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10 Years Later: A ‘Community’ Retrospective

“I can’t count the reasons I should stay,

One by one they all just fade away”

-“At Least It Was Here,” The 88

 Community has been off the air for four years. The show first aired in September of 2009 with a tightly constructed plan: the story was meant to last for six seasons and a movie.

Despite all odds, the show reached six seasons. The series received high praise, but, in many ways, it just wasn’t meant to be. Even on rewatch, many aspects of Community hold up. The show is legitimately funny and well-executed. There was a great deal of care put into the crafting of the show, but many other problems plagued its six season run.

The show starts with a large cast and a simple concept. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has faked his bachelor’s degree and lost his job as a lawyer. He returns to the local community college to earn his degree as quickly as possible. While taking a Spanish class, he forms a fake study group in an attempt to date Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs). From there, the group turns into a real study group that goes on various adventures together.

The show gains more characters and those characters become more outrageous as the show goes on. Everything starts out a bit fantastical at the beginning of the series, but it quickly spirals. As Jeff observes in one episode, Britta goes from a radical political activist to the group’s airhead. Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) goes from an athlete paralyzed by the fear of not being the best to the sidekick to Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi).

In particular, this is a waste of Glover’s talents. He expertly delivers some of the funniest lines in the show, and he never falls out of character. This goes for Yvette Nicole Brown as well. However, unlike Troy, Shirley (Brown) never develops past a mother and wife. We learn more about her past, but we learn in relation to how it effects other characters, particularly Jeff. Despite the Brown’s expert performance, Shirley never goes anywhere as a character.

And once the show starts to hemorrhage characters, it can’t go on. Within two seasons, Shirley, Troy, and Pierce (Chevy Chase) leave the show and never return. From there, the show gains more characters, then loses them again at the end of each subsequent season. By the end of the series, the cast is a shadow of its former self. Minor characters are brought in to fill in seats at the table in the study room, and characters introduced in the 11th hour are never properly explored.

It’s difficult at this point to separate Community from the real-life people who helped create it. All of the principal cast has gone on to successful careers if they weren’t already well-known, especially Ken Jeong and Donald Glover. However, the infamous feud between Chase and the showrunners is evident by the unceremonious death of the character and absence from the episodes before Pierce’s passing. It’s also impossible now to separate the show from the knowledge that Harmon sexually harrassed Megan Ganz, one of the show’s most talented writers. Moreover, after Community, Harmon went on to create Rick & Morty, a show with a notoriously toxic fanbase.

This information makes the viewer notice how the female characters are treated. Shirley, as stated previously, never quite manages to develop like the other characters. Annie is pursued by a man twice her age (Jeff Winger) for the majority of the show. Britta entirely regresses throughout the show, and ends up being the butt of every joke about being dumb or awful.

This doesn’t mean that these characters aren’t likeable or relatable. The characters do become the focus of various episodes and they get their funny moments the same as the male characters. However, the details aren’t quite there. Community should have grown over time, but instead it backslid.

Again, this is excused by real-world changes. Harmon was not the show-runner for the fourth season. This was later referenced by the characters as the gas-leak season. It’s clear when watching the show exactly when Harmon departs. The characters and stories are just different enough to be felt by the audience. Everything is a bit off, and it never regains its footing.

Even when Harmon returns to the show, things aren’t quite the same. The characters and stories have gotten darker. Most of the characters have graduated, and it hasn’t improved their lives. In their first episode back, Jeff manages to convince them to sue Greendale for ruining their lives.

But Greendale was never really a character on the show. The setting of a show can become its own character, but it’s so heavily controlled by Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash) and Ben Chang (Jeong) that it’s simply the result of what external forces put on it. The show tries to posit Greendale as a semi-magical place where whimsy is standard, but really, that’s just college mixed with the magic of television.

Perhaps this is Harmon’s point. College lets new adults live in an in-between. They can do all the whimsical things they wished to do in childhood, and now they don’t have a curfew. When older characters, like Jeff, Britta, Shirley, Pierce, and even the faculty like Dean Pelton and Chang enter this world, they can get swept up in it as well. But Greendale is just a place. This is evidenced by the changes it goes through when the study group leaves.

By the end of the show, the characters are there to save Greendale. Instead of a study group, they become a committee. They fix up what’s broken and encounter an absurd cast of characters along the way. However, the study group has never held a particular love for Greendale. It has been a catalyst for their friendship, but at times, they actively resent the institution. The focus on saving Greendale, in a way, is meant to distract from the fact that the study group, and therefore, the heart of the show, couldn’t be saved.

 Community is worth a rewatch. There’s no denying that it continues to be funny and clever a decade later. However, the show is changed with the passage of time. Jeff becomes a little more nefarious, and everything becomes more questionable as a result. Still, Community created some of the most tightly-constructed episodes of television to ever be released. In many ways, particularly in the early seasons, Community is a storytelling masterpiece. It easily juggles its many characters and plots with ease. No one feels left out of the series, and the absurdity of the show rises gracefully with each episode.

But, ultimately, all things must come to an end. Community will likely never get its movie that was part of Harmon’s original vision. At this point, that’s probably a good thing. If the show would have ended in season three, it would have ended on a high note with fans wanting more. However, the show was dragged on long after its expiration point.

Community was never meant to be on the air indefinitely. However, it unfortunately wasn’t meant to be on the air as long as it was either.

Fiona L.F. Kelly (@FionaLFKelly)
Fiona L.F. Kelly is a writer, editor, and podcaster. She has published numerous articles about all things gaming and pop culture on websites all across the internet, was also a writer for Trinity Continuum: Aberrant 2e, and has been published in books and magazines. She is an editor for the pop culture and media website GeekGals.co. In addition to her writing and editing, she has also been a guest and host on several podcasts. She hosts the Project Derailed podcast Big Streaming Pile, produces and performs on Fables Around the Table, and plays the githyanki pirate Rav’nys on Tales of the Voidfarer. Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/fionalfkelly

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