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Can I Graduate? Where 'Community' Season 4 Went Wrong and What Happens Next


NBC has gone and done it. They renewed Community. The very show they ruined by replacing creator and then-showrunner Dan Harmon with David Guarascio and Moses Port. With Harmon leaving so did many big guns from the show’s early years including executive producers Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan, writer/producer Chris McKenna, writer and Starburns himself Dino Stamatopoulos, and executive producers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.

In the past, I have made it clear that I wanted the fourth season to wrap up the Community story arcs. Needless to say, the fourth season felt like the demented rehashings of failed storylines of the Harmon era. While this is not a shot at the cast — what could they do? — this is more of an attack on last season's style of writing.

The Peacock Fades

Who are we kidding? NBC is hurting for a ratings boost. The premiere Thursday night comedy lineup, which, thanks to shows like Cheers, Seinfeld and Friends, had been a force for nearly 30 years, is in tatters. The Peacock cannot compete with the lowest-common-denominator humor of CBS. NBC's "best" show, The Office, lived on past its prime before retiring a few weeks ago. The network's other critical darlings — Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock — are either low-rated or already off the air. They both had devoted fan followings, but never stood a chance against CBS's Thursday night lineup led by The Big Bang Theory.

Then you have Community. It has a small, yet hugely loyal fanbase. Despite its following, the show never got the big ratings NBC hoped it would garner. After the network let Harmon go last season, it went to brought in showrunners who could gear Community to a comedic style that better matched up with the current network sitcom landscape. (Also known as less meta humor and more broader jokes.) This brings us to the present.

The fourth season tried to pick up where Harmon left off in Season 3. More often than not, it seemed like the show's writers were working from a Cliff Notes version of Community instead of being immersed in the show's history. The writers decided to overkill the Inspector Spacetime gag by actually taking us to an Inspector-Con (Conventions of Space and Time). While it's nice that they wanted to make the loosest references to Doctor Who to us non-Brits, they used the episode to shake up relationships. We learned that Britta is not the worst and Annie acts like a teenager, while forgetting that Pierce and Shirley are even members of the study group.

That episode sums up the writing, stretching out bit gags too far and distorting character traits and relationships. As the season progressed they decided to visit the felt arts (Intro to Felt Surrogacy), which was an attempt to rekindle the fans' love of Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas. This was also the final episode filmed with Chevy Chase, something you would never even notice as the season was shot out of order.

As Season 4 moved on, the characters became caricatures of what Harmon had worked so hard to sculpt. They reverted to rash — shall I say primal feelings? — to help deliver easier-to-understand jokes or gags. The budding relationship of Troy and Britta felt unusual and was often abandoned as it felt there was more of a focus to have Britta be "not the worst." Pairing up Troy and Britta was a classic sitcom move, and the show's writers seemed to forget they were together in a few episodes, allowing Britta and Jeff to fall back into a pseudo relationship.

The Harmon Factor

Let's remember that Harmon concocted this series as a result of taking a Spanish class, so it seems to me that every episode during his reign was designed to get us to the end result of graduation after four years. The show's continuity was great at foreshadowing and recalling events, gags and cues. With the new writers, the show had a different feel and humor structure.

I don't say this to kiss up to Harmon, but the guy was a genius working on this show. Rewatching some of the first two seasons, he and the writing staff make great gags that help move along the themes and goals for the characters. During Season 4, the show sometimes failed to move along key themes. Outside of having Jeff shout that he is trying to graduate, we forget that this show was about gaps.

When you have an ensemble cast, you need a variety of character makeups. When you take a Spanish study group with a vast makeup of personalities, cultures and ages, you need to address these differences. The Harmon Era knew how to pull strong plots and jokes from this United Nations of misfits. We lost that with Harmon's departure. The writing watered down the struggles of some of the tougher-to-write-for character. Shirley Bennett was placed in that position, with her character becoming just the black mom. After Shirley gained so much ground the previous season, it felt like her character was developing so well and had became more than a cookie-cutter TV character.

This is a huge reason Chase left. Putting aside the fact that Chase has never been a constant on television, he was always at odds with Harmon in regards of the direction his character had on Community. It's tough to keep constantly writing old man jokes about Chase's Pierce. The fourth season ruined the whole concept of the character, especially when they centered the Halloween episode around Pierce being locked in his mansion. We saw a weak representation of Pierce.

Coming to Terms

While I appreciate the effort by the current writing staff, it would have been better to see Community go away after Season 3. NBC probably renewed Community only because all their other shows were ending (30 Rock and The Office) or are failing (Up All Night). Harmon gave Season 3 such a great ending, it would have been the perfect signing-off moment for Community had that been the end.

There are rumblings that things could be changing — or, reverting back to how they used to be. Last week, news broke that Sony, NBC and Harmon were involved in talks at some level that would see Harmon return to Community in some form, possibly even as showrunner. Currently Community doesn't even have a showrunner, with Guarascio and Port's deals only being for a single season.

Imagine this: Abed wakes up from a dream to realize the fourth season was a dream. (Yes, Community can borrow from Dallas on this one.) The show goes on like Harmon intended, and Pierce is replaced by his twin brother played by Bill Murray.

Seriously, coming from a huge fan of this show, I'll probably start retreating from Community. I'll watch the occasional episode but will hope it ends. That's sad because the once-brilliant show has a great cast, but if the writing is not there, then why bother? Let's hope we don't get see six seasons and a movie.
Can I Graduate? Where 'Community' Season 4 Went Wrong and What Happens Next Reviewed by Seth Pohorence on 5/30/2013 Rating: 5

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