After a premiere episode packed with competing storylines—Annie and Shirley doing senior pranks, “The Hunger Deans,” Britta and Troy’s “progression,”—it was up to Jeff, the study group’s faux leader, to bring it all home per usual. No matter what happens, they’ll always be together, he explained in Abed’s envisioned multi-camera dream. “Even if we go somewhere, we’re not going anywhere.” For some die-hard Community fans, this typically meta statement might feel especially comforting. But others would prefer to see a short, well-crafted run of our favorite show rather than have it fizzle out into mediocrity. While we all can admit to playfully reciting “Six seasons and a movie!” from time to time, perhaps we don’t truly want the gang around forever.
The first episode of Season 4, as many have now duly noted, felt off. It featured (for the most part) the same cast of characters we’ve come to love, but it was perhaps a little too aware of everything that’s been going on behind the scenes. It’s worth acknowledging, however that, even if Dan Harmon were running the show, Community may have been on its last legs. And that would be fine.
It was easy to suspend disbelief and accept Greendale as being that rare example of a four-year community college—producers don’t set out to make a sitcom for only two seasons, and the characters were continuing to flesh out and establish new and engaging relationships. In Season 3 of Community, there were some low notes (the Model U.N. episode, for instance) thrown in with the highs (the excellent Ken Burns- and Law & Order-themed eps), but by the end, the show’s increasingly dark and manic undertones resulted in a satisfying maturity in most of the characters (especially Troy, the once one-dimensionally dimwitted jock). Not every episode, of course was consistently funny or interesting; no show can possibly maintain perfection, though Dan Harmon-led Community fared better than most.
But now we’re on to a fourth season. 30 Rock began to lose steam in its fourth season (in particular Liz Lemon’s failed love life remaining frustratingly cyclical), only to come roaring back for its winsome (and final) seventh year. The current fourth season of the more traditional Modern Family has found the show resorting to lazy tropes that have made it less endearing. (Daughter Haley getting kicked out of school and forced to move back home, thus—forcibly—remaining a main character on the show; Gloria’s pregnancy and the associated routine hijinks.) And like much of last season of Community, Arrested Development’s demise loomed large over its own third season with the supremely meta “Save Our Bluths” storyline. Had it managed to hang on for a fourth season immediately afterward, it may have been completely bogged down by the impending doom of cancellation in the way I worry Community might be.
Six seasons and a movie is a nice fantasy, but no one likes to be disappointed by the thing they love. New producer David Guarascio is “bullish” on getting a fifth season; the fear among fans, of course, has always been that the show’s ratings will only improve if it is dumbed down. And so we fans find ourselves hoping that the show retains its creative footing post-Harmon, even while realizing that if that somehow, miraculously, happens, the series’ lifespan might be measured in days, not seasons. Or maybe I’ll just enjoy my time with the Greendale Seven (soon to be Six), and be content that the show might never again get better than this.