Adam P’s TV Guide: ‘Community’ not the show that it used to be

When Pierce Hawthorne proudly stood before the Greendale student body last season and shouted, “Let’s burn this mother down,” nobody realized the blundering racist was actually semi-prescient. Only two weeks after Pierce’s riot-inducing proclamation, NBC fired “Community’s” creator and quasi-deity Dan Harmon.

As the cult of Harmon reacted with a digital fervor generally reserved for actual disasters, David Guarascio and Moses Port (co-creators of “Aliens in America”) were tasked with picking up the show’s fallen ashes. So far, it appears only Harmon’s godlike hands are capable of crafting “Community” with the same precision the study group uses when creating their dioramas.

As “Community” nears the midway point of what is probably its final season, the intricacies in structure and dialogue of past seasons are sorely lacking. Although the oddball cast is still intact, the characters seem to be shambling through their established roles as if they just enjoyed a hearty plateful of toxic military rations.

While I appreciate the new showrunners trying to expand the characters after the numerous threads Harmon left in last season’s finale, the new storylines haven’t paid off. This week’s confrontation with Jeff’s father was particularly disappointing.

Character development in “Community” has always been handled with the minutest of alterations. The jokes carry the episode, but the traditional episode-ending Winger speech always reinforced the sense of togetherness the show both lampoons and sincerely embraces.

Jeff has slowly grown into the father figure Abed always envisioned for him, but Harmon recognized Jeff remains a bachelor at heart through moments like the revelation that Jeff and Britta have been making whoopee all of season two.

Yet this season has avoided these brief, revealing moments in the favor of broad boombox-bumping elements. As cathartic as seeing Jeff yell at his father was, that confrontation didn’t really reveal anything interesting about his character. The audience learned far more about Jeff when he wrestled with his inner demons in Abed’s documentary of Pierce’s fake death than his on-the-nose speech to Papa Winger last night.

The trope-laden approach used this season manifested itself in the season’s opening episode. Abed’s mental escape into the traditional sitcom incarnation of “Community” seemed particularly self-indulgent. In an episode where the humor seemed predicated on sparkly dresses and ball jokes, the creators offered a glimpse into the “safe” approach representative of the cushy network shows Abed feels comfortable consuming.

Symbolic of their belief they saved “Community” from the blorgons at NBC, the showrunners construed the opinion they wanted to hog the glory like Annie’s Boobs loves hoarding pens. The imaginary sitcom seemed blunt and forward for a show predicated on destroying normal television conventions.

Father Harmon avoided this pitfall by inverting traditional tropes through flashback episodes with completely new scenes or stressing the importance of the group dynamic by exploring the space-time continuum.

Additionally, the season has strayed away from the school in favor of sending the gang to parts previously unseen. Harmon stated he wanted to keep the students at the school the entire first season for the sake of firmly establishing their characters and the setting.

This unhealthy fear of change paid off when the group dynamic coalesced into the best comedy on television its last two seasons. Couching the show in the study room created a unique dynamic that remains the backbone of the show. Last season’s “Remedial Chaos Theory” took place at Troy and Abed’s apartment, but it could have just as easily taken place at the school.

The group’s departure to Pierce’s mansion and the Inspector Spacetime Convention in particular seemed more like fan service than intriguing locations for group comedy and exploration. Indeed, my favorite portion of the mansion episode came as the characters bantered in the study room, as opposed to the hi-jinx of Pierce’s mansion complete with an unsurprising sex room.

Despite my bleak outlook, there is reason for some optimism. Jeff’s storyline aside, the latest episode, “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” was the season’s highlight so far. Familiarly meta, Abed’s “Shawshank” homage provided an enjoyable escape plan that was refreshingly approachable in a way that Harmon’s self-indulgent “My Dinner with Andre” episode never was.

I remain skeptical though. Harmon took a supremely simple premise and crafted a show so incredibly complex in its execution that only his perfectionist tendencies could handle it.

Keeping sitcoms funny after several years is one of the hardest tasks in television so it’s impossible to say whether Harmon would have been able to keep the show fresh in its fourth season. That being said, “Community” simply isn’t the same brilliant show as in seasons past. #Sixseasonsandamovie is slowly becoming nothing more than a pipe dream.

Think “Community” still rocks the tube? Let Adam know at arparis@wisc.edu

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