Yams are murdered. A musical is staged. Alternate timelines are explored. Several people die. Foosball is played. Video games are played. War breaks out. A coup is staged. It’s just your average year at Greendale Community College.
The most talked-about show hardly anyone is watching became even more talked-about this year. Between the mid-season hiatus, the uncertainty regarding a fourth season, and all of the backstage nonsense, the third season of Community got more press than the first two seasons combined. Yes, some people were writing/talking about the actual episodes, but most were focusing on the behind-the-scenes goings-on, which didn’t do us hardcore fans (a term which is redundant when used in reference to this show’s adherents) any good. We already knew the show was perpetually on the bubble; being constantly reminded of this only made matters worse, and reading about all of the other foolishness made it even worse. It was enough to drive you mad.
Much to everyone’s relief, the show was renewed for a fourth (and possibly final) season right around the time the season finale aired. The euphoria didn’t last long, as Sony removed creator Dan Harmon from his position as showrunner. Harmon was notorious for killing budgets, blowing schedules by rewriting and re-shooting, editing up until the last minute, losing his temper, and fighting with studio and network execs. He also feuded with Chevy Chase, and made the unwise choice of taking the feud public, insulting the actor in front of his family during a cast/crew party and then allowing the world to hear an angry phone message Chase later left him. Harmon was given the option of remaining on as a writer, but he chose to leave, moving on to develop both a prospective animated series for Adult Swim and a multi-camera comedy for Fox.
So what does this mean for the fourth season? Too early to tell, of course. The cast is returning, as is a good chunk of the writing staff. I’m optimistic. It would have been nice if everyone had acted like adults, done their jobs professionally; had they, it’s likely Harmon would have been allowed to see his baby through to the conclusion he had planned. But that milk’s already been spilt, so why loose any mixed-metaphorical sleep over it? I like these actors, I like these characters, and I know the show wasn’t as much of a one-man-band as some have made it out to be.
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Harmon may have been the final voice, but he wasn’t the only one. And contrary to what some people think, losing a showrunner doesn’t necessarily signal the death of a series, not even a showrunner as hands-on as Harmon. As famed television writer Ken Levine pointed out shortly after news of Harmon’s removal came down, M*A*S*H survived after the departure of Larry Gelbart, and Cheers lived on long--and achieved greatness--after Glen and Les Charles departed. And Levine obviously knows what he’s talking about, as in both instances he was one of the replacements. (Levine and longtime writing partner David Isaacs also wrote “Dancin’ Homer” and “Saturdays of Thunder” for The Simpsons, and you’d have to be a fool to question anyone who had a hand in those classics.)
Watching the last few episodes of this season, it’s impossible not to think Harmon was concerned about his and/or the show’s future. First of all, the “theme” episodes for which the show has become famous (relatively speaking) are noticeably numerous. “Basic Lupine Urology,” the heralded (and justly so, as it’s an incredibly funny, pitch-perfect episode) Law & Order riff, was something the writers had been talking about for a while.
That they finally went ahead with it leads me to believe they thought they’d never get another shot. Although Community has never been a ratings success, renewals for the second and third seasons had been announced early. The first two seasons had also received orders for a couple extra episodes. There was nothing like that here. Couple that with the season’s mid-year hiatus (it was pulled from the schedule for a few months, a move met with a deafening outcry) and you get what Harmon and his team likely saw as a vote of no confidence.
So while there is a definite arc to this season, it’s a bit undernourished and rushed. Moments the show seemed to be building to are a little shortchanged by episodes either intended to be newcomer-friendly (or whatever the Community equivalent of newcomer-friendly is) or episodes that have a “let’s do it in case they pull the plug on us” feel. Discounting the annual Halloween episode, the only real theme episode of the season’s first half is “Regional Holiday Musical,” which takes the show’s ribbing of Glee to a whole new level. The second half, though, features at least three (four if you count the penultimate episode, the status of which is debatable). Now I’m not about to complain, as I happen to enjoy all three of these episodes, but I do recognize that they come at the expense of fully fleshed-out sub-arcs.
For example, there’s a long build to Troy’s eventual admittance to Greendale’s most prestigious, profitable (to say nothing of weirdest) wing, but the resolution is somewhat abrupt. I also get the feeling the takeover of the school by Chang and his army of adolescent fascists was originally intended to last an episode or two longer. And there’s no question the season finale was designed to work as a possible series finale, bringing the characters to a place that both sets up what would come in the fourth year and provides just enough resolution in case the show didn’t come back.
So yes, the cracks show up under scrutiny, but big deal. Even with its missteps and lesser moments, Community is still the best comedy on television. It’s almost always funny (and almost always hilarious), and when it’s not funny it’s usually due to the writers attempting to be cerebral (when’s the last time you heard that word used to describe a sitcom?) or introspective (a full episode is devoted to exploring what makes Abed tick) rather than the jokes falling flat. Several episodes have toyed with deconstructing both the series itself and visual storytelling as a whole, and this season goes it one better and spends an entire episode (“Remedial Chaos Theory”) exploring what each member of the core group of characters adds to the overall dynamic.
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Utilizing the possibilities of other realities, and offering several variations on the same series of events, one character is removed from the group, and the way the other characters act after that particular individual has left illustrates not only what each adds to the group but also what each is doing to hold the rest of them back. It’s the sort of dazzling, insane, brilliant undertaking no other sitcom would dare attempt. It begs for multiple viewings, and in the months following its original airing inspired a level of thought, discussion, and dissection that rivaled what’s been devoted to Lost. (It also earned a much-deserved Emmy nomination for writer Chris McKenna, who deserves an award, a Rolex, a new Cadillac, and a steak dinner.)
There’s no paintball episode this season (but there is a good joke about paintball episodes), but you do get another clip show, which once again features flashbacks to stuff new material. The aforementioned “Regional Holiday Musical” gives Glee what it had coming, employing spell-it-all-out songs to wrangle the members of the study group into participating in Greendale’s annual Christmas show.
One episode is largely done in the style of an old 16-bit videogame, with the characters banding together to help Chase acquire his late father’s fortune, their avatars journeying through a perilous land populated by farmers, blacksmiths, and racial stereotypes. A game of foosball played against some Teutonic tools reveals a past connection between Jeff and Shirley. Subway helped defray some of the show’s budget via an advertising, which in true Community meta-fashion is presented front-and-center, making a complete mockery of product-placement practices.
And then there’s “Pillows and Blankets,” a tale of war done in the fashion of a Ken Burns documentary (complete with narration by Keith David, who’s perfect [and whose involvement allows for one last joke about The Cape]). Initially devised by Harmon as a way to make an episode on the cheap (as the second half of a two-parter, it didn’t require costume or set changes, and the use of still cameras made setups easier), it ultimately became one of the most poignant episodes yet. As soft, downy combat breaks out on campus, Troy and Abed’s relationship is torn asunder. Amidst gags in which Gatorade is used as an IV and Britta ruins practically every combat photo she sets out to capture, the human core the show never loses sight of is, well, never lost sight of. What began as a silly argument over whether to build a record-breaking fort out of pillows or blankets ends with a moment the faithful wanted and needed to see, a simple handshake to set everything aright.
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And that’s still the thing here. For all its meta humor, post-Seinfeld irony, and outrageous ambitions, Community is still a show about seven fully realized, recognizable human people you want to see stick together. The jokes, even the lowbrow ones, come from the way the characters react to one another and the situations in which they find themselves. The characters drive the humor, not the other way around.
Personalities don’t shift willy-nilly from episode to episode, don’t change just so the writers can deliver a dick, masturbation, or Jewish-mother joke; growth and change come naturally, an organic consequence of making connections with other people. The out-of-the-norm stuff may be what largely gets mentioned and written about, but the characters at the heart of it all remain the real strength and draw. Whether they’re trying to save everyone’s favorite perverted dean from a nefarious plot hatched by a phony Spanish teacher-turned-security guard or helping each other move furniture, these are people worth following. Most sitcom characters are just there to spout one-liners. The characters in Community are much more than that, and anyone who doesn’t get to know them is missing out.
The show is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio; the transfers have been enhanced for anamorphic displays, and the twenty-two episodes are housed on three discs. As before, the image here is a step up from standard-def television broadcasts, a step down from high-def airings (although they do upscale nicely). Overall, the presentation is solid, nicely replicating both the standard look of the regular episodes and the shifting visual schemes employed for the high-concept installments. Colors hold up well, blacks are stable. There’s some mild compression artifacting, aliasing, and moiré, but nothing in the way of severe flaws.
The sole audio option for each episode is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Most of the episodes sport front-heavy mixes, but the musical episode, the clip show, and the penultimate installment’s heist spoof open things up a bit. Naturally, dialogue is the driving force here, and it sounds perfectly fine. English and English SDH subtitles are available.
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The extras here aren’t quite as plentiful as the ones included with the first two season sets. There are no cast evaluations (the reasons for this are obvious), and although DJ Steve Porter created another remix reel, it’s not here. What you do get, though, is great (and uncensored).
There’s a commentary on every episode. Donald Glover (who was probably touring), Chase (whose absence requires no explanation), and Ken Jeong don’t appear, but all of the other members of the main cast do. Harmon appears on most of the commentaries (his numerous remarks about prospective plans for the fourth season may cause some fans to wince), and there’s also a good selection of writers, directors, producers, and guest stars. As usual, these are a mix of detailed production information, self-deprecation, and jokes.
A Glee-ful Community Christmas (7 minutes) offers a look at the production of the musical episode.
This is War: Pillows vs. Blankets (13 minutes) is a documentary-style exploration of the production of this season’s documentary-style episode.
Deleted scenes (14 minutes) are included for several episodes; cut for time or because the jokes weren’t quite up to snuff, these bits offer some choice stuff for fans.
A collection of outtakes (21 minutes) feature flubs, a boatload of swearing, Glover busting out his Cosby impression, a couple of raps from Alison Brie (including the werewolf one), and more simulated sex acts than you can count.
If for some reason you’re reading this and still haven’t given Community a look, I once again implore you to do so. Regardless of how much time it has left, it’s a special, unique, rare, one-of-a-kind show, one that will still deserve to be seen and savored long after its run has ended. If you don’t believe me, find a fan whose opinion you trust. They’ll be more than happen to talk about it.
· Community: The Complete Second Season DVD Review