Brow Beat

Community Gets Institutionalized

The cast of Community finally loses it.

Photo by NBC © 2012 NBC Universal Media, LLC.

The news came yesterday that NBC had finally made up its mind on the fourth season of Communityour favorite show will in fact get a shortened, and possibly final season next year. (30 Rock and Parks & Rec are also getting short seasons; the former’s will definitely be its last.)

Community was, is, and will no doubt always be a curious beast: a broadcast network sitcom in love with the idea of being a classic broadcast network sitcom, but which only exists because the broadcast networks as we knew them (truly dominant cultural forces watched by everyone) are no longer. Community in fact never could have existed in the idealized broadcast-sitcom world its creators dream of. (The idea that the muscular networks of long past would keep a show with Community’s absurdist intellectualisms; compulsive, inherent self-referentiality; and unremittingly meta approach to comedy and storytelling on the air for one season, much less three, is far-fetched.)

At one time, the American situation comedy, for better or worse (and mostly, let’s face it, for worse) colored the collective imagination of an entire society. How could they not—they were inescapable! We forget that marginalia like The Beverly Hillbillies once enthralled the nation as few pop culture concoctions ever have.

As I noted a few weeks ago, we also tend to forget exactly how attenuated NBC’s current sitcom world is. Nobody watches these shows! On a typical week Community basically gets a tenth the number of viewers Seinfeld used to draw. Why is it still on the air?

It makes no sense!

I’ve never understood how the Thursday night NBC lineup remained as long as it did, particularly after the Comcast takeover began to play out. It could be that the new owners wanted to demonstrate faith in the network’s shows, even after the (long overdue) defenestration of Jeff Zucker. Or it could be that the company had made a longshot but not-outside-the-realm-of-possibility bet that something, anything, Seinfeld- style, might catch on ratings-wise in its third or fourth season.

Anyway, since Community is about broadcast television, and since Community has been facing cancellation, tonight’s show is, of course, about what happens when you contemplate your own demise. You go a little crazy. The result is the show’s deepest meditation yet on the medium and its discontents.

You’ll recall that, at the end of last week’s show, the school’s head of programming—or rather, its dean—had been deposed, and a doppelganger put in his place. The devious mind behind the play was a demented Señor Comcast—I mean Chang. And the seven heroes of the show were summarily canceled.

Er, expelled.

We begin two months after the Slaughter of the Innocents. The framing story has the group at loose ends but making do by getting together for a pot-luck dinner. (Troy’s casserole: “It’s Bagel Bits in a deconstructed Hot Pocket reduction with a Doritos glaze.”) The preparations are interrupted when Abed is brought in by a police officer, who found him rooting around in the trash cans at NBC (I mean, Greendale), dressed up in his Inspector Spacetime regalia. He’s sentenced to see a psychiatrist.

The shrink turns out to be The Daily Show’s John Hodgman (who is unfortunately still sporting that morbidly obese brown pet caterpillar on his upper lip). The group, charmingly, attends the potentially traumatizing session en masse to support Abed. The heart of the show is this session, and it may be the most dizzying, and oddly profound, sequence the show has yet formulated.

I won’t bore you with the whole narrative. This is another one of those episodes whose conception and execution is so sure-footed that you don’t really realize how far and fast you’re drawn into it. Hodgman effortlessly identifies the group’s not-so-latent issues, and carefully guides them through no less than three separate bravura examples of the show’s patented multipart flashback sequences. (And there’s another one after he’s done.)

The result rivals the classic “Paradigms of Human Memory” episode in complexity; the producers had to craft nearly a score of new setups for the characters, some of them not uncomplicated—like, uh, staging the “10,000th Flush” celebration in the men’s bathroom. We tend to take Community’s ambitions for granted at this point, but it’s worth noting again that the whole point of setting sitcoms in one or two simple and static sets in which the characters engage in long scenes of (hopefully) witty repartee is to make them easy to film each week. Each new setup added to this creates a lot of new backend preparation—set construction, set decoration, wardrobe, etc.

Of these flashbacks, the most disturbing is the series of scenes involving Dean Pelton, the most out-there stuff the show has yet devised for him. (There’s something truly disturbing about the sequence when he shoos away a rival of Annie’s.) At the end of Hodgman’s analysis it’s revealed that the seven students are …

[cue lightning and thunder]

…inmates in a mental institution!

Greendale Community College, we learn, never really existed; it was merely a figment in a complex group psychosis from seven mental inmates. We then see the show’s greatest invented flashback yet: the group in the drab white loony bin, abjectly or compulsively walking through some dialog from previous shows. It’s not surprising that the focus is on the second season’s “bottle episode,” “Cooperative Callligraphy,” and its doppelganger, “Paradigms.” (The connections between the two shows are explained here.) In an instant we see the show’s “reality” exposed for what it is, the indulged illusions of a bunch of folks who don’t even know they’re in a mental ward. (You can make your own joke about TV writers’ rooms.)

Now all of this is focused, driven, complex, and, not incidentally, funny enough to make this one of the all-time great Community episodes. Then it gets better. Once you start hearing what Hodgman is saying to the group, the theme of the show begins to emerge. The show sets this up early, when there’s a general discussion about whether Abed’s crazy; it’s agreed that all of the characters are in the same boat. If Abed’s crazy, they all are.

This plays into Hodgman’s hands. He notes that the characters—and by extension, we the audience—have gotten a little too comfortable living in this most contrived of environments—”this fantastical community college,” as Hodgman puts it, “where everything that happens is unbelievably ridiculous and it all revolves around you.”

Why would we invent such a thing? Britta asks.

Hodgman has a ready answer, a lancing encapsulation of what every TV show means to some stratum of American life: “The same reason anyone plunges into psychosis,” he says cheerfully. “It’s a mentally compatible alternative to your grim reality.” You don’t have to agree with the line to acknowledge that he’s on the trail of the elusive Unified Theory of TV, something that can encompass Little People, Big World, American Idol, and Mad Men.

In the end the group sees through the ruse.

“It makes no sense!” exclaims Jeff.

They resolve to go back and do battle at Greendale; the episode ends with a crazed Señor Chang preparing to take on the impending assault, brusquely drawing ideas from his diminutive cohort like a manic showrunner. The episode ends without a to-be-continued legend, but I assume the story will be completed next week.

The pop-cultural references last night range from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Shock Corridor to Shutter Island. There’s an unforgettable Minority Report sequence; a shoutout to the little ComicCon registrant inside all of us; and a slap at anyone who’s ever said, tweeted, commented, or thought, “Community College is only two years; how come Community’s gone on for three seasons?” Hacky vulgarian Brett Ratner gets a particularly well-deserved rogering. (Based on no evidence at all I like to think this is comedy-world payback for some particularly classless remarks he made about The Daily Show’s Olivia Munn.) What Robin Williams did to Dan Harmon is a mystery. Antiques Roadshow gets a nod; I think T.S. Eliot’s in there as well; and I can’t quite place my finger on the movie referred to when Chang repeatedly tasers himself, saying “Again.”

Further reading: An analysis of last week’s show, “Course Listing Unavailable”; a list of the top 10 Community episodes; and an in-depth look at the show’s greatest concoction, “Paradigms of Human Memory.” Or just read all of Slate’s Community coverage.

Correction, May 11, 2012:
This article originally misspelled the name of director Brett Ratner. Additionally, a reference to Bagel Bites incorrectly referred to the snacks as “Bagel Bits.”