“This is the kind of adventure I usually have to force upon us,” declares Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) in the season finale of Community, which aired last night, “and here it is, falling into our laps.”
The “adventure,” as it happens, is a totally implausible one: In order to save Greendale Community College, the characters need to uncover a hidden underground sector of a school building, which is filled with computers made of solid gold, built by an eccentric millionaire who faked his own death in order to go underground and teach a computer named Raquel how to love him.
And if you expected Community to let that plot go by without acknowledging its oddity, well, you’ve clearly never seen the show. On Community, a bizarre plot isn’t just introduced to provide fuel for jokes; the bizarre nature of that plot is the joke. When two characters (Jeff Winger and Britta Perry, played by Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs) announce their engagement, the other characters all shoot it down by calling attention to which NBC Thursday-night sitcom they inhabit: “What does this look like, an hour-long episode of The Office?” Later, it’s explained that Jeff and Britta are an impossible couple because a show about their marriage “would last six episodes.” And, of course, the entire plot — Greendale being just “saved” enough to be bought out by a private company — is a complicated metaphor for the potential fate of the show, which was itself “saved” by series creator Dan Harmon returning as showrunner this year after an involuntary and disastrous absence. Now, if Community isn’t renewed by NBC for its sixth season, it may have that season sold to and broadcast by a private company such as Amazon, Netflix or Hulu.
Which is all to say, Community has never rewarded casual viewing, and at this point, it doesn’t even try. Although it started out as a simple ensemble comedy about a jerk who learns to love while attending community college, Community has become a comedy about the making of Community. Not since Mystery Science Theater 3000 has a show spent so much time trying to teach its viewers media literacy, and many of its jokes assume viewer knowledge of every bit of backstage drama, financial struggle and staffing change that went into making the show. This is one of the show’s greatest strengths. But, increasingly in Season 5, it became a deficit — largely because it felt, more often than not, like the show was taking a backseat to an extended vindication of Dan Harmon.
Even when the show’s firing on all cylinders, Community’s meta-commentary can be tricky to pull off. Sometimes it’s so self-absorbed as to be intolerable: Witness last week’s episode, in which Abed recited Harmon’s basic story structure (an eight-point arc he claims to have derived from “boiling down” Joseph Campbell) in conversation, and later ran through the halls of Greendale shouting, “Everything’s a story! I’m in a story!” It was clever, but it wasn’t very funny, and if you’d never read Dan Harmon’s blog and/or the Wired profile in which he shared the theory, it probably didn’t make any sense. But sometimes, that same approach feels uniquely personal and welcoming to fans: If Dan Harmon gets into an Internet fight with a viewer named Gwynnifer, a character named “Gwynnifer” will be told to “suck it” in a forthcoming episode. If fans start making cracks about Joel McHale’s increasingly over-developed muscles, then the season finale will contain a scene of McHale’s character accidentally knocking a man to the floor because “I lose track of how big I’m getting.” Community can feel exhaustingly narcissistic, or Community can feel like a living organism that cares about you and wants to start a conversation, because in fact, Community is both.
But, with Harmon returning to the show, the meta-commentary couldn’t be about anything but Harmon’s return. Which put it into the uncomfortable position of defending someone who is — how to put this nicely?— a somewhat problematic guy.
Harmon’s flaws are not secret: The man has a blog, a Twitter, a podcast, and a documentary dedicated to revealing them. And the personal stuff — drinking too much and at the wrong times, getting into a lot of Internet arguments, talking endlessly about his feelings online, being a perfectionist, etc. — can be passed by more or less in silence. (If nothing else, the writer of this article is not in a position to non-hypocritically critique them.) It’s the political problems that stand out: Scan his blog, and you’ll find at least one instance of him instructing a feminist blogger to “imagine a GIF of me shitting on your face.” Complaints about the show’s diversity — one early complaint was that the show didn’t feature any recurring Latino characters — get turned into running fuck-you jokes. (In this season, there’s a Spanish-language newspaper at Greendale, but it only covers issues that stand to affect soccer.) Harmon’s used rape jokes. Probably too many rape jokes. His reaction to watching the Harmon-less Season 4 was a rape joke; a recent episode of his new animated show Rick and Morty featured a big, polarizing rape joke; at least one episode of this show — “Competitive Wine Tasting,” from Season 2 — had a whole B‑plot that was one long rape joke. (Troy made up a story about being molested as a child to get attention and make Britta like him. It was just about as charming as it sounds.) Oh, and did I mention that Britta actually was molested as a child? And that this gets brought up sometimes? Via rape jokes? It feels a bit unfair to bring it up — Harmon’s apologized, and apologized well, and stated his commitment to doing better — but still. I’d recommend skipping “Competitive Wine Tasting.”
Ultimately, I love Community, and I think Dan Harmon should be the person to run Community. It doesn’t work without him: Just look at that Harmon-less fourth season, which started off at “mediocre,” and frequently dipped into “unwatchable.” You can also make an argument for Community as a fairly progressive show: The cast actually is racially diverse. There are plenty of women, and they tend to have non-stereotypical interests — Britta’s left-wing politics, Shirley’s entrepreneurial spirit, Annie’s academic perfectionism — and talk to each other. The Dean’s love of drag and unsubtle crush on Jeff Winger used to be fodder for nasty jokes, but as Jim Rash has become a more central part of the show, now there’s a queer and/or gender-fluid character in the mix, and he’s not only accepted, he can get the whole school to say “we love you” by accidentally talking into the PA system.
But, where those elements felt fairly radical when Community first aired in 2009, in 2014 there are plenty of shows doing them or even outdoing them: Broad City, this year’s critical sitcom darling, not only centers on unconventional female characters, it’s created and run by women. The treatment of gender and sexuality on Orange is the New Black makes Community’s early treatment of the Dean look decades, not just years, out of date. Having a diverse cast isn’t an exceptional accomplishment, it’s something that viewers increasingly treat as a basic requirement. And, in this landscape, it can feel very uncomfortable to be stuck advocating for comedy made by and about an offensive-joke-deploying white guy.
But Season Five, as the return of Harmon, necessarily had to be the season that was most directly about Harmon, and whether he deserved to run a sitcom. Did you read a lot about how Harmon probably got fired because of his drinking? Here’s Jeff Winger, getting kicked out of his office because his law practice failed, talking about how alcohol is the only thing that keeps him going. Did you read about how Harmon’s not a team player, or how he’s too much of an artist for the suits? Here’s Abed Nadir admitting that he “needs to learn how to work with others” in order to be a filmmaker, and another scene of him screaming at somebody that “you’re mad at me because I’m creative.” (Abed, as Harmon’s most frequent mouthpiece, went from nigh-unflappable to downright volatile this season, which seems like an open acknowledgment of the shift in how Harmon is perceived.) Ever notice that Harmon tends to get in trouble on the Internet, especially with that blog post about how he got fired as showrunner and his consultation credit was worthless? Well, you should have, because the climax of this year’s season (and possibly series) finale is a disheveled, bearded man in a ratty bathrobe — the creator of Greendale Community College — coming out of exile to claim his “right of consultation” on the school. “I hear there’s an Internet on which I can make my inner thoughts public,” he says, and the people threatening to buy Greendale flee the premises instantly.
It’s funny, especially if you’re a hardcore Community fan. (Or, in other words: a Community fan.) And the idea of Harmon as a basement-dwelling, money-repelling weirdo who once tried to “make love to a computer” is the opposite of self-aggrandizing. But by turning the season into a referendum on Harmon himself, the show directed its focus away from the characters and jokes, and lost some of the joy and warmth that can make it so much fun. It had to happen. And I sincerely hope Community does come back for its long-promised sixth season (and its movie). But I also hope that, if and when the show comes back, it can stop talking about whether Dan Harmon’s the best person to run it, and just settle into being Dan Harmon’s show.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.