Season finale review: ‘Community’: Cruel cruel cruel

A review of tonight’s three season-ending “Community” episodes coming up just as soon as I read the novelization of “The Chronicles of Riddick”…

“The truth is – the pathetically, stupidly, inconveniently obvious truth is – helping only ourselves is bad, and helping each other is good.” -Jeff Winger

The darkest timeline is not real.

Within the world of “Community,” we discover at the end of the season finale that it was all in Abed’s head.(*) And in the real world, the darkest timeline has been averted for at least another 13 episodes, thanks to NBC’s decision to order a fourth season. This maybe won’t be the best of all possible timelines, as the show is going to be airing on Friday nights, and as there’s a chance that Dan Harmon won’t be returning as showrunner (his contract with Sony is up, and negotiations are ongoing), but it’ll be a timeline where we get more adventures of Troy and Abed, Jeff and Shirley, Britta and Annie, Pierce and the Dean, and maybe even Chang (though more on him in a bit).

(*) Does this mean that the bulk of “Remedial Chaos Theory” was in Abed’s imagination as well, or just the darkest timeline and its aftermath?  

At the time these three episodes were made, though, Harmon had no way of knowing if NBC would grant his cult curiosity another season, while he did know that his contract was coming up and that anything could happen come negotiating time. So it’s easy to imagine that he went into the end of this season fearing that, one way or another, these would be the last episodes of “Community” he would be making and planned accordingly.

Like last week’s “Parks and Recreation” finale, “Introduction to Finality” seems like it was constructed as a just-in-case series-ender, from the title to the emotional place it leaves several of the characters, but especially Jeff Winger. In previous seasons, Jeff has accepted that the study group is a part of his life, but this felt like the first time where he also recognized that the study group, and Greendale, had made that life better. He was more successful when he was a lawyer, but was he this happy?  Jeff finally embraces that whatever happens to his legal career (especially now that the Drew Carey character has been eaten by a shark), he has these friends, and that his time at Greendale hasn’t just been a means to an end.

That’s a big development for Jeff, and several other characters also come to important emotional milestones in “Finality.” We realize in the final scene that Evil Abed has been our Abed all along, once again getting lost inside his own imagination, and he for the first time acknowledges that he also needs help being a better person, and in turn gives Britta a major self-esteem boost by declaring her the best one to provide that help. (And he’s definitely not cured, since even though he consents to dismantle the Dreamatorium, he keeps a couple of its panels for secret future trips into the unknown.)

Troy embraces his mechanical gifts and his role as the messiah of the AC repair school – or, in other words, Troy embraces adulthood. He gets to keep hanging out with the study group, but he’s already moving out of the blanket fort with Abed (the idea, I’m told, is that he’ll be sleeping in the former Dreamatorium space). The Troy we see inside the sun chamber, holding another man’s life and future in his hands, getting justice for Vice Dean Laybourne and calmly, confidently repairing that AC unit in a couple of seconds… that’s not a goofy boy; that’s a man. (Albeit one who will probably break down sobbing from time to time, because that’s just too funny to lose.)

Shirley and Pierce, meanwhile, get to achieve their shared dream of starting up their own business, even if it’s just a sandwich shop in the Greendale cafeteria, and Shirley and Jeff’s selflessness in turn makes Pierce stop being crazy and paranoid (but not necessarily impotent) long enough to recognize that they should be equals in this venture (Shirley’s idea, Pierce’s money) and leave their good friend Jeff Winger as the name on the contract.

The only study group member who doesn’t get major closure in “Finality” (or in any of the night’s other two episodes) is Annie, but she took a major leap forward at the end of the Dreamatorium episode by getting over her crush on Jeff and also deciding on a major and a career path in hospital administration.

If “Introduction to Finality” had wound up as the last episode the show ever did, it wouldn’t have been “Community” going out on its funniest note, but one that serviced as many of its large cast of characters as it could. And though Harmon had no way of knowing that NBC would wind up airing these three episodes all in the same night, combined they serve as a sampler of three of the many, many flavors this show has had to offer under his watch.

“Introduction to Finality” was the “normal” one (or as normal as you can get when one of your main characters appears to be replaced by his evil counterpart from an alternate timeline) dealing with the study group’s hopes and fears as they went through various bits of college life. “Digital Estate Planning” was the esoteric high-concept one, in which the study group were transported inside a classic 8-bit video game, while “The First Chang Dynasty” was the inevitable pop culture homage, with the study group going all “Ocean’s Eleven” to liberate Dean Pelton and overthrow Chang.

I wouldn’t call either the best example of their type, though each had their charms. “Digital Estate Planning” wasn’t incredibly laugh-out-loud, either, aside from a couple of scenes (Annie and Shirley massacring the blacksmith’s family, Britta complaining about the game’s racism right before the Jive Turkeys attacked), but it was cleverly done, and – like “Pillows and Blankets” earlier this spring – it took a smart right turn into more emotional territory right at the moment where the gimmick might have started to run out of steam. It helped that the episode had a great actor like Giancarlo Esposito playing the role of Pierce’s secret half-brother Gilbert – as Esposito demonstrated frequently as Gus Fring on “Breaking Bad,” he can demonstrate a lot of emotion with a minimal amount of movement or change in expression – and also that it mostly took Pierce seriously. (Aside from his incompetence at the game itself.) Whatever issues Chevy Chase may have with Harmon or anyone else who works on the show(**), he can do good dramatic work when called upon, and Pierce can be among the show’s most moving characters when he’s not just being treated as a buffoon.

(**) And if Harmon does leave, it does not mean that Sony chose Chevy over him. There are a lot of factors at play here, as I understand it. The Chevy beef was relatively minor in the scheme of things, but very public. 

“The First Chang Dynasty” was the most night’s most successful outing in terms of pure humor value, and it had a good command of the various tropes of caper films (including the thieves pretending to be foiled as part of their master plan) and the way they look and sound. On the other hand, it’s still part of the larger framework of Chang’s rise to the dictatorship of Greendale, which isn’t a story arc – or an iteration of Chang as a character – that’s been terribly successful. And in the end, it took him to such an extreme place – keeping Dean Pelton as his prisoner for two months and attempting to burn down the school (not realizing that fire can burn through doors, even though it’s not a ghost) – that it’s hard to imagine him continuing on the show anymore. (Even an attempt to do some kind of Phantom of the Greendale gag would feel redundant, since he’s lived in the vents in the past.)

If this really is the close of the Harmon era, then ideally this triple-feature would have been stronger on the whole. But the world we live in isn’t any more perfect than the one that’s home to Abed and friends. Hopefully, Harmon and Sony come to an agreement, but if they can’t, Harmon got to say goodbye with a night suggesting the breadth of what he did on the show, if not always the depth. And if he leaves, we’ll still have gotten three seasons of his inspired lunacy: of Human Beings and Annie’s Boobs, of John McClane vs. Chow Yun-Fat, of Britta and Pierce both being B’s, of foosball and spaghetti Westerns, of “Cougar Town” monologues and White Michael Jackson, and all the rest. And then we’ll see what kind of timeline we’ve wound up in when the show returns in its scary new timeslot.

Some other thoughts:

* “Introduction to Finality” was always intended as the season finale, but “Digital Estate Planning” was produced last because the animation required extra time to be completed. But it still felt slightly out of order, since last week ended with the study group determined to oust Chang and rescue the Dean, and there was no mention of that again until “The First Chang Dynasty.”

* Call it, friendos: Doppledeaner, Deanleganger or Deanlechanger?

* This is twice now (the “Pulp Fiction”/”My Dinner with Andre” episode was the other) where Yvette Nicole brown has had to wear an awful lot of facial hair. More convincing: Shirley as a male caterer, or Annie as one of the 12-year-old boys in Chang’s Army?

* I really liked the farewell to Troy scene at the end of “The First Chang Dynasty,” particularly the riff on the “Lost in Translation” trope about the unheard parting dialogue.

* Another Jim Belushi put-down, this time during Evil Abed’s emotional destruction of Britta.

* Star-Burns lives! I guess Dino didn’t mind acting that much, if he was willing to leave a window open to returning.

* I enjoy Leonard’s food reviews, but given how finale-y the rest of that episode was, it seems an odd note to close the season (and potentially the series) on. Also, have we seen his roommate (or whoever the other guy in the kitchen was) before?

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at