Losing Community: The Constant Reinvention of a Comedy Classic

Comedy Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Community is a six-season show that feels more like six one-season shows. Time will tell if it ever receives Abed’s promised cinematic follow-up but, as it stands, it’s one of the oddest pieces of television ever produced, a comedy that has reinvented itself more times than Madonna and that was just as inauthentic in the end. But maybe that’s only fitting that my college-age favorite eventually became a shadow of itself.

At its start, Community had something so many television comedies lack: heart, a certain eagerness to get goopy about things like friendship, loyalty and love. In the postmodern and irony-obsessed late aughts, that was a rare thing. But with each reinvention—now Dan Harmon’s gone, now he’s back, now NBC’s in, now they’re out—Community lost a bit of its soul. By the end of its sixth and final season on Yahoo, it had become as hollow as adult life after graduation can sometimes feel.

Put a different way, it was hard to age alongside Community.

When the series premiere of Community aired, I was at a state university but rewind a year before that and I was at a community college for the same reason that many members of the Greendale gang ended up there: my life had been broken in some fundamental way.

I was a lot like Annie Edison, actually—not the valedictorian of my high school, but ranked sixth in an obnoxiously overprivileged class. After a major health crisis, I landed at the very same community college that I had mocked all through high school as a destination for dummies and dropouts—insults that I wince about now that I’ve had a chance to work through some of my upper-class elitism.

I adored community college. Like the Greendale study group, my friends there were an unlikely bunch of heroes: a gay ex-Jehovah’s Witness, an art student on probation, a perpetually-stoned experimental rocker. They weren’t friends I would normally choose but they were the friends I had, friends I came to love the more I learned from them and they from me. In the Community series premiere when Jeff famously tries to monologue the group into a cohesive unit, saying, “I hereby pronounce you a community,” it actually worked—not because of his silver tongue but because community colleges have a funny way of bringing people who need each other together.

Many Community diehards think that the show’s third season is its best, but they’re wrong. After the show worked through its initial growing pains and before it launched into the high-concept stratosphere of Season 3, there was Season 2, the season when the study group members begin to depend on one another. Shirley helps Abed pull the plug on his messianic documentary ego trip when it gets out of hand; Britta helps Shirley have her baby on the floor of a classroom; Troy helps a drunk Jeff learn what it means to be a man on his own 21st birthday.

At the end of that birthday episode—one of my favorites—Troy drives most of the group home and, at Annie’s door, when she expresses some self-doubt, he reassures her: “You’re Annie. You like puzzles and little monsters on your pencil and some guy named Mark Ruffalo. You’re a fierce competitor and a sore loser. And you expect everybody to be better than who they are and you expect yourself to be better than everyone. Which is cool.”

It’s a moment of Community that always makes me cry—something I rarely do in television comedies aside from, say, the proposal scene in Parks and Recreation—because it captures something that only gets harder as you get older: telling someone exactly what they mean to you.

In college, when everyone is still figuring themselves out—and when I wasn’t even sure I was going to stay alive long enough to do that—you need to see yourself through other people’s eyes in order to understand who you are. You don’t find yourself in college, other people find you.

College was when it was still okay to spend an entire day with someone doing nothing—like building a blanket fort—just because neither of you had anything better to do. College was when you wanted to stay in a meeting—even if you were just arguing over which member of the study group stole your pen—because it was better than going home. Alone. To an empty dorm.

Community’s heartfelt moments waned but didn’t quite disappear from Season 3 as Harmon and the writers parodied genre after genre: the show Glee, SNES games, Ken Burns specials. There were still strong whiffs of friendship—the Troy-Abed bromance was never stronger—but the episodes quit landing quite so hard on the emotional beats of Season 2. Like 30 Rock, it became more of a cartoon as it went on.

The show started to lose people, too: first Pierce, then Troy, then Shirley. As Community’s characters disappeared, characters from my own life were disappearing. I transferred schools, I graduated, I moved to a new city. I don’t talk to them anymore—the ex-Jehovah’s Witness, the art student, the prog rocker—but I should. I always thought it was strange that Abed isn’t constantly communicating with Troy on a radio in Seasons 5 and 6 but even in a connected world, distance has a way of disrupting friendships.

The bitter reality of early adulthood is that distance tends to do that precisely when you need those friendships the most. Because one of the biggest secrets of growing old is that you don’t actually figure yourself out in college, and you still need to see yourself through someone else’s eyes every so often or, if we’re honest, every day.

After Harmon left and came back, Community never came close to Season 2’s earnest tone except for one Season 5 episode: “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality,” in which Duncan persuades Jeff to set him up with Britta under some less than honest pretenses. At the end of the episode, Duncan is driving with an emotionally vulnerable Britta in his passenger seat when he has an opportunity to veer the conversation into the romance lane. But instead, he comes to his senses, takes her home, and finds Jeff at the bar.

“You’re a good friend and I don’t say that often enough,” Duncan says.

“That’s really nice,” Jeff replies. “But you can’t have sex with me.”

“How about we have these drinks and then not have sex with anyone together?” Duncan suggests.

They toast, Jeff smiles.

I’ve started doing that again as I approach thirty with the friends I do have. Saying exactly what someone means to me the moment that I feel it. Giving someone a hug, unsolicited. Sending a friend an e-mail just to let her know how she has helped me, whether she knew she was doing it or not.

In Community’s post-Yahoo resurrection Season 6, the connections between the members of the study group—now the Committee to Save Greendale—are taken for granted. None of the characters are romantically involved with each other, except for a single, fan-service kiss between Jeff and Annie near the end. In fact, none of them seem to even have personal lives, save for tiny glimpses into Britta’s relationship with her parents. Worse, the season eschews, and even criticizes, the idea of the group’s deep friendships with each other.

In the penultimate episode, as the gang prepares to attend Garrett’s wedding, Jeff opines, “You don’t need perfect people to make a perfect team. You need people whose flaws feed into each other. It’s, what do you call it…”

And then newcomer Frankie chimes in, “Co-dependence.”

What happened to being a community?

I watched the end of Season 6 in an empty apartment from yet another new city and screamed, however silently, at this new character who didn’t appreciate the fact that she had a de facto crew to roll with whenever she wanted company.

I, on the other hand, spend a lot of time looking up the prices of plane tickets to the cities where my friends live, feeling nostalgic for a time when I could go over to someone’s house instead of sending them a DM on Twitter.

I cried one more time when watching Community, during Season 6’s final moments. Gathered in the study room to say goodbye, the usually distant Jeff drops all pretenses of coolness and comes right out with it.

“I love that I got to be with you guys. You saved my life and changed it forever. Thank you.”

Jeff takes Annie and Abed to the airport, where both are departing for new jobs in different states. He hugs Abed not once, but twice.

When you’re a child, airports are the exciting place where you get to sit inside a steel tube that hurtles through the sky. But when you get older, when you move, when you enter the seventh season of your life, airports become ambivalent spaces, at once the heaven where you get to pick up old friends and the hell where you have to let them go.

I should look them up again, those friends from community college. My connections with them, borne out of necessity, may not have been my most long-lasting friendships but they were some of the most vital. Everyone came to Greendale broken and everyone left a little more whole. I left feeling a little better, too, but years down the road, I’m still figuring it out.

For now, wherever you are, old friends, I love that I got to be with you. You saved my life and changed it forever. Thank you. I didn’t say it often enough.

May Saunders is a professional dog walker living in Minneapolis and an occasional freelance writer. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her cat, who does not need to be walked. Follow her on Twitter.