Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How 'Community' Can Be Redeemed: #SixSeasonsAndSomeCharacterDevelopment

As my roommate and I sat eating dinner last night, she asked if Community really was coming back. I nodded and affirmed the fact that the show just cannot seem to be killed, even when numerous people stomp on it with the intent to kill. Somehow, the show keeps coming back in the eleventh hour and it’s either stupidly good luck or some divine intervention that it does. But let’s be real for a few moments here: I didn’t like Community’s fifth season. Perhaps “didn’t like” is an understatement. And I wasn’t mad by the time the show wrapped on NBC; I was disappointed. I was disappointed that Community’s fifth season had no trajectory, no common plot thread. I was disappointed that guest stars sucked up the valuable time that could have been spent focusing on the five remaining cast members. I was disappointed that Annie Edison was left as an afterthought and Shirley was glossed over like last month’s copy of InStyle. I was disappointed that characters didn’t grow and instead were written as caricatures of themselves from the pilot and then fizzled into nothingness at the series’ end.

Jaime and I talked extensively about Community’s problems, both in its later years and in particular season five throughout this post. I’ll spare you the majority of the details, but the conclusion we arrived at is this: Community isn’t perfect. It has flaws and faults and hang-ups and we simply cannot ignore those. I told my friend Laura this week that the longer a show runs, the more difficult it is to sustain the quality of the series. Even under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to maintain quality writing, but in the case of Community – with the show’s removal from schedule, firing of Harmon, shake-up of cast members, and now cancellation and reinstatement – it’s been an even more tumultuous journey. It’s important to see flaws in your show if you want to watch the show critically or learn anything from the series as a whole. I’ve learned more about what I look for in a television series from watching this show under a more critical eye than I would if I fawned all over everything the show has ever done. I do love this show, don’t get me wrong. I love its cast and their dedication to us (a dedication that is unmatched across any fandom I’ve ever seen or been a part of). I love the characters. I love the meta humor. But because I love the show so much, I lament when it fails to be all that it CAN be simply because it doesn’t focus on what is important or give weight to certain stories or characters.

With all of that said, Community is returning courtesy of Sony and Yahoo! and that means that we have another thirteen episodes with our beloved Greendale students. Since the show is, indeed, coming back, I thought I might compile a bit of a list of what I feel needs to happen this year in order to bring the show back into my good graces. Some damage is irreparable, which I’ll discuss momentarily, but there are numerous elements that can be fixed in order to make the sixth and likely final season a success and joy to watch. It seems silly to call this a “wish-list,” because I already made one of those for season five and look at how well that turned out. Instead, I’m calling this a task list: it’s a list of things that need to occur and not necessarily just that I want to occur. Whether or not these items are fulfilled is out of my hands, but that’s okay. I simply need to express what I feel the show requires in order to be better and not merely coast in its final season. Because when you think about it, this season? Season six? It’s a miracle. I know of very few shows that are able to find homes after network cancellation. (R.I.P Happy Endings.) And if this season is a miracle – if you are literally or figuratively thanking God for Community’s return – then the show OWES it to not just the fans but to itself in order to prove to the world why it deserved to be revived. Wouldn’t you agree?

So below the cut, let’s just chat. Let’s talk about some of the pitfalls this show has experienced and what can be done writing-wise in season six to improve and bring this show back into all of my good graces.

Cut down on the guest stars and focus more writing on the core five study group members.

Look, guest stars are fun. Guest stars are delightful to see on any series. But the problem I had with Community’s fifth season was the fact that the guest stars overwhelmed the episodes. They took time and focus away from the core five Greendale students that remained. The show seemed to overcompensate for the loss of Donald Glover by shoving a plethora of guest stars into the back half of the season. Instead of focusing on the five study group members, “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” focused primarily on the relationship between one recurring character and one guest star. “Analysis of Cork-Based Networking” found Jeff in the C-story – the C-story, guys – in favor of shoving every guest star possible into the A-story. I’m not saying that guest stars are bad when utilized properly. An example of a great use of a guest star, in fact, is that of Jack Black in “Investigative Journalism.” Why was Jack Black such a well-utilized guest star? Simply because of this: while the A-plot was about him infiltrating the group, his presence illuminated issues within the central characters (namely Jeff and Annie) and allowed for some character progression. Guest stars aren’t just people who flit in and out of a show for the eye-candy aspect. A guest star should be the bridge between the plot and the development of the already existing characters.

Thirteen episodes isn’t a lot and when you attempt to jam in more guest stars than you really have room for, the people who suffer are not those one-off characters but your MAIN characters: the study group. And Community can properly execute the use of guest stars (see: Malcolm McDowell) but in season five, I was overwhelmed with the presences of strangers that I felt I lost focus of the study group.

If guest stars ARE utilized in season six, I hope that they will be few and far between and that the majority of the season will be spent focused on the five people who remained at Greendale. (And not to undercut what I just said, but I’d be okay with two guest stars this season and ONLY two: Zachary Levi and James Roday. Please and thank you. That’s all I need.)

Resolve the romantic relationships.

My biggest qualm with Community is one that has existed for almost four years now: romance. This probably doesn’t need to be mentioned, but Community’s audience is smart. We’re smart enough to notice when the word “Beetlejuice” is mentioned twice across the span of the series and point it out to the writers. We’re smart enough to be able to locate the moment Annie’s Boobs stole the pen. And we’re certainly smart enough to know when we are being pandered to, don’t you think? As I’ve said in multiple posts before, I don’t expect this show to become a romantic relationship-driven series like The Mindy Project or New Girl, but what I do expect – and I don’t think this is asking much at all – is that the show would treat the idea of romance with some sort of genuine respect. The problem in season five (and four and three and two) is that the show discovered its cast members had chemistry and that some people (Joel McHale and Alison Brie) had more chemistry together. Instead of building a story around that chemistry, the show extracted it and used it as bait, attempting to lure in shippers when necessary like some deadly Siren. We were tricked and fooled at the long looks and stolen glances and so we followed the sound of the ‘ship and crashed into the rocks when the writers yanked the moment. It didn’t mean anything after all, they would claim. Jeff is creeped out by his feelings for Annie. Move along.

And we WOULD move along… until the next episode needed a plot and the writers, lazy or else bored, put Joel and Alison’s characters into a scene that sizzled with chemistry. Time after time, we followed that Siren song only to be smacked in the face with Twitter debates or DVD commentary insisting that there Jeff developed more of a fatherly feeling toward Annie than anything else. The inherent problem with the Community writers’ depiction of romance is that there IS no real depiction of romance. Not lasting romance, at least. I noted this in my Community post-mortem article but when the series ended, only one person (presumably) in the entire study group was in a relationship and even that one probably wouldn’t last. Seven individuals in the course of five years had never had a lasting relationship? That was appalling to me when I thought about it. Romantic relationships don’t need to be the focus of every episode and every story, but with the now-Greendale Five, wouldn’t you think at least one of them would be dating, even if it is outside of the study group? (Yes, I’m aware that Abed is dating Rachel but let us not forget that this was a story that was only thrown into two or three real episodes spanning across seasons four and five. It was mentioned and dropped again when necessary.)

So what do I want out of season six, then? I want the writers to stop baiting me. Stop putting Joel McHale and Alison Brie into scenes that can be interpreted as “shipper” ones (and yes, anything can be read into, as you very well know, but there is a difference between writing an episode like “Basic Intergluteal Nuministics” and Joel sitting close to Alison in a scene – one is deliberate and the other is not). Stop underestimating our collective intelligence; we know what is being done. We know that you want to keep the Jeff/Annie shippers dangling on a hook in case you need us to boost ratings. We know that you want every character in the series to have potential with every other character, but we don’t need to be pandered to. We don’t need a Jeff/Britta episode where they’re talking about getting married and then a confirmation that Jeff’s “blast of passion” was because of Annie. That’s just lazy writing, plain and simple.

Here’s what I do need: I need closure on Jeff/Annie and Jeff/Britta and whatever other ship exists in this show for good. I need the writers to commit to something or get out of the game entirely. It’s too late now to repair the damage that has been done since season two (the Annie/Jeff/Britta triangle didn’t just ruin both ships, it also completely decimated the Britta/Annie relationship and nothing has been the same since), but it’s not too late to tie up these loose ends. Instead of letting us dangle from them, tie the Jeff/Annie of it all into a tidy bow and move on. I can tell you from personal experience that no one likes to be lured into the rocks. Because when you crash, you get angry and bitter and recognize the Siren’s song for what it was: a sham.

No more “token” episodes – i.e. a token Annie episode, token Shirley episode, token Jeff/Shirley episode, etc.

Character development is my number one priority in a series – any series. That’s partly why season two of New Girl is my favorite, why I loved The Mindy Project’s sophomore year, and why Parks and Recreation continues to shine. In order to grow and change, no matter how long you’ve been on the air, a show needs to develop its characters. And developing characters means finding a team of people to write for the characters – people who love and cherish these fictional people just as much as the audience does; who believe that these people have stories to tell. The problem with Community is that it often went big with homages and intricately detailed animated episodes, but doing so often forced them to sacrifice characterization in the process. In my top three episodes of all time is one titled “Football, Feminism and You.” This episode, if you’ll recall, is from Community’s first season but exemplified everything that was good and right and beautiful about this show and its potential. You see, there were no grand homages back in season one, prior to “Modern Warfare.” There were just characters and stories and an absurd community college where these people were learning to become friends and care about each other.

I kind of miss that, to be honest. Yes, I love “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” and I think “A Fistful of Paintballs” is great. But I got a glimpse of what Community used to be when “Cooperative Polygraphy” aired this past year. It is one of the things that the show did right in season five and one of the things I hope it focuses on more in season six. I fell in love with this show, not because it could replicate a Saturday morning cartoon shot-for-shot, nor because I enjoyed watching people play Dungeons & Dragons. No, I fell in love with the CHARACTERS on this show and the way they interacted with each other. I fell in love with the jokes and the unique voices and the crazy school they attended. I don’t need homages and big episodes, quite frankly, and I don’t need “token” episodes this year either.

See, Community’s fallen into this trap in recent years of providing us with “token” episodes – a token Jeff/Shirley one (“Social Psychology,” “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism,” “Origins of Vampire Mythology,” and “App Development and Condiments”) is common each season. The problem I have with token episodes is this: it only allows a character to grow for twenty minutes and then the character (or characters) have their reset buttons pressed and return to their default states during the next episode. Let’s look at Jeff/Shirley as a prime example. Nearly every year, there is a token episode that features Jeff and Shirley in a story together. The plot may differ slightly but the overarching theme is exactly the same: Jeff and Shirley never hang out, then they hang out and clash, and then they realize they like each other and have stuff in common and they bond. The end.

This is literally the theme of every episode noted above. So what’s the problem? The problem is that… this is it. That is literally all that happens. We never see Jeff or Shirley interact as friends again after that. She goes back to being a Christian wife and mother who scolds him for his behavior and he goes back to being snarky and trying to respect her wishes but often failing. There is no character growth because of that and no development. It just starts and then stops. So instead of having a token episode with these two in season six, why not make me believe that their interaction in season five stuck and made them actual friends who ACTUALLY care about each other?

The same holds true for characters like Annie who usually have a token episode with Jeff (“Debate 109,” “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design,” “Geography of Global Conflict,” “Basic Lupine Urology,” “Intro to Political Science,” and “Basic Intergluteal Nuministics”) where the same thing happens each year: Annie is driven and Jeff is slacking off, then Annie and Jeff challenge each other, then they learn from each other, and finally have a “moment” where they realize they’re attracted to each other and nothing happens or changes from there. The characters are given a reset button and Jeff returns, creeped out by his feelings for Annie and Annie returns to being a model student who is presumably pining after Jeff.

Do you see how this is problematic? How this particular pattern of episode writing lends itself to character regression or stagnation? Instead of this – whatever THIS is – I hope and pray that season six can find the characters growing, both by themselves and with other characters, over the course of the year.

More female writers, please.

See this post for exactly WHY I want more female writers on staff for Community’s sixth season. In a nutshell, I feel like the characterization of the women may have suffered because of the lack of a female presence – when over half of your main cast is female, shouldn’t at least more than two of your writers also be? But it’s more than just wanting more of a female presence on the writing staff: it’s wanting more of a BALANCED writing staff. In the article I linked above, I recognized the fact that most comedies I watch have a balanced staff and that this balance has a direct impact on the quality and focus of the show. So, if possible, I would love to see more names in the credits that belong to women.

Find a theme and weave it throughout the thirteen episodes, no matter what that theme will be.

My final request and desire for this series is to find a thread and weave it into the stories throughout the thirteen episodes that season six will have. Community heavily relied on classes during its first four years in order to provide some sort of structure, thematically, for the seasons. Here’s what I noted in my post-mortem article:

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.

The theme of Community’s fifth season was… well, if it was the theme of “saving Greendale,” it was a rather shoddy one. And whatever the theme of season six is, I pray to God that it is not another round of Greendale needing to be saved by its students. Instead, why doesn’t Greendale save THEM? Season five assured us of the fact that the Greendale Five will never leave the school because they tried and failed to have success in the real world. This year, I’d love to see the students grapple with the idea of finally leaving for good – that theme would provide for some excellent character growth and development.

I’m just saying.

Whew. Well, thank you for indulging me, friends. My feelings for Community have been a rollercoaster ride over the last year but watching the show and interacting more with its fans has taught me a lot. Because I love this show so much – because it has been such a large part of my life for so many years and because I know what the show can be and how much it can achieve, I have written this post. You can disagree or agree with my sentiments; you can shoot me down as a troll or cynic or heartily “amen” the 3,500 words of this. But I hope you know, in conclusion, just one thing: Greendale is a special place to me and so are its characters. And I can promise you that they always will be.


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