Looking Back On Four Years Of Greendale As We Say Goodbye To ‘Community,’ Possibly Forever

Tonight is the season finale of Community, and for all we know, it could very well end up being the series finale (we should find out its fate at the upfronts next week, or perhaps sooner). It’s been a tumultuous four years with a series that, ironically, only began to develop a hard-core cult audience once its ratings began to erode (which, to be honest, was almost immediately). The pilot was seen by nearly 8 million people, then it went on a fairly steady decline for nearly three full years before bottoming out around 3 million viewers, which is where it continues to hover today, give or take half a million viewers each week.

For those of us who have been with the show since the beginning, it’s been an interesting up-and-down ride. The trajectory of Community has, in some ways, mirrored that of network television: Steady ratings erosion. Nevertheless, as much crap as we’ve given NBC for its treatment of Community over the years, the network was at least smart enough to recognize that it had enough of something to keep it on the air, even when it had become clear that Community would never be a hit for the network.

Of course, we will never forgive what they did in taking Dan Harmon’s show away from him, and depriving us of one of the most singularly creative voices on television. But who knows what would’ve happened with another season under the leadership of Dan Harmon. He was cantankerous. He was a little psychotic. He was difficult. And let’s be honest, he was kind of a baby who would sulk when things didn’t go his way, and lash out with those who disagreed with him (I have heard from a friend of an unnamed cast member, in fact, that the cast felt some sense of relief when Dan Harmon was fired because it would mean less drama and unpredictability on the set.)

The point is, with or without Harmon, most of us have stuck with the show, out of both a sense of nostalgia and an affection for those characters, with whom we have spent the last four years. This final year has been uneven, to say the least, and while it doesn’t feel nearly the same as it did under Dan Harmon, many of us agree that it’s still a solid sitcom, especially with these last few episodes, where it seemed that the new showrunners had begun to find their groove. The Dean impersonating Jeff was my turning point, the moment I realized that, though it’s not the same as it once was, I don’t want to lose Community. Not yet. I like the show, even in week’s in which I don’t like the episode. It means something to me, and even if it’s not what it once was, I’ll be sad to lose it, in part because of what it represents: Funny network television that has taken a lot of risks over the years, that eschews standard sitcom formula, and that blends sweetness with pop-culture wit. Plus, you know, Annie.

At any rate, I rewatched the pilot of Community last night, thinking it would be fun to mark the contrast between where the series started, and where it is now. I haven’t seen the pilot since it originally aired four years ago, but I had expected that, like most series, there’d have been a noticeable transformation over the years.

I was surprised, however, to not only find that the pilot was one of the rare sitcom pilots that is genuinely good, but just how much consistency of character there has been from the pilot episode until now. In fact, that pilot episode — which was more broad and less eccentric than the show had become late in the Harmon years — was far more similar to this season of Community that the final season under Harmon. Abed, for instance, felt more like a Big Bang Theory character in the pilot (he smiled at his own pop culture references, for instance, and he was less Rain-Man-y), the references (to the Breakfast Club, Seinfeld, and Dirty Dancing) were more universal, and the characters were a little more innocent and naive, except for Jeff, who was far more cynical.

Mostly, however, what I see in where the show is now as opposed to where it began is a natural progression of characters. Jeff was an asshole with a sliver of humanity, but that sliver has gotten bigger over the years. Shirley is the same old Shirley, only now she’s more sure of herself and ambitious. Annie was far less sexual, obviously, and more cut-throat in her ambitions, but we have seen glimpses of that again recently, in her competition with Shirley to be valedictorian.

Abed’s Asperger’s is more defined now than it was then, although I was surprised in the pilot to hear Jeff actually refer to it as that: “Asperger’s” (which elicited a few Ass Burgers cracks from Troy). Jeff was more mean than he is now. Britta is softer now, less strident, but also more fun than she was in the pilot, where she was still trying to break out of that feminist stereotype.

The character that has evolved the most, of course, is Troy, who was the prom king and quarterback of his high school, and who still wore his Letterman jacket. But there was still a glimpse, even in the pilot, of the softened, more uncertain man that Troy would become, although I never would have predicted his friendship with Abed based on the pilot. Pierce is still Pierce. He never really changed, but then again, given his age, how much would someone in the same position change? Once you reach a certain point in your life, your personality hardens.

More or less, though, the show really hasn’t changed that much (there is a theme song now; there wasn’t one in the pilot). It’s still the same characters, and Jeff is still a wry, wise-cracking ass who saves the day with a monologue, although the focus has obviously shifted away from Joel McHale as a lead and onto the ensemble. But as the show ends tonight, for what may be the final episode of the series, it’s good to know that — though so much has changed behind the scenes, and so much has transpired over four years at Greendale — they’re still the same people we fell in love with on their first day of community college. They may not be Dan Harmon’s characters anymore, but — for better or worse — they’re still ours.