminish my love for her. In fact, I feel even more passionately about her than I used to. I think trials do that to audience members and the characters they care about.

But you're also correct in that this year's troubles made it easier to detach. And watching critically makes it easier to detach from a show in general. When you watch a television series under a critical eye, you cannot be TOO biased or too personal; you have to take a giant leap back, away from the fandom and the giggling and the flailing and squint your eyes in order to see what dust is floating around and where the holes are. It sounds like being a critic is a calloused and unfeeling job but I think that the point is that critics love television so much that they HAVE to step away. Critics probably love television more than fandom does, but they have to express it in a way that doesn't often include GIFs or squealing. And that is what separates watching a show from a critical eye than from a fandom eye; you have to love a show and deeply treasure it in order to be able to fully criticize it and you cannot express it the same way that fandom does (which is why critics are often berated for having opinions/viewpoints that differ from fandom). I toe the line when I watch New Girl these days between critic and fan, to be honest, and it's really been eye-opening for me as a journey.

But honestly, I have loved being more critical of television this year. It's allowed me to really THINK about writing and we all know how much I love to think about (and write about) writing and what makes good writing vs. not-so-good writing.

Any closing remarks? Comments? Anything to add?

JAIME: Just that I think, in addition to the separation between watching critically and watching as a fan, there's a difference in how watching as a fan affects the show. Season 5 was the first time I couldn't watch any episodes live - I had a class Thursday nights, so I would have to watch later, away from my Twitter timeline, and I definitely think it hugely affected how I watched. Watching in a group, even over Twitter, becomes a really strong and influential way of watching a show, and I never realized how much until this past season of Community. So I think that's definitely something to keep in mind while watching a show: how does the way you watch it affect what you think of it? What kinds of shows do I need to watch on my own vs. in a group? That, I think, is the biggest mark of someone for whom TV is very influential - figuring out how they watch TV, and understanding what role that plays in the process.

JENN: That's such an interesting element about television-watching to ponder because critics watch television by themselves when they get screeners, right? They may talk about the episode with other critics but primarily, their job is to watch something alone, away from their Twitter timeline or their Facebook page. It's a fascinating idea (one that I could write a thesis on) that the way you view television is subconsciously influenced by the way you WATCH it.

I think that, in closing, I just want to reiterate that I love Community and completely and utterly adore the cast and the people who made it. It's a flawed show because no show is perfect -- literally, no show is perfect. Every series has ways that they can improve and I just happened to notice Community's more this year than anything else. This has been such an amazing experience to be able to analyze the sitcom with my BFF and intellectual soulmate Jaime. I've had a blast and I hope that Jaime and I get to do this more often!

P.S. I swear that if Jaime and I actually do this more often, it won't be 7,000 words long.

P.P.S. Actually, I cannot guarantee that.


  1. I don't have anything to contribute other than this is awesome and even though I've only dipped my toes in Community (because as I think I said to you before, Dan Harmon is responsible for the worst quote ever made about a TV show when he said something along the lines of "relationships don't matter on our show," ugh, are you kidding?) this is just so well done and interesting to me. Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much for the comment, Ann! I always love hearing from you. :) And ugh, that quote will forever irk me. It'll literally haunt me for the rest of my days. Thank you for reading, even if Community isn't exactly in your wheelhouse. I always love your insight and I'm sure we'll be staying in touch with our respective analyses of our favorite FOX comedies later this year. ;)