May 9, 2013



Truth be told, Season 4 of COMMUNITY was probably closer to what NBC thought it was buying when it originally ordered the show than any of the seasons that preceded it.  Eccentric but not insular, offbeat but not off-putting, with a logical explanation for each seeming twist of surrealism and wrapped up whenever possible with a neat character-driven bow, it was madness presented in the safest possible way.

In all this, of course, it was an utter betrayal of Dan Harmon’s series.  Harmon is, as it seems he’d be the first to admit, a crazy person.  There’s little doubt that he committed every sin a network showrunner can, from running over budget and behind schedule to antagonizing most of those around him.  You really can understand why NBC and Community‘s studio Sony Pictures Television were desperate to get rid of him.  The show was brought back strictly for business reasons, because enough episodes had already been produced that it was profitable to produce a few more of them.  (And now the rest of NBC’s comedy schedule has cratered so badly that it may be brought back yet again, despite its mostly awful ratings.)

But Community without Harmon was like a Brett Ratner entry in a great movie franchise, professional and soulless.  Harmon’s show was relentless, obsessive–it was packed to the edges of the TV screen with pop culture references, its characters buried to the point of danger in their own forms of delirium.  Harmon didn’t care whether viewers could follow everything, or if they didn’t “like” the characters, and that was what made Community the ultimate cult series.  People marveled at his episode that aped My Dinner With Andre not because it was ingenious–not just because it was ingenious–but because it was insane.  Episodes like “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” and “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” were as intricately structured as a John Le Carre novel, and as uncompromising as an art film.

Season 4 wasn’t terrible–it was still more imaginative than most sitcoms, and Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) was always fun.  The Muppet episode, “Intro to Felt Surrogacy,” had a conceit so flashy and fun that it didn’t matter so much that the story didn’t go anywhere (but compare it to “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” Harmon’s stop-motion animation episode that was both those things and also heartbreaking and a little scary).  “Herstory of Dance,” the one with both a Sadie Hawkins and a Sophie B. Hawkins dance, was very sweet.  But the Thanksgiving episode “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations,” which provided a heartwarming resolution to Jeff’s (Joel McHale) series-long daddy issues, was an embarrassment, and “Conventions of Space and Time,” set at an Inspector Spacetime convention, was a flabby sop to the fans.  Even worse was the show’s now-and-then attempt to develop relationships between Jeff and Annie (Alison Brie), and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and Troy (Donald Glover)–the first was distasteful and the second was unbelievable.

The season finale, “Advanced Introduction to Finality,” was no improvement.  Written by Producer Megan Ganz (one of the extreme oddities of Season 4 was that showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port never took a writing credit on a single episode) and directed by Tristam Shapeero, the episode hearkened back to two of Community‘s most celebrated inspirations:  “Remedial Chaos Theory,” with its multiple timelines (including “the darkest timeline”) and the paintball episodes.  But both of the references were meaningless, because the dark timeline here turned out to be merely a nightmare of Jeff’s brought on by his fear of leaving Greendale–which made no sense even on its own terms, since it included entire scenes about Abed (Danny Pudi), who talked about things Jeff couldn’t have known–and the paintball was a pallid, dull retread of the brilliant episodes Harmon had created.  As far too many episodes this season did, this one ended with pure mawkishness, as Jeff described, at length, his love for his fellow students and how grateful he was to have known them.  (Although at least the show didn’t follow through on its threat to end the season with a major plotline for Ken Jeong’s Chang, who was mostly on the sidelines tonight.)

It would be a mercy if an alternate timeline could eliminate Season 4 of Community from the collective consciousness; it’s the Godfather Part III of great TV sitcoms–watchable but profoundly inferior.  Paramount (so far, at least) has resisted the urge to return with a Godfather IV.  Let’s hope NBC and Sony similarly leave bad enough alone and, notwithstanding the prominent “6 Seasons and a Movie” written on a blackboard in the finale’s last scene, stop before attempting a Season 5.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."