Community Seasons 1-5 (2014)

So, NBC has cancelled Community, after 97 episodes. This is only slightly shocking, given that TV is a business and not too many people watch Community. Still, it survived the firing (and rehiring) of pain-in-the-ass auteur Dan Harmon, one of the few genius sitcom showrunners ever (Chuck Lorre is an egomaniac panderer.)

Community is actually too good for NBC. It is ripe for pickup by Netflix or Hulu (there should be a bidding war.) Nobody will lose their job for cancelling it, but somebody should.

The show has a basic premise, ripe with possibility. Seven students at a community college form a study group. The dean is a cross-dresser.

Season 1 took a while to find itself, but by Episode 19 (Beginner Pottery) the show had legs. Episode 21 (Contemporary American Poultry) was a pitch-perfect Goodfellas homage. Episode 23 (Modern Warfare) belongs on anybody’s list of Best Sitcom Episodes Ever – the pop culture references and resonances feed on each other in an exquisitely constructed confection. (Think 28 Days Later meets John Woo meets Die Hard.)

Season 2 is where Community hit its stride. Episode 4 (Fundamentals of Flight) was amazingly cockeyed and confident, Episode 6 (Epidemiology) sent up one variety of the contemporary horror genre, Episode 8 (Cooperative Calligraphy) is the epsode future showrunners should study when they need a bottle episode. Episode 9 (Conspiracy Theories & Interior Design) is incredibly well plotted and very funny.

Season 2, Episode 11 (Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas) is done in stop-motion animation, ala the old Rankin-Bass specials. (It works better if you’ve seen the show before.) If you’ve watched every episode I’ve mentioned and you aren’t convinced Community is one of the best sitcoms ever, there’s nothing more I can offer to convince you. If you loved this one, it gets better.

Season 2, Episode 14 (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) advances the show’s formula even as it honors the power of imagination (the episode becomes more fantastical and yet more grounded in reality because of the style.) Season 2, Episode 21 (Paradigms of Human Memory) ridiculously creates a clip-episode out of whole cloth. It’s an absurd, self-referential sendup of just about everything.

Season 2, Episodes 23 and 24 (A Fistfull of Paintballs; For a Few Paintballs More) represent the second and third “paintball war” episodes, upping the ante on Season 1’s Contemporary Warfare. If these aren’t as sublime as that single episode, it’s only because they contain an embarassment of riches; they widen the focus and satirize dozens of subjects and genres.

Season 3 is where Community went off the rails, into “delusional genius” territory. You’ll find yourself wondering how anybody got away with making these episodes. But…when it was good, there was nothing better. Episode 4 (Remedial Chaos Theory) plays with seven alternate timelines in 22 minutes. Episode 5 (Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps!) expands on the holiday-themed riff from Season 2’s Epidemiology. Episode 13 (Digital Exploration of Interior Design) introduces the sitcom representation of corporations-as-people (Subway is embodied as a student) and is resolved in the sublime Episode 14 (Pillows and Blankets), filmed in the style of a Ken Burns documentary. Episode 16 (Virtual Systems Analysis) is at once a confident exploration of character and a genre sendup, all while posing metasphysical brainteasers. Episode 17 (Basic Lupine Urology) is another satire, capturing the Law & Order/CSI feel, complete with twist ending. Episode 20 (Digital Estate Planning) placed the action within a Nintendo-style 8-bit video game (yep).

Season 4 was the strangest season of Community, which is saying something. Dan Harmon was fired (you’d think NBC would have learned the West Wing lesson.) Talented people worked hard and produced a sitcom that just felt off (despite getting Brie Larson and several other wonderful guest stars.) The standout Episode was #9, Intro to Felt Surrogacy, which was performed largely with puppets.

Dan Harmon returned in Season 5, and the “feel” of the show returned, even if it no longer seemed entirely original or quite as subversive. Episode 3 (Basic Intergluteal Numismatics) was another effective sendup, while Episode 4 (Cooperative Polygraphy) explored territory similar to Season 2’s Cooperative Calligraphy. Episode 5 (Geothermal Escapism) expanded the playground of the paintball episodes but tinged it with real emotional heft. Episode 8 (App Development and Condiments) was a brilliant sendup of the “app culture” we see in our own world. Episode 10 (Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) also expanded on an earlier episode, adding new emotional weight. Episode 11 (G.I. Jeff) is in the spirit of Season 2’s Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, with a new spin (the characters are animated in the style of a 1980’s Saturday-morning cartoon instead of as stop-motion characters. The fake toy commercials are meta bonus, hilarious.)

I can’t blame NBC for cancelling Community. But I don’t entirely understand it, either.