NBC’s marathon 90-minute festival of new COMMUNITY episodes tonight (interrupted by the 30 Rock season finale at 8:30) was less an expression of love from the network than a who-cares approach to the night, scheduled that way because The Office and Parks & Recreation aired their season finales last week, and Community, kept off the air for so long, had a surfeit of unaired half-hours on tap. It provides an opportunity, though, for a look at a cross-section of very different facets of Community.
The first episode to air, “Digital Estate Planning,” written by Consulting Producer Matt Warburton and directed by Adam Davidson, was Community at its inspired, astonishing, conceptual best. Virtually the entire episode was animated and took place within a video game, the pretext being that Pierce’s (Chevy Chase) crazy, bigoted and now dead father had created the game as a contest in which Pierce could try to win his inheritance. Really, though, his father wanted Pierce to be cheated out of the money by his friends, who would also play. But Jeff (Joel McHale), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Abed (Danny Pudi), Annie (Alison Brie), Troy (Donald Glover) and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) would have none of it, and instead tried to help Pierce out. His father’s sinister ex-assistant (Gus Fring himself, Giancarlo Esposito, a wonderful piece of casting), though, who turned out to have his own motives, was out to take the money.
The brilliance of “Digital Estate Planning” was that beyond all the extraordinary work and imagination that went into creating the game-within-the-show and animating the episode, the crazy things that happened inside the game were entirely in character. Abed found a home in the game world, Annie and Shirley were at first horrified by “killing” fellow characters and then took to mass murder with glee, and Pierce dug himself a hole under the ground and sulked. The half-hour was proof that high-concept doesn’t have to mean abandoning emotional reality.
The night’s second episode, “The First Chang Dynasty,” written by Co-Producers Matt Fusfeld and Alex Cuthbertson, and directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, fulfilled the requirements of a normal season finale, in that it wrapped up the season’s major storyline, Chang (Ken Jeong) replacing Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) with a lookalike, taking over the school, and expelling our heroes. In the episode, which parodied an Ocean’s 11-type heist movie, the group infiltrated Chang’s birthday celebration to free the Dean and regain control of the school. It also provided what would have been a set-up for the next season, since in order to finally save the Dean, Troy had to agree to join the all-powerful Air Conditioning Repair School at Greendale and submit to the will of its Vice-Dean (John Goodman).
For those of us who resist the allure of Chang, this episode was a little much. Still, the heist sequences were marvelously done (especially the double-reversal), and there were great details like Chang’s Stalinesque propaganda video and posters, Troy and Abed defusing the bomb (“There’s only one wire”), and the contents of Chang’s filing cabinet (including a file folder for “extra file folders”).
The actual season finale, entitled “Introduction to Finality,” written by Story Editors Steve Basilone and Annie Mebane, and directed by Tristam Shapeero, was something else again. It was hardly a secret that Community was a bubble show, as likely to be canceled as not, and we now know that for whatever reason, Dan Harmon’s position as continuing showrunner was (and is) not at all clear. Perhaps for these reasons, “Introduction to Finality” felt very much as though it was written as a series finale, or at least as Harmon’s farewell.
The episode was mostly constructed around callbacks to previous plotlines: Shirley and Pierce’s sandwich shop in the cafeteria, Jeff’s rotten ex-friend (Rob Corddry) at his old law firm, Troy at the Air Conditioning Repair School, and the return of Evil Abed from the multiple-timeline episode, this time determined to bring real life in line with his darkest timeline. The climax of the episode was (another) rousing speech by Jeff about being a good person, and then an epilogue montage showed the characters moving forward with their lives (Jeff looking up his long-lost father online, Abed–sort of–shutting down the dreamatorium). This was followed by a defiant “#sixseasonsandamovie” title card. It wasn’t the funniest or most remarkable episode of Community, but had it been the show’s ending, it would have been a satisfying one.
As it is, Community is technically coming back next season–although if Harmon is absent, it’s not clear what “back” will actually mean. Only at NBC would a show be renewed because of its loyal (if small) viewership… and then possibly make the one change guaranteed to alienate every viewer in that group. We can all hope for the best, but even if the network brings back only the shell of the series–no matter what, we’ll always have these 3 seasons.