Why the Smartest Show on TV is the Opposite of Blue Velvet

Slate's Culture Blog
May 18 2012 2:56 PM

Community Reveals the Lightness Underneath

communityfinale3
Danny Pudi on Community

Photo byNBC– ©2012 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

It’s the end of the third season of Community, which saw a lot of drama on screen and off. The real-world stuff has been pretty much resolved: The show, unaccountably, will be back on NBC next year for at least half of a fourth season, despite infinitesimal ratings. At moments like this, it is not appropriate to wonder why; we can only give thanks and remember that the great broadcast networks vouchsafe their wisdom in mysterious ways.

(For one thing, the fourth season gives the operation enough episodes for it to be offered to syndication.)

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On screen, there were a lot of threads to be tied up last night. Would Chang, who has taken over the school, get his comeuppance? Would the Dean be recued? And what of all the potential relationships the show has been teasing us with? Will Jeff and Annie, you know, do it? And what about Troy and Britta? What about Troy and Abed?

What about Abed and Evil Abed?

For some insane reason, NBC last night broadcast a regular episode of Community at 8 p.m., and then the two-part finale at 9 p.m., after an intervening episode of 30 Rock. We’ve already covered the ante-penultimate episode, “Digital Estate Planning.” (Inside joke: It’s basically “Basic Vulpine Urology” meets “Advanced Systems Analysis.” Additional inside joke: The show was done in animation as an ’80s-era video game, and is essentially unsyndicatable.)

For the finale, the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, tried to pull in themes from the entire show. Finally, the air-conditioning-repair annex subplot comes to the fore! The return of Rob Corddry! The end of Subway!

In the first part, the group makes its plans to get back to school, depose Chang, and rescue the dean, and this was all done with a stylish and knowing Ocean’s Eleven-style brio. (Were he the head of a real educational institution, as opposed to Greendale, the dean would perhaps appreciate as well the Scarlet Pimpernel-esque overtones to his rescue operation.) Part two has a relatively uninteresting main plot—Shirley and Pierce going to court to resolve a dispute over a sandwich shop to replace Subway—but is redeemed by some good sight gags and a lot of dark doings in the AC annex.

The climax has an unusual music cue beneath it; it’s the same one that ended the first episode of the show three years ago. At the time this finale was made, Harmon and Co. didn’t know if it would be the last ever, and it’s a nice touch.

*

The dean has been sequestered in the school’s basement, Birdman of Alcatraz style, living with a small doll he calls Jeffrey. (“PB&J again,” he says to the doll, not unhappily, as he removes his shirt. “Looks like I lost the bet!”)

Chang has taken over the school as an absolute ruler, with Khmer Rouge-y black-pajama-clad thugs wielding batons checking students’ papers. He himself is in a brownshirt, appurturnanced with medals, shiny objects, and gold braid, dispensing orders and contradicting himself. He’s an ill-tempered, easily distracted boy king, part Napoleon, part Louis XV, part Kim Jong Il.

Or, as Britta puts it, “Stalin back in Russia times.”

Britta gets it from all sides. When the dean comes rushing out to be rescued, expecting Jeff, he looks crestfallen when he sees it’s Britta. At another point, Evil Abed unloads on her: “You’re average! You’re a business-casual potted plant! You’re VH1, Robocop 2, and Back to the Future 3!”*

The heist takes place against Chang’s birthday party—he says it’s his 25th—and even the once-imposing school board members are sycophants at a hellish monument to the self-absorption of a diminutive despot.

Troy—uncharacteristically, it must be said—figures out that the folks in the air-conditioning-repair annex are the only people who can help the study group succeed. He ultimately has to make a deal with a devil only just this side of metaphorical: the demonic head of the annex, Vice Dean Laybourne, played by John Goodman, who has long coveted Troy’s mysterious, Good Will Hunting-level repair genius for the school.

Goodman dispatches one of his henchmen to cut the deal with Troy. “Not a lot of people get a second chance,” Troy is told. “Just you and probably Obama.”

With the help of the AC folks, the Ocean’s plot is duly planned and executed, with a lot of clichéd voice-overs and dollops of meta-knowing put into the mix. “I’m in,” Britta declares dramatically when she enters a room. “I know you are,” says Annie, next to her.

Things go well, until they don’t.

In part two, Troy finds out that deeds in the air-conditioning-repair annex are darker even than they seemed. Meanwhile, Britta meets up with Evil Abed, and the implication from the darkest timeline of the brilliant “Chaos Theory” episode are trotted back out. Jeff, defending Shirley in court, finds out that Pierce is represented by Alan Connor (played by Rob Corddry), his one-time friend from his former law practice. Connor, you’ll remember, turned up in the second episode of the second season, a buddy of Jeff’s from his earlier life as a lawyer. He’s a stand-in for Jeff at his worst. In court, in other words, Jeff is essentially facing off against himself—Jeff and Evil Jeff. (Since Jeff’s pretty evil himself on a good day, the parallel isn’t exact, but whatever.)

As I’ve said before, I don’t need Community to be sentimental; there’s enough of that on TV. But creator Harmon refuses to be knee-jerk cynical. He’s always insisted that the show, however dark its anti-Friends outlook, really is about building a community. Jeff, in Harmon’s mind, isn’t an unredeemable jerk. (How can he be, really—he’s Harmon’s stand-in.) He can change—and, in fact, does.

I can go two ways on this. In typical pop-culture analysis, we accept the positive sheen and look for darker morals beneath. Jeff is our (and Harmon’s), voice of reason on these issues. Remember when he snarled at Shirley about what those vampire novels she liked were really about? We accept that the patina is fake, and apply the darker undertones back to reality. That’s why critics love films like Blue Velvet, which take such analysis to its logical conclusion.

We all know that people really don’t change. Jerks are jerks, bullies are bullies. Forgive the political aside, but did you notice what happened to the anti-gay politicians on the right when President Obama stood up to them? (I don’t mean the actual quote-unquote “real” antigay bigots, I mean the public figures—and media outlets—who get them all riled up.) They didn’t change; they just disappeared, because they’re bullies and cowards. Those types of people retreat back into the woodwork when confronted.

The other side of the argument is that such dynamics are a real but relatively minor part of life. What our country at its best represents is a coming together. Community early on, despite its title, resisted such metaphors: The group’s interactions were overwhelmingly negative, the educational setting was anything but hopeful, and the overall tone was plainly based on Seinfeld’s vortex of narcissism and dysfunctionality.

But there’s always been a sentimental undertone to Community. It’s one of those works whose surface depravity hides a sunnier view. I’m not always comfortable with this. I’m reminded of Elvis Costello’s take on “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding,” the sarcasm of which is so indigestible that many of his fans, as I wrote years ago, still think he was being sentimental. The alternative is that Costello was just a punk with a heart of gold. Ugh. I don’t want my bleakness to be a feint.

But over three seasons, Harmon has crafted what, it must be said, is a persuasive argument for this view. I still think it’s telling that the episodes where these feelings come to the fore—the one where Shirley got married, the one where Jeff says, “We’ve got to stop hating ourselves!”—are the sitcom’s worst. And the best are the ones that give us a glimpse of the void. In other words, sure: Harmon’s putting his chips on the strength of an idea of community—and, by extension, Community. But it’s a mark of what makes him him that not even he is sure that he’s right.

Lots of other pop-culture references tonight, of course. (“Have you been watching Dance Moms again?”) I’ll be in the comments section off and on today to unearth them and discuss other oddities in the finale—including the vice dean’s gnomic utterances (“The true Repairman will repair man”), and the reincarnation of Starburns!

Further reading: Our analysis of the previous episode, also broadcast last night, “Digital Estate Planning”; analysis of last week’s episode, “Course Listing Unavailable”; a list of the top ten Community episodes; and an in-depth look at the show’s greatest concoction, “Paradigms of Human Memory.” Or just read all of Slate’s Community coverage.

* This post originally misstated the speaker of these lines: It was Evil Abed, not Troy.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon. More at www.hitsville.org.