I saw it out of the corner of my eye in my Facebook news feed. I'd already clicked away so I had to click back in my browser. There was a sense of anticipation and unease waiting for the page to load up, it was renewal season for the networks and it had been quite the slaughterhouse as channel after channel dumped the useless trash they'd been accumulating in bulk the last year. Now, the verdict had come in on 'Community'. A few seconds to load, but I already knew what the answer would be.
After five years and four wonderful seasons, 'Community' was finally ended by NBC.
Predictably, certain portions of the Internet exploded in GIF expressed outrage, grief, and misery. A brief scroll through Tumblr could garner eyefuls of death threats to NBC execs, shell-shocked loss, and perhaps one too many uses of Troy Barnes' “my emotions” image. I had to admit, my own reaction was complex, but I couldn't quite relate to the sheer outpouring of exaggerated remorse. It wasn't quite as deafening a sensation as when I got the news that 'Symbionic Titan' had been axed by Cartoon Network, or even the disappointing but predictable news that 'Dollhouse' wasn't going to continue past its second season. Maybe I'd been let down by television networks too many times before, or perhaps it was related to an overall diminished enthusiasm for geeking out that had grown lately. Part of me suspected I'd already gotten that pain out of my system when Dan Harmon was dumped as showrunner for Season Four, a fate worse than cancellation at the time. But it was something else, something unusually peaceful feeling, as one of the best television shows of this generation finally met its demise. Victorious somehow.
It's pretty strange to consider how such a show, with a dedicated fanbase and a bizarrely intricate mythology, could grow out of a pretty humble pilot about a jerk trying to scheme his way into the pants of a pretty blond woman in a community college Spanish class. I remember, like so many things I end up loving, being resistant and annoyed at the aggressive and simplistic ad campaign. People kept telling me it was a sure bet thanks to someone named Joel McHale, but up to that point I'd never watched 'The Soup' and the two jokes they played over and over between '30 Rock' and 'The Office' did little to sell itself. The pilot was pretty awkward, the fast paced delivery could often go right over your head if you didn't pay attention and the cast, while mostly experienced performers by that point, were largely obscure save for the distractingly famous Chevy Chase.
As the show progressed however the ensemble found their rhythm and the cast of characters began to grow beyond their handy default stereotypes, evolving in ways that weren't planned ahead of time. Self-absorbed jock Troy Barnes became affected by YouTube comedian Donald Glover's talent for improvisation and became the geeky heterosexual life mate of Danny Pudi's Abed Nadir. Britta Perry, the aforementioned sexual target of protagonist Jeff Winger, eventually outlived her usefulness as an unobtainable object of desire, as the web of romantic connections between the characters quickly and permanently went out of control (a wealth of material for Tumblr dwelling shippers). Her character stagnated and then blossomed as a tragic emotionally desperate magnet for abuse, Gillian Jacobs helping to transform her into a frequent episode MVP.
If anything was show-runner and creator Dan Harmon's greatest power, that secret ingredient that made the show not only endearing but often shockingly good, was the ability to take these rather one-dimensional characters as they were set up and over time strip away them to their deepest insecurities and raw vulnerable cores. This trait was best expressed in the character of Jeff Winger himself, portrayed by Joel McHale, a ruthless, conniving manipulator devoid of anything other than narcissistic self-interest. It was with Jeff, time and time again we cracked open the cool self-composed shell of sarcasm and disinterest to find haunting loneliness, often more real than the heightened reality dramas other networks provided. Out of all of the actors, McHale always struck me as the most personally invested in the show, plugging it aggressively on his own show on E!, referring to it as the role of a lifetime. As much noise is made about episodes featuring lovingly choreographed paintball fights, trippy explorations of parallel universes, and animated stories featuring the GI Joes, 'Community' was never truly 'about' it's post-modern post-meta love for deconstruction genre and narrative. It was about providing characters with a humanity that is intensely and amazingly rare in storytelling today.
However, as easy as the cast and crew made turning out consistently surprising television look, production was, of course, famously difficult. Harmon, creatively protective and an often undiplomatically blunt speaker, had to fight every step of the way for his underdog program, and by extension, the fans. Harmon's commentary on the show are peppered with tough heartbreaking stories of battles with execs over geeky but monumental episodes like 'Advanced Dungeons and Dragons' or combating the seasoned boredom of Chevy Chase, who seemed to dislike the show, apparently unaware of the slender bump in credibility it had given his otherwise stagnant and embarrassing millennial career. I probably over-champion Harmon, who also sounds like he could be quite the bastard when he felt slighted and often lacked necessary professional graces (the replacement writing staff for Season Four were apparently disheartened to hear him refer to it like 'watching your family get raped on a beach'). Despite his faults however, his struggles with the network felt genuine and 'Community' felt like something that did need that protection. It didn't excuse events like his indefensible lashing out against Chase and his family after Chase's ambivalence towards his job finally went too far, but in an age of creative pandering and focus group content creation it felt rewarding, even revolutionary, to witness his fight for a creative effort that rewarded us so many times during its life. Of course, Dan Harmon was fired as show-runner, in a bizarre move by NBC considering that that show had seemed to be on the cancellation block for three years already. I've watched every episode of the show except for any of Season Four. It felt like a betrayal at the creative level worse than Fox's bungling of the 'Firefly' premiere, and from what I've heard from my friends who watched it I didn't miss much. At the time it would have been better for the network to finally pull the plug.
However, in what was to me the show's ultimate victory, Dan Harmon was reinstated as show runner for one last wonderful season. We returned to Dungeons and Dragons, witness Jeff kick Cobra Commander in the face, receive an un-regiftable final present from Pierce Hawthorne, and finally, 'save' Greendale. The finale was victorious, a thinly veiled confrontation with the show's omnipresent detractors, celebrating all of the uncontrolled strangeness we'd come to love from the Little Show that Could. There was even a pretty pointed and cynically hilarious nod to the show's probable cancellation in the final few moments, evidence that Dan Harmon most likely knew that renewal this time was probably too unlikely to rely on. In the end, NBC 'won', if we want to romanticize it than more than just an inevitable profit/cost analysis decision. Can we blame them? For Season Four I say, yes, what a horrible thing to do. But for getting to Season Five you could almost give them a very grudging and very mild bit of credit for giving the show a previously unthinkable run, especially considering the uncommonly rocky production and Harmon's badger-like tenacity.
But that's where my sense of peace comes in. A kind of melancholy bemusement, far from the red-eyed fans who I do have considerable sympathy for. It's because honestly, we won. The fans, the cast, the crew, the writers, and Harmon himself. 'Community' was born in the wrong time. It was weird, it was smart, it was emotionally honest, and it never risked that to make itself easier to renew. Hell, there probably wasn't a right time for the show to be born, because it was largely made for people who felt as strange and often small as the characters in the show. It made a platform where a character with Aspergers would become a hero, just as the disorder was beginning to enter the national discussion. It presented story-lines about suicide and loneliness in a way that seemed to understand the private storms those issues wage. It championed other shows, even contributing to 'Cougar Town's own migration to another network after cancellation. Sure, it was just a TV show, but it was a TV show genuinely made for a small group of people who remember or currently relate to that feeling of being that outsider, instead of bluntly mocking them like so many other geek programs seem to do. It was a show that was excited about what you were excited about, strange in the way you were strange. In this way I understand this outrage so many of my fellow geeks are feeling even if I don't experience it myself.
Because we won. We won four times. Four glorious paintball splattered, trampoline elevated, Levar Burton obsessed, Keith David narrated, Troy-and-Abed-in-the-Morninged times. That's more than the law of network television almost ever allows, and I treasure that.
Instead burning down NBC, instead I'd like to just say:
Thank you, Joel McHale, Danny Pudi, Donald Glover, Yvette Nicole-Brown, Allison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, Jim Rash, Ken Jeong, Chevy Chase, Jonathan Banks, John Oliver, Dino Stamatopoulos, Richard Erdman, Charley Koontz, Erik Charles Nielsen, Luke Youngblood, John Goodman, Crystal the Monkey, the writers, directors...
…and most of all Dan Harmon.
This was a special show to me and one of the only reasons to turn on a television. I'm tearing up a little, that's how grateful I am. Thank you.
We are getting a movie though, right?