Review: Season 6 of “Community”

I don’t have a “complicated” history with “Community” so much as an erratic one. “Complicated” would imply that I’ve wrestled with the show and its overall meaning and how it fits into my overall world experience. That was never this show for me, although it certainly was for its rabid fan base, including fellow critics. I watched every episode of the show, even though I rarely found more than a third of episodes in any season particularly good. If I had to break it down, on average my opinion fell nicely into thirds: I either loved it, found it passable, or straight up hated it. There was no way to predict how I would feel going into any particular episode, which is probably why I watched every single one: It was the scratch lottery of TV shows.

I finished watching season six over the weekend, which means it’s all but already forgotten in terms of the pop culture zeitgeist. So writing about it now is pretty stupid, but then again, I enjoyed the pilot of “Halt And Catch Fire,” which I watched last night, so I have a good track record at being both untimely and possessing minority opinions. Speaking of minority opinions, I tweeted after watching about two-thirds of season six that it was my favorite season of the show. You can imagine there were plenty of measured responses to that tweet. Oh wait, it was on the internet, so not so much.

My favorite responses were the ones that categorically denied that it was the “best” season. Which I never said. I said it was my “favorite,” which I know for most equates to as “best.” But I just don’t see it that way. We’re in a Golden Age of “Definitive Rankings” posts which are the clickbaitiest of clickbaits and everyone knows it and yet EVERYONE reads them after which EVERYONE gets annoyed after which we vow not to read another one until the next “Definitive Ranking” is posted at which point the cycle repeats.

I have no idea what season of “Community” is the best in the same way that I don’t know what the best season of any show is. I know which ones I personally prefer, and I can more often than not back that statement up with reasons beyond “FEELINGS.” But the idea of an objectively best season of TV, episode of TV, or even series of TV is bullshit. I think deep down we all know it. But it’s more fun to pretend to be outraged than celebrating difference of opinion and the immense amount of good TV currently on the air. If my liking season six of “Community” somehow threatens your love of season, two, there’s totally a problem, and it’s totally not with me.

I think there are some classic episodes of season two, and pretty much all seasons (save maybe season 4, which was oddly the most consistently “OK” one top to bottom) has classics. But the final season clicked for me because it was all about coming up against limitations and deciding whether or not to embrace them or rebel against them. That worked for the characters inside “Community” as well as “Community” itself, so finally the show’s inherent meta nature worked for the show rather than against it for me as a viewer. If earlier seasons were all about proving the show (and therefore its creator, and by extension its fans) was filled with misunderstood genius, then the final season was coming to grips with the fact that an oasis such as Greendale or “Community” can only get you so far in a world that moves on with or without you.

I’ve always been fond of episodes in which Jeff Winger is a huge asshole, yet then show understands this is a bad thing. So “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “G.I. Jeff” work not in spite of their conceits but due to them. The show worked for me best when forcing Jeff to recognize his shortcomings and face them head on. One of the show’s biggest missteps after “Remedial” was not following through with the idea that Jeff was the cause of a LOT of his study group’s miseries. He held them back in a myriad of ways, despite consistently acting as if he was saving them from themselves. “G.I. Jeff” felt like a parody for parody’s sake, but instead was a parable about the terror of aging.

So maybe because, like Jeff, I’m about to turn 40, and maybe, like Dan Harmon, I’m facing down a body of work that is potentially going to be ignored after a few months of completion, that this season worked so well. (Don’t worry: I’m not going to compare the impact of my writing to that of “Community” the series. Slow your roll. My roll is stationary, as should yours.) But again, this was my favorite season because it was the first time I felt like the narrative waves of the show hit my in the chest rather than went above my head or under my feet. The show always had the potential to do this, but there was a sustaining aspect to this season that completely surprised me, completely delighted me, and then completely bowled me over.

I just don’t think you can truly like a show without relating to it on some emotional level. If you didn’t relate to this season of “Community,” you’re not better or worse than me. You’re certainly different, and I get why those that used to love the show more were disappointed it didn’t work for them over the long haul. But I also think it’s pretty amazing that “Community” ever did connect with me. Not because I was happy that it did, but I was surprised that it at all. “Community” wrestled with being a TV show as much as anything, and the constant cast turnover and difficulty in explaining why certain characters were still on the show should have derailed it from episode one this year. And indeed, the first two episodes are pretty dire. But then something clicked, and the last eleven or so (aside from the fairly horrid grifting episode) were almost start-to-finish really funny yet fairly hefty all the same. Each wore bore the weight of having to approach the finish line, even if the characters themselves pretending as if they were in a loop.

Indeed, whenever they caught a glimpse outside that loop is when the season really turned into something magical. The lack of certain core characters forced the show to focus on Jeff a lot more, and Joel McHale did some pretty stellar work as a guy so terrified to realize what his life had become that he clung more closely to the study group/Save Greendale Committee than ever before. He watched those around him succeed wildly despite huge obstacles (“Intro To Recycled Cinema”), recognized that those he mocked found love (“Wedding Videography”), and understood that the pattern of the show/his life was for him to be the last man at the study room table (“Emotional Consequences Of Broadcast Television”). Sure, he talked about a “season seven,” but that was his way of recognizing that his peak might have already peaked. There is nothing else but his job at Greendale, but that’s not the case for others around him.  Even though he sits with several people in Britta’s bar, he realizes all too well he might very well be alone before long.

Even the paintball episode this season reeked of intentional desperation rather than “hey, we all know you love paintball episodes, so here you go.” Whenever “Community” deconstructed itself rather than simply parody Ken Burns, “Law & Order,” and “My Dinner With Andre,” it could create some potent storytelling about the stories we tell ourselves. Jeff needs the study group not only as companions but as people in contrast with whom he could feel superior. Season six was a thirteen-episode deflation of that self-perpetuated myth that had resonance beyond a single installment. Everything from Jeff’s delusion to the group’s codependency was up for grabs, and rather than employing the usual sit-com reset, this season of “Community” made things stick, which made things stickier (but more satisfying) as the season progressed.

What helped make the season worthwhile was that the struggles were viable, but the show didn’t sink into a morass by the end. It could have sent Jeff into a suicidal spiral, or admitted that most students in Greendale were barely employable and would look forward to a life of barely scraping by when not being ridiculed by those outside the comforting confines of Greendale. Instead, it showed people either making small steps towards betterment or small steps towards acceptance of the current status. Life doesn’t go the way we think it’s going to go, and facing that can send certain people about to turn forty towards mid-life crisis kinda thoughts. (I’m into TV, so no sports cars in my future, but a 100” plasma? MAYBE.) I found Jeff’s journey worthwhile. I found Dan Harmon’s approach to what he HAD to know was his final season fascinating. I don’t know what Harmon intended, and I kinda totally don’t care. He sure as well won’t care what I thought of it, so it works out nicely in both directions. I saw something interesting and relatable in what he helped shape. That happened to happen in the sixth season of a show most people wrote off ages ago. That’s OK. It worked like gangbusters for me, and came along precisely at the time I needed. I don’t need the movie. But I sure as hell needed this.