I found it surprising when, in the midst of my Community re-watch, I felt the need to switch gears. It was the start of lockdown and I just needed a different flavor of comedy. One that led more with its heart than its head. I spent time watching Parks and Rec, Bob’s Burgers, and Schitt’s Creek. Shoot, I even dabbled with a few episodes of Perfect Strangers in the pursuit of feel-good fun. But now, running low on familiar favorites that I haven’t recently re-explored, I’ve returned to Community (five years from when its finale aired, incidentally) and re-discovered a valuable lesson. While it may not be as quick to affection as the above-mentioned, Community brings an element of sentimentality and existentialism that shouldn’t be obscured by its reputation for wildly imaginative adventures. Particularly in its later seasons.
You could argue that in addition to housing some of series creator Dan Harmon’s most self-indulgent (not a complaint!) and all consumingly thematic ideas, the show’s most emotionally complex episodes live in season 3 and more fully in season 5 and at the end of the road in season 6. Sure, the fun and inventive spirit of the first two seasons are present, but pangs about growing up are also sprinkled in.
As I’m sure you know (but I’ll remind you anyway), Harmon went on a journey with this show. Network fights while dealing with what seemed like the imminent cancelation of this thing he’d loved and poured everything into. The humiliation and torture of being separated from that thing while watching someone else come in and play with his toys for season 4. Oh, and then between a surprising comeback at the start of season 5 and a migration to an unsteady new format with Yahoo Screen (RIP) in season 6, he lost almost half of his cast. And that’s to say nothing about his personal life and everything Chevy Chase that happened behind the scenes and in the press and on voicemail.
Change can be a hell of an instigator, creatively. Sometimes for the better (think Parks post-Ben and Chris), sometimes for the worse (The Office in the post-Michael years). And sometimes, specifically, when it looms large as an ever-present thing, it can make something more interesting.
Donald Glover’s exit from Community at the start of season 5 was doubtlessly the most significant loss the show suffered (even greater than Harmon’s one-year absence), but it also felt more like a graduation than anything else. Community fans latched on to the symmetry of Troy (Glover) and Abed’s (Danny Pudi) personalities and a friendship that often verged on codependency, but Harmon was obviously mindful of the dangers of creative laziness and leaning on something that works for too long without exploration.
In season 3, Harmon was content to add dimension to Troy. And longing. Troy wasn’t quite ready to jump, but he was becoming more aware of his need to ponder a future on his own terms. One that would eventually acknowledge that very difficult life lesson: sometimes we outgrow the people who mean the most to us.
This is revealed in the lingering air conditioning repair arc in season 3 and in tensions on display between Troy and Abed in “Contemporary Impressionists” (when Troy grows tired of having to reign Abed in) and “Pillows And Blankets” (when Troy grows tired of feeling like a bit player in Abed’s fantastical adventures). When the time comes to say goodbye to Troy two seasons later — in “Cooperative Polygraphy” after he’s inspired by a challenge from beyond the grave by Pierce and “Geothermal Escapism” when he actually leaves — we’re weirdly ready, even if Abed isn’t.
Abed’s own journey is another area of growth that the show explored. With nuance. He’s not just a quirky side character. He’s experiencing these changes and the erosion of his comfort zone uniquely and with difficulty all the way to the end of the show.
For Annie, Britta, and Jeff, their emotional state is less tied to Troy’s exit than their own reckoning with the things that set him off on an adventure across the world — the hyper-relatable stirring that comes from standing in place for too long while everyone else seems to be rocketing ahead. That’s not the show in its last two seasons. Not exclusively. But we know that, in these later years more than before, it exists under the surface as the action and absurdity chugs along, adding to the urgency of these characters’ time together and to our understanding of and appreciation for the affection that they have for each other. Something that they clung to while pushing down the urge to break away. All of this helps to underwrite both the show’s late-stage existence and its meaningful end.
It’s important to consider the narratives that build up around shows as time passes if for no other reason than because they can serve as a blockade to re-exploration. As it did for me for a minute. Community was wildly creative, silly, and sometimes absurd. Yes. There was a comedic coolness to it in both its punk-comedy “damn the rules” creativity and in the “if you don’t get it that’s not our problem” kind of way. These labels that get pinned to its chest are accurate. But the show was also a meditation on adulthood and how we run away from and toward it. Community was the most human kind of art — a weird amalgamation of moods and themes, awkward, lifting off as one thing and touching down as another. Whether that’s the kind of journey that you seek right now is subjective, but it’s worth considering for the multitudes that it contains.