Community has ended several times. First, in season 3, it completed a trilogy of excellent seasons of often genre-bending, frequently fourth-wall-breaking, occasionally tearjerking comedy on NBC. Then the network unceremoniously dumped the show’s creator and guru Dan Harmon, leaving the show’s rabid fan base with a superficial shell of a fourth season that retained the show’s stylistic inventiveness but lost nearly all of its humanity. It ended on the show’s worst episode to date, a sour end to a misguided attempt at brand extension from a network and production company that had clearly misunderstood what viewers actually wanted out of the show.
But then, miracles of miracles, the show returned again, and Dan Harmon with it. The fifth season was bumpy, especially because it had to deal with the loss of integral cast member Donald Glover and his lovable teary-eyed jock-turned-nerd Troy Barnes. But it was the show again. And then it ended, somewhat unremarkably.
Except it didn’t end, thanks to the #NewRules of television economics.
Desperate to be viewed as a legitimate player in what I’m dubbing the “scripted on streaming” movement, Yahoo revived the show for a sixth “season,” which unspooled weekly on Yahoo Screen for the past three months. Its ending debuted last Tuesday night.
It’s unclear if this ending, an episode entitled “Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television,” is the ending, or just another in an endless string of endings straight out of an Abed Nadir aside. But I hope this is it for Community, one of my favorite shows whose creative heyday is almost certainly in the rearview.
Ironically, I’m ready to be done not because the show is now terrible, or because each new episode soils the good memories from the ones who came before. The opposite is true. Season six of Community was a return to many of the qualities that made the show appealing in the first place. The “gimmick” episodes largely emerged from stories that advanced the character’s emotional arcs — Abed’s struggle to reconcile television and reality in “Basic RV Repair and Palmistry,” Jeff contemplating his mortality in “Wedding Videography,” Britta sparring with her parents in “Advanced Safety Features,” the entire group confronting their secrets in “Basic Email Security.” The new hires — Paget Brewster as the uptight administrator Frankie, Keith David as the aloof computer programmer Elroy — quickly distinguished themselves from the previous occupants of their study room chairs. Gillian Jacobs and Alison Brie, whose character arcs turned to mush under the fourth-season regime, took full advantage of Britta and Annie’s returns to fleshed-out personalities and distinctive quirks. For all of the meta talk of diminishing returns, this season’s returns rarely diminished.
And yet, the time has come. Any more extensions and the show threatens to lose nearly all of the original cast members and much of the thrill of discovery. This season wasn’t great in new ways. Instead, it harkened back to Community at its best, and storylines rested on viewers’ prior associations with the characters. If the absurdist extended tags at the end of each season six episode are any indication, the engine of reckless creativity that made the show a stunner at the outset hasn’t sputtered out. But it will, as all engines do.
I initially hesitated to jump back into Community, fearing that it would feel even more like a blatant syndication grab or a scattered shadow of its former self. But I quickly burned through the season’s thirteen episodes and found myself brushing away at a tear at the end of the finale. The show’s decision to send Abed and Annie away from the study group, to let Jeff and Annie share one moment of pseudo-sexuality, to end on a note of ambiguity, is yet another reminder that sometimes TV shows are better off ending even when they’re not yet out of gas.
Maybe another season of Community would be great. (At the very least, a movie would fulfill a five-season running gag and online meme.) And I had many of the same thoughts about the show’s future three seasons ago. But this time, I’ve counted the number of reasons Community should stay, and they don’t outnumber the reasons it should go. Six seasons of a show this strange and format-busting is nothing to sneeze at. Even Abed wouldn’t balk at a pop culture accomplishment of that…magnitude.