Apr. 21st, 2014

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I never get tired of writing about this show, and as we say goodbye to the fifth season, the big question is, did Dan Harmon and the other creators get away with it? Did they manage to course-correct after that disastrous fourth season and bring back the show that its fans wanted? I'm willing to say yes. Clearly year five was better than year four, and I'd even go as far as saying that it was better than a lot of the third season, when Dan Harmon started getting a little too carried away with the metatextual madness. And yet, despite gaining some vital ground, there are some big problems with Season Five.

The season started out well enough, with Jeff becoming the newest Greendale educator and the whole gang reuniting as the Save Greendale Committee. I thought Troy and Pierce's departures were handled about as well as they possibly could have been, and that the amped up part for John Oliver's Professor Ian Duncan and the introduction of Professor Buzz Hickey, played by Jonathan Banks, were pretty good at helping to fill the void. However, neither are quite fleshed out well enough yet to really be replacements. But then, sadly, nothing was really done with Jeff's new position. We never saw him in a classroom again after the first time and his status as a teacher was never explored at all. More time was devoted to Abed getting a girlfriend and even Hickey's cartooning efforts.

I suspect the limited number of episodes was probably responsible for this. The truncated thirteen episode season meant that there wasn't a lot of space to devote to character development in general. What bits and pieces that we did get just didn't cohere as well as they have in the past. The two-parter ending that explored the possibility of Greendale ceasing to exist felt wholly unconnected to anything that had been set up earlier in the season. Character arcs were set up that didn't really go anywhere, and others have been quietly dropped. At least all the characters feel like themselves again, with the exception of the reformed Jeff, who I'm still not sure about. Annie and Abed benefited the most from this, and Chang has been thankfully de-emphasized. Alas, Britta was sorely underused.

Individual episodes hit some impressive bullseyes. I've already talked about the farewell to Troy in "Geothermal Escapism," that turned the whole school into a post-apocalypse spoof thanks to a game of "The Floor is Lava." However, my favorite of the crazy theme episodes this year was definitely "App Development and Condiments," where a new social netwoking app known as MeowMeowBeenz is tested on the campus, leading to Greendale becoming a '70s sci-fi dystopia spoof with lots of references to "Logan's Run," and Starburns in Sean Connery's outfit from "Zardoz." There was also the entirely animated "G.I. Jeff," that took on Saturday morning cartoons and toy commercials, plus another round of Dungeons and Dragons.

And while they're a little nuttier than they used to be, the regular school life episodes like "Analysis of Cork-Based Networking" and "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" also did a good job of establishing new group dynamics and making use of the campus setting. I could easily see "Community" continuing in this vein for another season or two, improving on the groundwork that was laid this year. However, like many other reviewers have pointed out, I'm also starting to feel like "Community" has run its course. This year spent so much time getting us back to the old "Community," and then trying to maintain the status quo that it didn't do enough to push forward into new territory. There's a clear sense of the writers trying to patch too many gaps at once, reacting to format changes by doubling down on the old formulas instead of trying to find new ones.

The goal of six seasons and a movie is in sight, and considering NBC's fortunes, there's a good chance we'll get another thirteen episodes next year. However, all the drama and the cast changes and the shuffled creatives have taken their toll on the show, and will probably continue to. Season Five had some similar problems with Season Four, ironically, which is that it was trying too hard to backpedal to the point where the show was at its best. I'll continue to watch it weekly as long as they keep running it, but my enthusiasm for "Community" is starting to go south. I'm having a hard time seeing where the creators can take things from here, with most of the big arcs from prior seasons wrapped up and the new ones sputtering as they try to get off the ground.

There have been more than a few episodes in the last batch that I loved, but I'm starting to think that it might have been better for everyone involved if the show had just wrapped up after three strong seasons and didn't try to push its luck.
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