“Heroic Origins,” a pretty good episode of a pretty okay season of Community, has the misfortune to follow Tuesday night’s “Virgins,” a very good episode of an excellent season of New Girl. (It also has the misfortune to appear in the vague proximity of a solid episode of Cougar Town around the same basic topic.) I’m actually surprised that Community had gotten this far without really digging into its characters’ back-stories. It’s the sort of fertile sitcom territory that you’d expect the show to have dug through in its second or third season, but most of the stuff here feels like an expansion of some of the hints dropped in the pilot. I’ve opined—and complained—a bit this season about how it feels like the show has returned to its season one definition of itself, and “Heroic Origins” suggests a way that this could be fruitful, continuing the show’s obsession with its own imagined past.
The somewhat troubled story of Community season four largely involves the series attempting to sidestep much of the back half of season three—when the show disappeared firmly into its own headspace (glorious for some of us; perplexing for even more)—in favor of returning the show to its more basic origin point. At one time, this was a show about a bunch of people at a community college, and though it always remained that at its base, it also shifted into all sorts of new territory as time went on. That territory didn’t always prove fruitful, but to watch Community was often to watch the show struggling to constantly reinvent itself. That could be exhausting, and it could be cool. But if you could get on the show’s wavelength, it made it one of the most exciting programs on TV to watch, whether it was wildly succeeding or crashing and burning.
The show’s fourth season—and I want to continue to express that I generally enjoy this season—has more or less ditched much of that. It’s still a series that does gimmick episodes, and it’s still a series that plays around with the sitcom form, but more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. (I’ll fill this in in a bit.) The series is now much more about the show digging into character details that were prominent at one time, then faded a bit, about returning to the series’ roots as a show about a bunch of people who met at a community college and now like to hang out. And there’s no reason that can’t be good to very good! “Herstory Of Dance” isn’t a perfect episode of television, but I think it points to a way this show could be a more or less successful (and amusing) franchise for years to come. Tell some warm, wacky stories about these characters and Greendale. Repeat. “Heroic Origins” suggests much the same, though I don’t think it’s as successful as that earlier episode (third act problems), but it’s more of a one-time trick. It’s a concept episode, but it’s one that feels conceptually rooted in this new version of the show.
But I’m still ultimately disappointed with this season, and to explain that, we need to turn to Steven Soderbergh.
I don’t know if you read Soderbergh’s lengthy keynote address from the San Francisco Film Festival, but it was one of the better things I read this week. It’s long and rambling and a touch incoherent, but there’s a lot of wisdom about the state of the film industry and an attempt to explain why mainstream American movies are so bad and seem to be getting worse—particularly if you’re looking for something outside of a franchise entertainment. (I like a great many franchise entertainments, but I rarely look forward to them with anything other than “dutiful interest.”) In the early section of the address, Soderbergh boils down the problem to “movies” vs. “cinema.” Movies are a commodity, a product designed to sell around the world. Cinema is an art form, something designed to express an individual’s point of view as thoroughly as possible. Genre doesn’t matter. (Christopher Nolan’s Batman films? Cinema, like ‘em or not, because Nolan is obviously working through some personal peccadillos. The Avengers? A movie—and I love that movie a lot.) There are good movies and bad movies, just as there is good cinema and bad cinema. But there’s a difference of intent from the very first that provides the bright, dividing line between the two.
You might think you see where I’m going with this, but let me swerve in another direction. As I thought about Soderbergh’s speech, I thought a lot more about something I’ve been working through in my own head this TV season: being challenged versus being flattered. There comes a point in the life of any TV show (and especially any TV sitcom)—usually around the fourth season, shockingly enough—where it becomes less important to create groundbreaking TV and more important to manage the brand. The initial thrill of the early days has worn off. The show can still take chances, but it’s less likely to. Instead, it wants to tell engaging stories that give the audience exactly what it wants. Manage the transition from groundbreaking show to beloved brand well, and you can run for over a decade (and maybe even sneak in some challenging stuff in the later years); fail it, and the audience grows bored and wanders off in search of other pursuits (hello, Glee!).
Because this is inevitable, I probably shouldn’t mind when a TV show switches from trying to push me to consider the world in new ways and through new perspectives (challenging me) to trying to give me exactly what it thinks I want (flattering me). Yet it sticks in my craw every time. (It’s also, broadly, why I have never joined one of those “resurrect this show” campaigns and never will—give or take a Slings And Arrows.) I don’t want the comfort of what I already know I enjoy! I want to be pushed in new directions, to be asked to consider new things. And inevitably, TV shows have to give up that fight as they enter middle age. All of which is a lengthy way of saying that Community has been churning out a solid season of giving its fanbase exactly what it wants, but it’s getting harder and harder watching the show be such a people pleaser. Wasn’t this a show that once engaged in really intricate storytelling? In subtextual character development that resulted in surprisingly layered beats? In attempting to push and expand the sitcom form to its breaking point?
“Heroic Origins” is a fairly solid example of exactly what I’m talking about. On its own terms, it’s a not-bad episode of the show, in a not-bad stretch of episodes that’s made me think if the show is renewed for a fifth season, it won’t be the worst thing in the world. Yet it’s also an episode explicitly designed to flatter the audience for knowing these characters’ back-stories, for remembering jokes and gags from past seasons. To a degree, all flashback sitcom episodes are like this. The aforementioned Cougar Town episode certainly was. (What put the New Girl episode a step above was the way that it used its flashbacks to tunnel down to the lonely adolescents that remained at the core of its characters.) In the first three seasons of Community, Greendale was a special place because it functioned as a tabula rasa, yes, but also because it forced its characters to confront their own shortcomings. In this season of Community, the shortcomings are all largely in the past, and something like Annie’s pill addiction or Britta’s political activism is played almost exclusively for laughs. Say what you will about the puppet episode, but at least it was trying something—even if you felt that something was against the characters as previously established or whatever. “Heroic Origins” turns knowing this show really, really well into an exercise in trivia contests.
The argument this whole season has been, “You wouldn’t be saying any of this if Dan Harmon was in charge!” And maybe that’s the case. Maybe Dan Harmon would have still been in charge of the show and would have turned the whole thing into exactly what we see before us. If you primarily watch the show to hang out with these characters or hear some funny jokes, I can absolutely see feeling like the shift has not been as palpable as those of us who feel it’s been detrimental have expressed (though I’d wager the show is also much less funny than it used to be). But I can think of maybe one or two moments this season when I felt like the show was really trying to expand my thought processes or what television can do, instead of just providing some laughs that boiled down the show to its most basic essence and tried to appease me with gentle comedy based in characters I’d loved. Put another way: Community has probably been a better show overall this season, but I’ve felt far more challenged by The Big Bang Theory, which is doing some interesting things in trying to push its core audience to new readings of its central characters (particularly Sheldon).
All of this might be a lot of words that aren’t really about this episode but about issues around this episode, but watching “Heroic Origins” left me with a smile on my face and an empty feeling in my belly. The old Community was very much an attempt to challenge the audience—and, not coincidentally, an occasionally terrifying trip through its creator’s brain. It didn’t always work, but it was reaching for something more 75 percent of the time. The new Community is fine, as these things go, but it’s also primarily interested in making sure the fans are happy. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not as interesting to discuss and dissect, at least for me. I’ve been detecting a certain detachment from the show in my own reviews this season, and in some of your comments. At first, I thought that was just holding the show to an impossible standard, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it’s just the natural response to a TV show I once loved becoming more and more about protecting the brand. There’s nothing wrong with still loving Community, but it’s become almost entirely a show about getting you to love Community, and that’s something I’ll always find just a bit hollow.
- Here’s an episode-specific criticism: I really didn’t like the sound design as the episode popped out of the flashbacks. The constant echo felt like a really forced way to overemphasize a transition that was already handled beautifully in a visual manner.
- In high school, Annie was the president of Campus Crusade for Christ, and she was Jewish. (This was probably my favorite joke of the episode, and Alison Brie really sold it.)
- How many times can this show sell the idea that the group will break up, only to have it not break up? The series has always had a problem with inter-group conflicts, and it goes to this well far too often. It also feels like every single episode this season has ended with somebody talking about the magic of Greendale. At least in this case, it was Abed. That third act had a nice idea behind it—the old Chang handing out Greendale fliers to everybody (and the Dean saying that the mall provides a unique demographic of people who are awake during the day)—but it ended up feeling too mushy by half, and it really underlined the coincidences behind the story in ways that didn’t quite work.
- I liked the comic book drawings of the characters, and they made for nice transitions between past and present. I also liked Annie’s “geeky” look, Abed’s supervillainy, and Shirley always letting us know it was 2008 by wearing an Obama shirt. Britta’s purple hair, on the other hand? Not really working for me.
- This was obviously the episode where Chevy Chase’s stand-in, uh, stood in for him while they dubbed in some old Pierce noises. I can’t really blame the show for what happened with Chase, but it is unfortunate a potentially rich character got reduced to someone who fakes having a heart attack and ends up covered in frozen yogurt.
- It was a real trip to see Troy’s old football letterman’s jacket, and I actually liked how the show filled out that part of its back-story (even if it had to go back on Troy not remembering Annie from high school to do so).
- In talking with another critic, he expressed some concern that the show threw out Annie’s Boobs’ origin to get the monkey in this episode, but I don’t see why Britta couldn’t have liberated the monkey, only to have it end up in a pet store later. I suppose one could argue she should have recognized it when the monkey first appeared in the chicken fingers episode, but don’t all monkeys look the same to a species-ist like Britta?
- There was always a nuance to Jeff’s asshole-ness in earlier seasons, but it feels like in this season, the old Jeff is basically the Jeff from the darkest timeline.
- Real talk: This show is on the very, very edge of the bubble for renewal. It had a really strong run as the season began, but the audience has leached off. Still, NBC can’t cancel everything, and the show is pretty strong in the 18-34 demo. I wouldn’t be surprised by a renewal, but I suspect if it happens, it will be another 13-episode midseason sort of thing, which seems to be the inevitable fate of all Sony sitcoms that crawl their way toward 80-some episodes.
- “I had a hamburger the other day, and suddenly I'm not cold all the time anymore!” For some reason, this really made me laugh. Let’s end on that hopeful note and expect the best of the season finale!