School's Out for Summer

This is the Age of the Showrunner. Back in the '80s and '90s, nobody in the audience gave a good goddamn who was writing/directing television shows. Nowadays, though, you can't talk about Mad Men without talking about Matthew Weiner, Breaking Bad is inexorably linked to Vince Gilligan, and the heart and soul of Community lies within Dan Harmon. There's a lot of analysis and debate about how much of an effect these people have on the show. Sure, it takes talent to do the job, but showrunners aren't in charge of all the writing or directing - would a show really change that noticeably if someone else were in charge? Well...yes.

When Dan Harmon returned to Community after an extremely disappointing season without him, the real test became less about whether the show would change without him, but if he could rebuild a show that had gone off the rails. And if that wasn't enough of a challenge, he (and we) also had to contend with cast changes. Not having Pierce (Chevy Chase) around isn't a huge deal to me, but could I still enjoy the show when Troy (Donald Glover) took off as well?

Well...yes! Fortunately, Glover stuck around long enough to have his character sent off in style. It also helped when the "Pierce Spot" was filled by Jonathan Banks as Professor Hickey, because he integrated himself seamlessly into the ensemble, and his crankiness is a ton of fun. Harmon has taken some heat for having too many "concept" episodes this year, but I didn't mind it. There's a definite point at which I'd feel the zany episodes could overwhelm the character and story arcs, but I don't think that's happened yet. Besides, the concept episodes are what made Community fun in the first place; nobody paid attention until "Modern Warfare".

Those concept episodes comprise my favorites of the season, too. "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics" was a brilliant take on David Fincheresque dramas. "Geothermal Escapism" found a way to reinvigorate the paintball motif by avoiding paintball altogether. And my absolute favorite of the season, "App Development and Condiments", turned review culture and social media into the dystopian caste system it often comes off as. Some of the non-concept episodes were great, too. As someone who had an unhealthy appreciation for old-fashioned VCR games, "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" was a clever skewer of the labyrinthine rules they always had. And "Cooperative Polygraphy" put a new spin on the old sitcom chestnut of a lie detector test while simultaneously setting up Troy's departure.

While the season definitely has some episodes that will rank among my most favorite, it didn't get everything right. Chang was used better and more judiciously, but aside from the aforementioned "App Development and Condiments", Shirley was almost entirely ignored. John Oliver made a welcome return, but wasn't given much to do but moon over Britta. And as the season came to a close, the show seemed to suddenly remember that these characters belong to a committee dedicated to saving the school, so maybe they'd better do something with that idea.

As of this writing, it's unknown whether or not Community will get renewed. I certainly hope so; it certainly bounced back to being great television, and I want them to fulfill the six-seasons-and-a-movie rallying cry. I'm not too worried about it at this point. NBC doesn't have anything better to replace it with, despite its middling ratings, and it seems likely they'll order another season. And when the premiere date is announced, we can all gleefully add it to our calen-deans.

Community - Season 5: B+


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