How did the fourth season of Community get it all so wrong?

When was the last time a show so effectively and thoroughly undermined so much of what made it great?

Community’s fourth season has come and gone, and as much as it pains me to say it, I had hoped it was the end for the show. However, Community has been renewed for a fifth season — bringing it a little closer to the fabled “six seasons and a movie” — which puts me in the frustrating position of saying that, after having slogged through a largely lackluster and uninspired fourth season, I just want the show to be put out of its misery. In fact, if I could pull an Inspector Spacetime, I’d travel back and stop the fourth season before it even began.

When was the last time a show so effectively and thoroughly undermined so much of what made it great? How did it come to this? For its first three seasons, Community was one of the most unique, bizarre, and consistently funny TV shows I’d seen in a long time. It was never a huge ratings success, but it was a critical darling with a devoted cult following. The show took its basic storyline — a group of misfits enroll in a local community college and form a study group — and wove in some of the cleverest and geekiest pop culture references this side of Spaced, some pretty inventive production techniques, and some surprisingly affecting character development.

So, again, how did it come to this? I have several theories…

1) The show had already ended

Community often seemed in danger of getting cancelled. This, no doubt, explained some of its odder, more daring moments: after all, if your fate is uncertain, why not shoot a spaghetti western-themed episode about a schoolwide paintball fight? But the specter of cancellation must have loomed especially heavy during the third season, as behind-the-scenes troubles (e.g., tensions between show creator Dan Harmon and Chevy Chase) increased. So it’s not too surprising that the third season was given the ending that it had.

Most, if not all, of the character’s arcs were brought to a satisfying conclusion, and we were given a nice summation of both the show’s weirder storylines (e.g., the Dreamatorium), as well as its more human, emotional ones (e.g., Jeff’s decision to find his father). It was as perfect and satisfying an ending as one could’ve hoped for, given everything happening to the show at the time.

After that perfect ending, though, where was there left to go? The fourth season might have given it the ol’ (community) college try, but after the third season, I’d argue that Community had effectively said everything it needed to say.

2) The show used pop culture references simply for the sake of including pop culture references.

Community was incredibly smart about its usage of pop culture references. Indeed, that was one of the elements that really drew me to the show. But the show’s use of such references was unique. For one thing, it tended to favor obscure references and would patiently wait several seasons to get a particular reference’s payoff. What’s more, the references were there, not just to be clever, but to actually tell us something about the characters, especially in the case of Abed. (Consider “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” or “Critical Film Studies.”)

The fourth season had plenty of pop culture references, too. But they felt forced, outdated, or there for their own sake. Or, as Todd VanDerWerff writes in his review of “Advanced Introduction To Finality”:

…the entire central portion of this episode — the bulk of its running time — is taken up with a constant barrage of things that worked once or twice but now feel like the show is just trying too hard. Paintball? A movie reference for the sake of a movie reference? Chang taking over the school? Fake Dean? It’s all way, way too much, and it does nothing to elucidate Jeff’s emotional conflict.

That was the feeling I got the entire season, like the show was being made by people who were using a Community checklist to make sure they got put in everything they were supposed to. At first, I thought the show’s new staff were in the process of doing something truly subversive, what with Abed’s constant “meta” references in the earlier episodes to being on a television show.

Maybe, I thought, the reason these episodes feel like cheap knockoffs of actual Community episodes is that Abed was stuck inside the mini-Dreamatorium that we saw him enter in the third season’s finale. The fourth season was starting off in his head, I theorized, as he tried to come up with an ideal version of Greendale based on his pop culture obsession, and that would lead to some conflict as the others tried to get him to leave the “Dreamatorium reality” and come back to “real reality.” Obviously, I was wrong.

The show just couldn’t recapture whatever it was that it had during the Harmon days. Alan Sepinwall put it this way back in February:

For the most part, the new episodes understand who these characters are and how they relate to each other. They speak in the show’s usual cadences, and they drop the appropriate pop culture references at the right time. (The other episode sent out for review takes place at a fan convention for “Inspector Spacetime,” a “Doctor Who” pastiche that has entranced Troy and Abed.) But something’s off about almost all of it. It feels like Port, Guarascio and the other writers decided to reverse-engineer the Harmon version of “Community,” but couldn’t quite manage without the missing ingredient of Harmon himself.

3) The show never learned from its own lessons

One of the show’s most consistent running gags was the study group’s constant irritation with Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase). Hawthorne was racist, sexist, manipulative, and all around unpleasant, and the show got plenty of laughs from making him the butt of many jokes. However, he was also given several moments of redemption. By the fourth season, though, the treatment of him began to feel mean-spirited and worse, pointless.

After watching the umpteenth episode in which Jeff and the rest of the study group learned a valuable lesson about not excluding or abandoning Pierce — who, for all of his nastiness, was sad and lonely and just wanted to belong somewhere — I found myself wondering when the show’s writers and producers would learn a similar lesson. They never did.

Chase left the show partway through the fourth season and was largely absent during the season’s second half. But by then, Pierce had become so marginalized that, I must admit, I didn’t even realize he was gone at times. I was so used to him getting short shrift from the show anyway.

4) The show forgot about the rest of Greendale

You’d be forgiven if, while watching the fourth season, you forgot that other students attended Greendale Community College, and that it wasn’t just Jeff, Abed, and the rest of the study group who walked the campus. Earlier seasons introduced us to a fantastic array of bizarre and memorable characters (e.g., Leonard, Star-Burns, “Fat Neil,” Professor Professorson, Garrett, the Air Conditioning Repair School). These characters grew increasingly diminished during the fourth season, which is a shame because they added some wonderful humor and color to the show. (Consider “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” and “Geography of Global Conflict.”)

What’s more, their diminished presence also undercut another one of the show’s running jokes: the tension between the “cool,” Dean Pelton-loved study group and the rest of Greendale’s students. (Though, to be fair, this particularly storyline was given a nice treatment in the season four episode “Intro to Felt Surrogacy.”)

So who’s to blame for all of this? Certainly not the actors. None of the cast slacked off, with the notable exception of Chevy Chase. They just weren’t given good material with which to work. I suppose you could blame the writers and showrunners (Moses Port, David Guarascio, et al.) but that doesn’t get to the heart of it. No, I blame whatever executives at NBC deemed it necessary to get rid of Dan Harmon. Time and again, in interviews and other pieces, it was clear that Community was basically being piped in directly from Harmon’s brain. Without Harmon, Community is not Community — and I don’t say that to disparage those currently working on the show.

So, what about the upcoming fifth season? I confess, I’m at an even greater loss as to where the show can go now. Jeff has graduated, bringing to a close the show’s primary plotline, so what reasons will the writers come up with to keep him on campus? I’m sure they’ll be “wacky” and “offbeat” like everything else, but it won’t be the same… and after the fourth season, I’m under no illusions that it’ll be good (remember, if you will, the “Changnesia” debacle).

“Six seasons and a movie” has always been the Community fanbase’s rallying cry. But, after slogging through the fourth season, that feels like three seasons and a movie too long. Part of me hopes I’m proven wrong, and if I am, I’ll gladly eat crow. The rest of me, though, is just fine with living as if Community ended with season three, and everything since then has been some other series that just so happened to be named Community, too.

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