“It was all a dream” is one of the cheapest conceits in all of fiction. Basically, it spends time creating an alternate world where a bunch of interesting stuff happens, then yanks out the basic idea of storytelling from beneath you. You can make this work by having the dream world say something satirically interesting (as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books) or by having it offer psychological insight into the characters (as in many a TV dream episode) or by having it be so obviously a dream that it all becomes a big joke (as in the Dick Van Dyke walnut episode) or by being upfront that this is all just a dream. But it’s still a risky trick because it takes one of the central tenets of storytelling—everything in this story matters to the characters and the audience—and throws it out the window. You might be freaked out by a dream or you might be put in a bad mood by one, but it’s unusual to have a dream significantly change your life. Dreams are for insight, not incident.
When this episode pulled the rough equivalent of the “it was all a dream” reveal in its third act, it was one of the few things I liked about it, easily the worst episode the show has ever produced and a really sour way to end a season that’s actually had its moments. Part of me wonders if this episode doesn’t prove that Community should be canceled, and possibly killed with fire, but part of me also thinks a fifth season now must happen, if only so this isn’t the way the whole show ends. It’s an episode that all but exemplifies the season’s strained approach to fan service, filled with lots and lots and lots of moments that are just there because people liked them in the past, at all turns weirdly terrified of engaging with its central emotional territory: the graduation of Jeff Winger.
Now, it was fairly obvious from the early going that the series wouldn’t actually have the residents of the darkest timeline show up in Greendale reality to send characters warping back and forth (though if this was all in Jeff’s head, why did he imagine a B-story for Abed and… never mind). I really do believe that the writers on the show at least try to adhere to some version of what Dan Harmon described to me in that walkthrough of season two, wherein he imagines if the events of the episode were reported in the local paper, and “alternate versions of the main characters cross over to our reality to try to stop them from being the best possible versions of themselves” fails that smell test. Yet even though it was obvious that the storyline was all a dream, it was a problem to figure out what the dream was trying to say, even when Abed told Jeff what was going on.
See, this is apparently how Jeff has chosen to deal with his concern about graduation, with his wishes to not leave Greendale. Which would be fine if it told us anything about how the place had changed him. Evil Jeff is a construct who’s nowhere near the snarky asshole that Jeff started the show as. He’s an artificial way to up the conflict, both here and in the third season finale (where he’s actually just what Jeff fears he might become). The problem is that he’s a one-off joke character the series is trying to imbue with depth because the fans liked that once, and heaven forbid anybody on this season come up with anything new. Indeed, 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.
To be honest, the first five minutes and the last two or so are pretty okay. They’re not terrific, and they’re obviously strained by trying to cram an entire emotional journey into 13 episodes, but there’s some good stuff in there, particularly when Annie reveals her graduation party surprise and as Troy keeps trying to downplay how he forgot to bring soda. Yet the idea of returning to “Remedial Chaos Theory” is hamfisted and pointless, shoved into the middle of the episode for no real reason, and then it just keeps coming up. Jeff tosses a die, and it gets stuck on its side. Evil Jeff crosses over, Terminator-style, in the Dean’s office. Abed gets sent to the darkest timeline by a warping paintball gun. I honestly can’t believe I’m typing some of this shit.
I’ve seen some discussion that the end of the episode—where we learn that it was all a dream—should “save” this by proving that the show hasn’t broken its own reality. And I’ll admit that returning to “reality” made for a stronger ending than I was expecting given what had come before. Jeff’s graduation is fairly sweet, and the series didn’t even take the obvious, obvious bait of having Jeff become a teacher at Greendale (why else would he have an education major?). But seeing all of the Greendale irregulars hanging out at his ceremony and hearing him talk about how the group had made him a better person just made me realize how much of the episode’s initial conflict had been shunted off to the side in favor of the giant morass of dumbassery that took up the middle section.
Jeff has been changed by Greendale. He isn’t the dick lawyer he was before he met the study group, and there’s an interesting story to be told about that growth, a story the episode actually starts to tell before abandoning it in favor of the crazed dream sequence. What’s even weirder about this is that I think Community could do a pretty good dream episode (you could argue that the puppet episode was more or less what that might look like), one that dropped us into the heads of all of the characters and showed us their worst fears and greatest hopes. And I suspect the darkest timeline stuff could have worked if it were more self-contained or if it only extended to a brief fantasy sequence. I don’t want to rewrite this episode; that’s not my job. But what’s on screen is such a mess that the temptation remains. This whole thing is desperately calling out for another draft, a tighter outline, and a conceit that doesn’t swallow what should be an important emotional moment in the history of the show whole.
Because let’s be honest: Jeff’s graduation is something that the show has been building toward all along. Did you feel satisfied with how it played out? Did you feel like bringing back all of the stuff that was in the episode for the umpteenth time serviced that story in any way, shape, or form? Jaime Weinman, a critic who teaches me new ways of looking at the medium every day, tweeted shortly after the episode that the real relationship of Community is to its own subtext and how that subtext gradually became the text of the show, thereby creating a more and more insular product. This episode is just the ultimate example of that. Here is a bunch of shit you loved before, and maybe you’ll love it again, because you’re a fan of this show, right? The existence of the show is more important than anything else!
Well, I’ll say this: I was never somebody who watched this show for the crazy bullshit. I was somebody who watched it for the emotional undercurrents, and this season, outside of a few isolated episodes, has all but killed those undercurrents dead. Maybe if you—like some of my critical colleagues—watched this for its endless parade of inventive ideas and for that only, you liked this a fair bit more than I did. But to me, it’s just unfathomable to see this as anything better than an ambitious failure. And even there, the level of ambition is not particularly high because it’s primarily about repeating things that have worked in the past, to diminishing returns.
We’ll likely find out if this is the end for the show or not tomorrow, and I never thought I would say this, but I just don’t care anymore. I’ll watch a fifth season if it happens (and I oddly think it would be better than this season was because everybody will be in more command of what works and doesn’t work about the show), but this is no longer a show that’s capable of much beyond repeating elements it thinks the audience will like over and over again. It’s become a jukebox musical version of itself, endlessly spinning its greatest hits to a crowd that grows smaller and smaller until it finally disappears. Even yesterday, I would have been sad at a cancellation, thanks to all of the good times I’ve had with this show over the years and even in this season. But not anymore. It might be time to be done. The earth, it has been salted.
Finale grade: D
Season grade: B-
- How the series writes out Pierce: He decides to graduate. I’m actually sort of amused by this, because it seems like a fairly appropriate way to get rid of the character, and it was better than the other obvious option, which was to send him to the darkest timeline to suggest that Jeff wasn’t dreaming… or was he? I know episode writer Megan Ganz has said that she didn’t get a lot of time to pull this one together, but I thought that was a good way to send the character off into the sunset.
- Also, there is a Matrix parody, because this show sometimes does movie parodies.
- I wonder if the Chang/Dean Spreck thing was building to something larger in a proposed 22-episode season. As it is, the storyline just sort of stops. If Dean Spreck’s plot had somehow tied into Jeff’s graduation arc, and then Jeff had had to struggle to keep City College from… ah, I need to stop doing this.
- Wait… Jeff also imagined a somewhat elaborate plot for Evil Annie, though I guess in this instance, there’s actually some potentially interesting subtext running through how he approaches his feelings for her.
- In one of the other timelines, Troy and Britta have a baby named Chewbacca. You just think about that for a while. Think about what you’ve done.
- “We finally found a way to make paintball cool again.” No, Abed. You, of all people, should know that you never underline how cool/awesome/geeky something is, for fear that it simply isn’t and you provide your own worst critics with a way to undermine you!
- Shirley telling Evil Shirley to get herself under control was kind of funny, I guess. Obviously grasping at straws here.
- I did like seeing the whole Greendale crew at the graduation. Like… where has Leonard been all season? And Garrett? Can we have a season five episode that’s just Leonard and Garrett doing stuff? I wouldn’t mind that.
- With that, I’ll bid you adieu for another summer. It’s been a weird, weird season, but I’ll be back if NBC brings the show back, and this episode will hopefully be an anomalous blip, something that tried too hard and didn’t stick the landing. And you know how the power of 10 works, right? You have to get this sucker to 1,000,000 comments. If you do that, we’re having a pizza* party! (*-pizza may be imaginary.) You know it’s the best way to wash the taste of this episode out of our mouths!