After the news that Dan Harmon has been unceremoniously booted from his own show without warning by NBC/Sony, the last three episodes of Community‘s third year have taken a turn for the even finaler. Enough’s been written elsewhere about the affair so I’ll spare you the histrionics. Given this week’s bumper serving let’s roll through all three together like a Spaced slash Firefly misfit-friend-family, and I’ll keep things as far from maudlin as it is within my power to do.
Digital Estate Planning
Yes. This is what I love Community for. Not only is it a great and unexpected idea for the kind of themed episode the show excels at while keeping the story functionally tense, but it does a damn fine job of avoiding the more obvious gamer jokes. One of the neater gags is that Troy’s character spends the whole game jumping instead of running. Simple, but it makes so much sense to the character and the setting that it doesn’t even need attention drawn to it. It’s a background joke that tells you this is an episode the writing team has thought long and hard about, one that stands up to repeat viewing.
The story is suitably dumb: to get his inheritance Pierce needs to play a game with his seven closest friends (LeVar Burton was a maybe) designed by his insane, racist, marble wig-wearing father, facing off against his father’s assistant and half-brother Gilbert. The game starts in the Greendale study room and ends in Castle Hawkthorne, passing through some themed Mario 3/Legend of Zelda-style lands like “Valley of Laziness”, “Gay Island” and “Free Ride Ferry”. It also features the obligatory equipment-selling village; great lines include Troy: ‘Man why can’t my mom be here? She always said my video game knowledge would come in handy. I never believed her.’ and Abed: ‘She only has three moods that you activate with basic patterns of stimulus. I’ve never felt this way before.’ And if you can slow down the video, do check out all Hilda’s conversation options.
There’s a boss battle with Pierce’s dad who Abed and his army of in-game child drones defeat with some cool minecrafty weapons, including a dinobot and a mecha (‘Troy and Abed shooting lava!’), before Pierce does the gracious thing and hands his inheritance over to Gilbert in an uncharacteristic display of maturity. Like all great Community episodes the best stuff is in the small touches, the degree of craft involved in putting a concept-heavy episode like this together. Annie and Shirley’s murderous adventure in the blacksmith’s forge is absolute gold: ‘He was suffering!’ ‘From axe wounds!!’
The First Chang Dynasty
Back in the world of the main story arc, the study group are still expelled and still trying to prove that the Dean has been replaced with a double and the school has been taken over by Chang. This is solved by an elaborate heist, Ocean’s Eleven style, complete with ‘the bit where it seems like the plan has gone wrong but that was actually part of the plan’ and Pierce getting confused about how many layers of real/fake failure there are. The group all dress up, execute a plan from the intel from one of the leaders of the Air-Conditioning Repair College in that restaurant where Troy and Britta had lunch that one time (where was the Die Hard-hating owner?), outfox Chang and put the real Dean back in his rightful Deanship.
The problem with any Chang episode is that Chang gets old super quickly. He was arguably never a deep character in the way the Dean grew to be, and the whole dictatorial coup thing just doesn’t square with our knowledge that he’s a moron. Did his army of teens organise this? Which leads to a slightly bigger question about what has made this year slightly different to other seasons: where is everyone else? One of the really cool things about the two previous seasons is that you not only got a real sense that the group was just a small part in a much bigger school machine, but that each of the characters had dreams and ambitions and a life that existed outside of it. The group’s interior dynamics are great fun and one of the show’s unique hooks, but they thrived on outside interference, and most of the interesting conflicts have long since been resolved. The most interesting characters are Annie and Abed, and it’s not an accident that they’re the ones who have enjoyed the most positive development this season. One of the criticisms most frequently aimed at the show is the narcissism that’s grown around the lead characters, and the whole ‘Greendale 7’ plotline is pretty significant evidence for the prosecution.
The episode wraps up with Troy accepting his position at Vice Dean John Goodman’s AC College, having left his friends behind and whispering to Abed ‘I know you hate it when people do this in movies.’ Troy walks out the door and into…
Introduction to Finality
Okay this episode is pretty great. I’m really struggling to harness the melancholy primarily because of the end montage of everyone finally being okay (apart from Chang maybe but I’m okay with that) including the not-dead Starburns, and how the group have made a real home for themselves in Greendale.
The episode begins with Troy struggling with his first days in AC class, being told he is the True Repairman (who can repair… man), in a continuation of the theme that the AC School is somewhere between a polytechnic and an obscure branch of the Masons. Soon after, John Goodman is bumped off by his second in command. To settle matters Troy must do battle in the Sun Chamber, the only way AC guys know how to settle a dispute, wherein Murray is not only defeated but confesses he murdered John Goodman to take his place as Vice-Dean. Great line when the school condemns Murray to the ‘Infinite Labyrinth of Eternal Ice’: Troy: “No! No, take him to the police. He MURDERED someone! You guys are weird.”
There’s also conflict between Shirley and Pierce, as neither can agree to share ownership of their new sandwich shop, and between Britta and Abed, who has been replaced by Evil Abed from the darkest timeline earlier in the season. The former story is all just a tee-up for Jeff’s final Big Speech, more of which later, but it’s Britta and Abed who really have something interesting to do here. Britta has learned enough about psychology to identify Abed’s behaviour as dreaming up a crueller, tougher, more defensive character to deal with losing his best friend and the dissolution of the group at large. Abed, however, has learned enough about Britta to know how to repel her well-meaning questions.
Beyond the personal politics, it’s also a really funny scene, as Evil Abed dismisses his regular version (‘Lame Abed’) and sets himself a new objective: to make this timeline 100% darker, which is monitored in his terminator-vision by a gradually filling evil goatee graphic. But his step at the end of the show after the #Jeffchat to take some therapy sessions with Britta is a pretty dramatic step for his character, and an indication that his fight with Troy earlier in the year has really sunk in.
In what might well be Community’s final word, Jeff stands up in court to his odious former boss and shows how much he’s changed from the manipulative douche from the first episode by figuring out everything he’s learned: “Helping only ourselves is bad, and helping each other is good.” This ties up the entire series so neatly I didn’t even notice it first time round. I just wasn’t prepared to hear something so simple. This is a journey every single character has taken in these last three years, and despite a wobbly third season, it’s been a joy to watch. We’ve been a little spoiled by a tv show that recognises that presenting a bunch of rather idiosyncratic dudes have some in-jokey adventures is – much like Spaced and Firefly – not necessarily going to gather big numbers of viewers, but it does get you fans, dedicated ones at that. Harmon has already put a satisfying cap on the world of Greendale, and Abed stepping into his much-reduced dreamatorium is as fitting an ending as the last strip of Calvin & Hobbes.
And besides, if season four is a turd, we can always pretend it never happened.