After a long mid-season hiatus, “Community” returns to NBC’s lineup tonight at 8 with an episode that’s almost aggressively normal.
The main story focuses on the most level-headed member of the study group, Yvette Nicole Brown’s Shirley, as she ponders major changes involving her relationship with ex-husband/baby daddy Andre (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) and her plans to one day open up her own sandwich shop. It’s as close as “Community” ever gets to presenting an episode that you could imagine some other show trying to do a version of. It also happens to be one of the best episodes the show has done this season: funny and warm and surprising and providing spotlight moments for almost every member of its deep and versatile ensemble. (Including Jim Rash, newly-minted Oscar-winning writer and Angelina Jolie satirist, as the pansexual dean of Greendale.)
And yet, “Community” being “Community,” it’s also an episode that’s very aware of its efforts to be less weird than usual, which manifests itself in a subplot where Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) go all out to “de-whimsify” and be as normal as possible.
It’s not a spoiler to say that their transformation isn’t permanent. Troy and Abed aren’t meant to be normal, and while “Community” itself is perfectly capable of telling straightforward stories that don’t lean on pop culture references or meta commentary on the show itself, trying to single out any kind of “Community” episode as a “normal” one is missing the point.
There is no such thing as a normal episode of “Community.”
And thank God for that.
Even when “Community” is normal, it’s not normal, because it’s not quite like the episodes that aired before or after it. The show takes very seriously the idea of college – even a terrible community college like Greendale, where Dean Pelton is surprised whenever anyone demonstrates they’ve learned something in class – as a place where you can change yourself into anything you want to be. And it keeps reinventing itself accordingly.
In any given week, “Community” can put its characters in space, in a stop-motion animated Christmas paradise, the Wild West or an alternate dimension where a felt goatee signifies you as evil, to name just a small sample of the very strange, awesome places the show has traveled. But it can just as easily de-whimsify itself and effectively tell simple stories about the study group celebrating Troy’s birthday or Annie (Alison Brie) discovering that being friends with Troy and Abed is a lot more fun than being their roommate.
Where a mystery show might try to keep its audience in suspense from week to week by asking whodunit, “Community” fans are left with the trickier question of “what is it?” With the possible exception of FX’s “Louie” (where at least all of the stories are built around one character with a consistent worldview), no show on television is as hard to predict in terms of tone, structure and focus from week to week. Even when you think you know what’s coming, you may not: midway through last season, they presented what seemed like it was going to be an extended homage to “Pulp Fiction,” only to do an abrupt left turn into a completely different movie homage, with Abed and Jeff (Joel McHale) turning into the main characters from “My Dinner with Andre.” (And that story went even further down the rabbit hole with a long Abed monologue – delivered in spell-binding fashion by Pudi – about how being a background extra on “Cougar Town” made him question the nature of his existence.)
That versatility is part (but by no means all) of what makes “Community” great, and makes me grateful it’s finally back on the air after that unfortunate hiatus.
But that versatility is also part (but by no means all) of what has kept the show on the ratings margins for the last two and a half seasons, with odds of a fourth (and presumably final) season very much up in the air. TV viewers like consistency.(*) They like knowing that the show they tune into tonight will be similar to the one they tuned into the week before – maybe surprising in terms of the jokes or a few plot points, but not feeling like an entirely different show that features the same characters.
(*) Then again, NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” – the show that “Community” is temporarily bumping from the schedule (it’ll be back on April 19, airing after “The Office”) – may be the most consistent comedy on television, not just in terms of quality but style and mood and characterization, and it would be a cancellation candidate on any other network. TV viewers may not like inconsistency, but they seem to dislike NBC even more these days.
Me, I love the unpredictability. I love that “Community” aims so high and far and wide and usually hits the mark. I love that, while it can be inconsistent at times, its best episodes (like this season’s “Remedial Chaos Theory,” in which seven alternate timelines showed how each member of the study group affects the others) rise to a level no other comedy can touch. I love that I only have to think about Donald Glover crying, or Jim Rash in a frilly, feminine costume, or Gillian Jacobs as Britta (TV’s most improved character, from drag on the series to possible MVP) ruining everything with her innate Britta-ness, and I will laugh long and hard. I love that even though the show is constantly commenting on itself – Abed is, for all intents and purposes, a sitcom character who knows he’s a sitcom character – it does it without undercutting the sincere relationships it’s established among the characters. (Hell, tonight’s episode even takes Chevy Chase’s bumbling Pierce seriously for a few seconds.)
I don’t know what the future is going to bring for “Community.” I do know NBC is in such dire straits that many of their renewal choices will come down to a bunch of marginal ratings performers (unless they just decide to clean house). And if that’s the case, I would hope that network president Robert Greenblatt decides he’d rather stick with a show that’s not like anything else on network TV – and that can, at times, be better than anything else on network TV – than something like “Up All Night” or (shudder) “Whitney.” If only a few people are watching, wouldn’t you want them to be the ones who are crazy in love with your show – and, by extension, you for keeping it alive?
But if these last 12 episodes of the season are the last episodes of “Community” that we ever get, then I’ll be grateful that we got to see them, and that creator Dan Harmon, his writers, this marvelous cast and everyone else involved got to keep blowing my mind week after week, season after season, with the wonderful, inspired, unpredictable lunacy of Greendale.
Normal is overrated. Give me whimsy, dreams and Evil Troy and Evil Abed any day. Give me extraordinary.
Give me “Community.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com