I’ve just finished watching the final episode of Community. It’s a sad moment. I can’t remember when I first began watching Community, but it was a while ago.
It filled that space after I’d watched Scrubs too many times on DVD, and when Parks and Recreation was still finding its feet. I loved it.
The story, in as much as there is one, is about Jeff Winger. He comes to Greendale Community College broken, cast down from the heights of law-firm success, when he’s discovered what he’s always feared himself to be. A fraud.
In the process of trying to persuade Britta that having sex with him is a good idea, he ends up bringing together a mismatched jumble of characters in a study group. But what that group becomes, and what that show is really about, is … (well, partially about, anyway) – is community. It has its genesis in his own experience:
I wanted to save a relationship with my then-girlfriend. She was going to take a dance class at the local community college, and I thought we should take Spanish together. Because we’ll have to drive there and drive back, and we’ll be in a class together where we’ll be underdogs together and we’ll have things to study and learn. [Laughs.] It will force us to communicate and interact and have fun together. It didn’t work, but while I was there I became part of a study group of people I normally wouldn’t hang out with, because I’m very agoraphobic and narcissistic and solipsistic. But I was in this group with these knuckleheads and I started really liking them, even though they had nothing to do with the film industry and I had nothing to gain from them and nothing to offer them. There was a flash where it was like, “Oh shit, this is what normal people do all the time.”
In Community, too, Jeff Winger gradually finds himself – unwillingly, initially and for most of the remaining seasons – part of a group of friends. It’s not quite a community. They’re not best friends, but there is a sense in which the rest of the college serves as a backdrop for their exploits.
Jeff Winger starts by despising the group – they are misfits, and he is a normal person, temporarily cast into their purgatory before he rejoins the normal world. Along the way, he gradually realises that he likes them. Gradually, he becomes a part of their world.
And what a world it is. Part of what made Community so amazing was that it was a deeply, awkwardly, brilliantly, self-aware and self-reflexive TV show. The word meta probably goes in that sentence, but you can decide where. There’s too much to fit in here, so I’ll just say that it was brilliant. You should go watch some. Now.
No, seriously, right now. Everything else can wait. Go do it.
One of my favourite pieces in the last season was the extended riff on product placement. In an episode which featured a huge number of mentions of a particular car brand, clearly paid product placement, Harmon made it possible to still question what that kind of product placement does in every day life, and how it tears apart the authenticity of relationships by depriving people of their agency. We felt for the people being manipulated, we felt for the people being forced to do the manipulation, and we laughed at the ridiculous suits doing the manipulation.
There was the moment where Harmon booby-trapped the series, providing an alternate canon in what might have been a finale.
The paintball episodes are, for the most part, glorious celebrations of people who love TV, revelling in a parody/homage/whatever-the-hell you want to call it. They’re special moments.
Of course, Community was patchy at points. In later seasons it felt as though it was loosing its way a little, and each episode simply became a riff on a joke, without any underlying idea of what the show wanted to be. There was the darkest timeline, before Harmon’s return.
The final episode captures much of what was amazing about Community. It was a hilarious set of riffs on the characters, and on the concept of what a TV show can be – what TV should be, with Abed somehow imbuing a flickering screen with the warm glow of affection.
It was a heart-warming episode. In part a celebration of the people, and the adventures they’d shared. And the sad, bittersweet struggle of Jeff Winger to come to terms with the fact that now that he’s put down roots, and accepted that he’s staying in a place he once detested with people he once despised, they’re moving on, and he can’t keep them they’re once they’ve grown past it. The episode ends, though, with an encouraging message. Winger finds a kind of peace. With Community gone, I hope I can too.