Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Cosmic Channel Changer
June 2013

Community

Community is the plucky little show that could. Following an eclectic group of students attending the fictional Greendale Community College, it's been on the verge of cancellation multiple times. Despite this, it's somehow managed to keep on the air despite never really having the ratings to merit NBC's continued investment. Just recently, it was announced that creator and showrunner Dan Harmon, who had previously left amidst conflict with the network, would be returning to lead the show into its fifth season.

His renewed involvement is the best thing fans could probably hope for. Season four, robbed of his guiding hand, was simply not the same beast as it had been in years prior. It had strong moments for sure and ended on a satisfying note, but in many ways it was like a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa. It looked the part, and the hand holding the brush had skill, but you could tell that it wasn't the genuine article. The writers taking Harmon's place knew enough to imitate his style, but they had a hard time emulating the unique tone and heart that made the series special.

Which is why it's hard for me to admit that I kind of wish season five weren't happening. Harmon's return could very well be a chance for the show to return to its peak greatness, but at the same time it runs the risk of committing what, in my opinion, is one of the cardinal sins of television: not knowing when to stop.

Generally speaking, most shows have overarching plot threads that serve as their foundation. Community, for instance, establishes first thing that its primary protagonist, Jeff Winger, is a lawyer who was disbarred for lying about a fraudulent bachelor's degree. His driving goal and reason for attending Greendale is to earn a quick and easy degree so he can return to his old life. The show, in turn, follows Jeff as he and the members of a study group become friends and then a family of sorts as they grow and change through their experiences together. Season four ends with Jeff graduating, putting a bookend on what is, essentially, a completed narrative. The audience may want to see what happens afterward, but honestly, it doesn't need to and would probably be better off if things just left off where they were.

It's not to say Harmon and company would do a poor job. I can think of a few ways, off the top of my head, that the show could continue or even re-establish its status quo without coming across as stupid. The problem is that I've seen too many good shows fail at the attempt to have faith, even in Community, to pull it off. Nip/Tuck, for instance, was a brilliant show for the majority of its run. It did a great job establishing its characters and central conflicts and spent four seasons exploring the resulting issues before coming to what could have been a bittersweet but appropriate ending. Then, at the last second it pulled the rug out from beneath the plot and attempted to stretch things on for two more languid seasons that did nothing but ignore established character development and rehash problems that had already been resolved. It pretty much ruined the show.

Viewers could see hints of similar problems cropping up in Community's fourth season. The character Annie (Alison Brie), for instance, started off as something of a naïve and love stricken young woman. At the beginning of season one she harbors a crush on her fellow student Troy (Donald Glove) which would resolve itself only to be replaced by a running flirtation with Jeff, who was much older than her. That said, rather than defining her character as simply being a potential love interest, she was allowed to develop past that characteristic and to take on a notable sense of confidence she'd lacked in earlier episodes. Her romances led to personal growth instead of insipid drama.

Season four, however, had her character regress. It drew back on her confidence and had her fall back in "love" with Jeff, whom she awkwardly pined for at several points during the season's run. Granted, this could have also been a side effect of different people taking the reins of the show and failing to come to terms with Annie's character. That said, it also stank of a television show running out of ideas and trying to get easy mileage out of established (but played out) romantic elements.

That, in turn, is what bothers me so much about the prospect of a fifth season. It's not that I don't want to see more stories involving some of the best-written characters on television. I'm simply afraid that continuing on with the show after it has reached an organic end point will lead to developments that don't make sense for the characters. When you factor in other elements, like the departure of longtime cast member Chevy Chase, it adds in further worry that quality will decline.

Perhaps it simply comes down to my loving the show. At the end of the day I'm going to adore any network television show that centers an entire episode around a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Community injects near constant nods to nerd culture that a lifelong geek like myself can't help but appreciate. That said, what really draws me to the show is the rare emotional sincerity that permeates it.

From the word go Community established characters that are patently flawed. Jeff is egocentric. Annie seems consistently on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Pierce (Chevy Chase) is bitter and lonely. All the primary characters begin with serious problems that keep them from being healthy, whole people. Their interactions, in turn, are colored by these flaws. Where other series might approach such subject matter with humor grounded in cynicism, Community maintains an overarching sense of sweetness that is endlessly infectious. It's a show that makes you smile not just because it's funny, but also because it's sometimes just plain nice. You get a sense that these people genuinely love one another and that the mistakes they make don't come from a place of spite, but from simply being human.

In the end, I could be worrying for nothing. Dan Harmon has demonstrated in the past that he knows how to employ the characters he's created. That said, even with its flaws, season four ended on what could have been a satisfying conclusion for the show, delivering on the mix of weirdness and sincerity fans have come to expect. While it would be wonderful to believe we could have an endless stream of quality Community, years spent in front of the boob tube have taught me one reliable lesson. If a show goes on too long, it declines. I'd rather see Community end strong than see it limp on to a fizzle.

Read more by Stewart Shearer


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