When this column began, eight long Whitney-filled months ago, it did so with a simple goal: to test the hypothesis that the inherent personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior in prison. Er, no. That’s not right. It was to trace the evolution of both NBC’s hallowed Thursday-night comedy lineup and the shows that populated it. If anything, the only constant has been inconsistency: Six different sitcoms have aired all or part of their seasons on Thursdays. For much of the year, NBC head Bob Greenblatt seemed unsure what to do with network real estate that had slipped so precipitously from prime to subprime to foreclosed McMansion on the outskirts of Tampa. In the fall, he attempted to goose what had become an urbane and complementary night of single-camera comedy with the wet-willie snarkcasm of Whitney. When the few remaining viewers reacted as if Greenblatt had spiked their Sauvignon Blanc with Zima, he quickly plugged the hole with the more brand-friendly Up All Night and then, mercifully, threw out the baby and the bathwater. The final weeks of the season were a muddled mess, replete with double-dips and burn-offs of remaining episodes (not that anyone is counting, but I know at least one guy who hasn’t had a rerun-filled off night in almost three months), but Thursdays did end up where they probably should have begun, with the Core Four: Community, 30 Rock, The Office, and Parks and Recreation.
I’ve written previously that the six-alarm fire at the dynamite factory that was NBC for the past few seasons was actually a blessing for those of us still clinging to the notion that Thursday should be a place for smart, classy comedy. With so many other emergencies to tackle, the night was an island of stability — even if that island had cratering ratings and aging infrastructure. The arrival of Whitney seemed like the first salvo in what looked like a necessary revamp of a creaky institution — at least from a purely business perspective. But not only did the personality graft not take, Greenblatt’s other gambits didn’t either. And so all of the Thursday sitcoms that began the year on the bubble ended it with renewals. The transformative season I’d hoped to chronicle was delayed a year. Come September, three-fourths of this “classic” lineup will be back (poor Community is stuck in Friday-night detention with Whitney; truly the darkest time slot), but this time it genuinely does seem like a temporary reprieve. Not only is 30 Rock ending after 13 more episodes, but The Office can’t keep staggering around forever. The real threat, though, is external: After annihilating the 8 p.m. hour with the 10 megaton nerd-rocket The Big Bang Theory, CBS has moved its aging brohemoth Two and Half Men to 8:30. By not scheduling any of his new sitcoms for Thursday, Greenblatt may have signaled his long-term intention to beat an unhasty and overly considered retreat. After TGS falls, the era of Must-See TV might just crumble right along with it.
But that’s all in the future. For now, we’re left with the final Thursday of the 2011-12 television season. And, quite appropriately, it was the strangest one yet. No show has borne the brunt of Greenblatt’s lack of faith in his Thursday lineup like Community. It was yanked from the schedule at the top of the year, only for the world to discover that it’s not the song that’s NBC’s problem at 8 p.m., it’s the singer. Or better yet, it’s the record company: After a number of weeks with 30 Rock getting the same terrible Nielsen number as the Greendale Seven, Community was restored to its rightful perch, but almost as an afterthought. With more new episodes remaining than weeks in the season, Greenblatt spent them faster than Brewster’s millions. The final indignity came last night: three strong, original episodes dumped in a non-consecutive block. I’ve seen installments of Wipeout treated with more care and respect for the creator’s vision.
But here’s where the kvetching stops. For too long the narrative around Community — a show obsessed with narratives — has been about underachieving. The show was disrespected. Unloved. In need of defending as if it were in danger of being stuffed into one of those lockers Jeff had no idea about until recently. This hashtag defensiveness was even on display in the third-season premiere, in which the entire cast belted out an elaborate song-and-dance number about promising to be “less weird.” But on the back of the unimpeachable excellence of last night’s threesome and the show’s unexpectedly drama-free renewal, isn’t it time to start considering Community an overachiever? Without ever deviating from its OCD idiosyncrasies, the show has managed to survive for (at least) four seasons, inspire a breathlessly devoted cult following, and transform Joel McHale’s pecs into superstars — and all this with a ticking time bomb running the show and an ornery crank co-starring in it. It’s almost impossible to list all of the various twists, turns, and timeline tomfoolery attempted across last night’s trio of episodes. But for this longtime Community skeptic, the more important takeaway was just how much of it worked — and worked well.
In the past, I’ve preferred Community’s more staid half-hours to their trippy flights of fancy. Perhaps the problem wasn’t a natural aversion to paintball and 12-sided die, it was merely an absence of pixelated jive turkeys. “Digital Estate Planning” may have fit oddly into Community continuity — it’s hard not to assume the technical trickery demanded airing it out of order; how else to explain the gang’s strange decision to detour from their plan to rescue the Dean to go to a “warehouse in the middle of nowhere” to play video games with Gus Fring — but it was a lovely expression of the show’s best characteristics: its devotion to the idea of togetherness and its all-consuming celebration of the media detritus that all too often gets in our way. “Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne” was so well-conceived and accurately nostalgic that I kept waiting for Britta to seduce Alex Kidd or Troy and Abed to swap catchphrases with Toejam and Earl. It was remarkable how much personality the animators managed to cram into those little 8-bit emoji avatars (it helped that Troy spent every minute of game time double-jumping, because of course he would) but even more remarkable how disappointed I was whenever we jumped back to reality. Like fertile Abed with his million mini-mes, I wanted to stay in game world forever, hacking and slashing hippies and accidentally murdering hardworking blacksmiths. (Whether anyone else wanted to is almost beside the point. What would have been an innocent channel-surfer's reaction had they paddled by NBC during the 8 p.m. hour? Would they be drawn in? Or check their juice glass for mescaline residue? I think we all know the answer.) Chevy Chase may have made himself into a pariah IRL, but getting lost in Hyrule did wonders for Pierce: His acceptance of his virtual father-murdering half-brother (family can make you do weird things — just ask Troy’s pizza-making uncle) was the sweetest thing he’s done in semesters, and it didn’t even require a cheat code.
The final two episodes took the manic megadrive spirit of the first, but pushed it into the real world — or at least what passes for real in Dan Harmon’s cracked brain. Community has always been an extremely busy show — why settle for one joke when you can have two, why reference a movie when you can reference someone referencing that movie — but its core conceit has never been particularly complicated. But you’d think it was buried in the indices of a dusty air-conditioning repair manual considering how long it took for Jeff to stumble into it. Despite delivering a pablum-inflected talking points memo at the end of nearly every episode — even side-scrolling Jeff managed one between lightning bolts and power-ups in the first half-hour — it took until the penultimate moments of his junior year for him to cleanly and concisely deliver the goods: “Helping only ourselves is bad and helping each other is good.” (Sometimes I wonder if Harmon throws so many levels of jokes at everything because he’s embarrassed about how cuddly and emo he really is. Jeff’s lessons have gotten increasingly trite even as the show has earned its sentimentality.) Even though Jeff didn’t have his breakthrough until the end, it was clear in both of the last two episodes that he’d made his choice long ago. “The First Chang Dynasty” and “Introduction to Finality” worked because they celebrated all the wild things the group was capable of when it was finally united.
"The Assault on Precinct Chang" was a zippy blast; aping a classic caper flick is the sort of satire/homage that comes as easily to the show as fixing a faulty freon line. And all the needlessly busy details were just the thing to distract me from my intractable dislike of Ken Jeong’s one-note tyranny, from Abed and Troy’s slap-around plumbers to Jeff’s broody impersonation of Ricky Nightshade, “the rock-and-roll magician.” Not even Dean Pelton’s wildly inconsistent stubble detracted from the big, fireworks-free finish. By the time we got to “Finality” and the weirdness was piling up higher than the white wigs at a novelty judicial costume depot, the cumulative esprit de corps was too strong for even me to resist. A bone saw-wielding Evil Abed (“cruel cruel cruel”), the trade school with ritualistic bloodlust better suited for life beyond the wall than installing units in it, Leonard’s crooked wang — all of these were delightfully whacked background music for a show that seemed finally to have found its groove. There were all sorts of feints toward the future in that final montage — Star-Burns is alive, Britta moving in, Chang living like an animal in the air duct (more specifically, like a certain monkey), and Abed downsizing his Dreamtorium. But in many ways it felt like a finale, with all of these nut jobs finally buying into the show’s title and accepting their interconnectedness.
Whether it will have to serve as a conceptual finale remains to be seen. There are at least a baker’s dozen new episodes on tap, but Dan Harmon is not yet under contract. Love it or hate it, Community without its creator makes as much sense as Mad Men without Matt Weiner or Inspector Spacetime without Constable Reggie. If you take Harmon out of the equation, it’s hard not to see Community withering into just another show, as unremarkable as Robocop 2 or Jim Belushi. And that would be a shame. There are plenty of dull shows on television; very few can inspire and infuriate with such abandon. Only a crazy person like Dean Pelton can run a nuthouse like Greendale, and only a repairman like Troy could repair men. As he put it, “I made a new rule where the air conditioning annex has to act like a regular school. I can do that because I’m their Messiah.” I’m not saying I accept Dan Harmon as my lord or savior. But I have learned to accept him.
2. 30 Rock
A DVR snafu worse than what Hazel did to Kenneth’s page reapplication will keep this recap from its usual length, but even without creepy closed-mouth kisses, such a reaction seems appropriate for “What Will Happen to the Gang Next Year?,” a breezy finale that didn’t tie off any knots (in fact, it untied Jack and Avery), but merely tightened a few in anticipation for the final 13 episodes this fall. In keeping with what has been the strongest season of 30 Rock since the first, even this week’s throwaway jokes were worth Dumpster-diving for: Tracy mistaking Cornel West for Questlove and mooning over the black liquorice he bent into the shape of his father, Jenna’s witheringly accurate put-down of those who trade the mean streets of Manhattan for the micro-climated blandness of the Bay Area (“Have fun always carrying a light sweater!”), Liz’s touching coming-out scene with her University of Virginia–attending houseplant. But while I was disappointed to see Avery dispatched so easily — a booming movie career will do that to a gal a lot faster than a Morse-code love affair (though it does add a new dimension to the phrase “tapping that ass”) — I was thrilled to see that Liz’s sweet romance with Criss was given the respect it so naturally came to deserve. Even despite James Marsden’s beautiful woman face, his Criss has easily and happily conformed himself to this latest version of Liz. He likes watching Dance Moms with her and he thinks she really is good at blending humor and heart. He puts his money where his Beek is — or where it used to be. You don’t need to be an Estonian instaminister to see where this is headed — or to be happy about it. All in all, it's been a wonderful year and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue this upward spiral all the way to the end. After all, like Norwegian metal fans and overeager coroners, television shows really tend to perk up when death is right around the corner.