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Community: “Digital Estate Planning” / “The First Chang Dynasty” / “Introduction To Finality”

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Upon completing “Introduction To Finality,” the third of tonight’s three all new Community episodes, my first thought was, “Man, that would have been a satisfying series finale.” There were things that didn’t quite work, and the Winger speech was overly gooey in the beginning. But by the end, when the theme song started up and the characters took us into the season’s final movement—a gently sweet montage that showed us where they all were as their adventures at Greendale came to a close for another season—I was genuinely touched by the journey the show had gone on. There was a rough road on the way here—even tonight—and some of the show’s stranger story complications didn’t make a lot of sense. But by the end, the season had reoriented itself as one about choice, about the times that we choose to stay somewhere that maybe doesn’t make us ecstatically happy because of the people who surround us and the places and people we’ll forever carry around with us in our hearts. It was sentimental without being overly so, and it felt like the perfect close for the show, like everything had come full circle, and we were being left with a world of possibility.


Let’s get the episode I didn’t like as much out of the way first. I never fully connected with “Digital Estate Planning,” which is clever in places and has a charming animation style but also works actively to keep the audience at arm’s length. It’s possible I would have liked the episode more than I did if I were more of a gamer, but I got most of the tropes being mocked, and the show just never says anything new enough about them to provoke lots of laughter. (Shirley and Annie killing the guy and his family was the funniest part.) The game strains credulity quite a bit by being apparently infinitely customizable. That’s obviously part of the point, and it was fun to watch as Abed rewrites the reality of the game world, but it’s also a little less like an accurate parody of games and gaming culture and more of a plot device, a “Hey, wouldn’t a video game episode be cool?” storyline. The fact that Giancarlo Esposito plays Pierce’s half-brother was an inspired choice, and the two making up as brothers at the end is surprisingly moving, but the episode comes off like an idea that requires a little more thought.

“Digital Estate Planning” also interrupts the flow set up in these last few episodes, wherein we dealt with the story of everything crashing down around the Greendale Seven. It feels inserted out of nowhere, as if this idea was pitched back when “Advanced Gay” aired, but only realized now. It’s nice to have some resolution to Pierce’s story arc for the season, and it would be great to see Gilbert again next year (if the show can wrest Esposito away from Revolution for an episode or two). But the overall effect of the episode is one that feels oddly out-of-order, even as it attempts to close off dangling plot threads. It’s cute but inconsequential, and it’s not even all that funny. Again, I might like this better if I played more video games, but for me, this was the weak link in the evening. The ambition is great, and the visual look is a lot of fun, but the core of the episode just isn’t there. (Also, why could Jeff get up in the middle of the game without forfeiting, particularly when that’s such a big plot point at the end?)


The middle half hour, “The First Chang Dynasty,” is much, much better. Playing around with the tropes of heist films, this is one of those Community episodes that leaves you with a grin on your face throughout, simply because the whole thing is so much fun. There aren’t a lot of traditional jokes in the hour, but that doesn’t matter, because the situations are so funny and so great. Seeing Shirley in her chef costume or having Pierce interrupt Jeff’s magic act by appearing as the swami are great sight gags, and like the best Community theme episodes, this one works because it takes its tropes mostly seriously. This really could be a halfway-serious caper film, even if it involved a bunch of sitcom characters in silly costumes, and the emotional climax of the episode—where Troy agrees to join the air-conditioning repair school to save his friends—works extraordinarily well. By the time the gang is saying tearful goodbyes to Troy, the episode has built to something surprisingly moving, even though it was just cavorting around with Britta dressed as a weird Goth Barbie doll.

The Chang’s army stuff hasn’t worked nearly as well as many of the other serialized plotlines this season, simply because it was hard for the show to make the kids surrounding Chang into believable villains that could intimidate the group. It’s the kind of idea that might work in a cartoon universe, but it doesn’t work nearly as well in Greendale, which, sadly, has to be bound by the actual laws of physics. If there’s a problem with this half-hour, it’s that Chang has been keeping the Dean under lock and key for several months, and nobody suffers any real repercussions for it. The Dean bounces back to his joyful self once he’s released, while Chang escapes with no one nabbing him for kidnapping a grown man. Now, this is the sort of thing viewers of shows like this are usually prepared to overlook, but it did put a bit of a damper on what was a fun episode otherwise.


But that’s no matter because everything else worked so very, very well. These three episodes operate almost as a series of examples of what the show can do, of its entire range, and this is the goofy concept episode, the episode that deposits the characters in another genre and tests how far that genre can be pushed while still remaining recognizably a sitcom episode. When the episode breaks into the sequence where it’s revealed that the part where the plan seems to fail is actually the part where the plan is working exactly as planned, it would be so easy for everything to fly off the rails, but the show executes that complicated plot turn with room to spare, while packing in some great visual gags and some good, traditional jokes. I can quibble with the overall plot of Chang taking over the school—which doesn’t make any sense if you even start to think about it—but I can’t quibble with how fun getting out of that plot was.

It’s all a build-up, though, to “Introduction To Finality,” which is my favorite of the show’s three season finales. The series struggled a bit to close off its first season, and while I really liked the second season’s final paintball episode, I don’t know if it was a satisfying emotional climax to that season. This episode, however, pays off nearly every storyline that’s been hanging out there, resolves the central emotional conflict of the show in a satisfying fashion, and suggests that Greendale will go on, even if it hadn’t gone on for viewers. (When this episode was made, all involved must have been pretty sure the show would be canceled. That’s how much this feels like an episode that wraps everything up.) I hate to talk too much about the fears surrounding the show’s fourth season—particularly now that we’re getting that fourth season—but if the rumors are really true and Dan Harmon really doesn’t come back as showrunner, this is a fine sendoff to his era in charge of the show. It’s just a terrific half-hour of television, one that sits comfortably alongside my all-time favorites.


What’s most impressive about the episode is how much it attempts to do. Around the midpoint, there are fully four storylines spinning along, and the show is giving every single member of its ensemble (save Chang, who’s off hiding in the vents of City College) something to do. There are moments when the storylines dovetailing could feel a bit forced—Abed turning up in the “courtroom” with a bonesaw, for instance—but the way the show brings all of this together with Jeff’s speech about how it’s good to help each other, coupled with Troy’s triumphs, both literal and moral, in the air-conditioning showdown, is really a feat of writing prowess. (My screeners don’t have writing credits on them, but the whole staff turned in excellent work here.)

The episode revolves around Jeff’s need to study for his biology final, something that he puts off to help Shirley in her trial against Pierce for controlling interest in the sandwich shop the two are finally allowed to open. He keeps repeating the phrase “cellular mitosis,” and I think that idea is crucial to understanding the whole season—and maybe the whole series so far. Cellular mitosis is the process by which cells split off from each other and replicate, so that all of your skin cells are recognizably skin cells and all of your bone cells are bone cells and so on. Mitosis involves a complicated process of splitting off, of one cell becoming two individual units. Throughout this season, we’ve watched as the members of the group have pursued their own interests and run off into their own little stories, and we’ve watched as more and more of the students of Greendale became characters in their own rights. But as the individual “cells” of the study group—or of Greendale—split off from the larger organism, they still carry the things they learned from being with each other. The longer they’re together, the more they’ll influence each other. But when the time comes for them to finally split off from each other for real, they’ll be ready to spread the things they’ve learned from each other even further. Wholes split into pieces, but they’re still wholes, because we carry those things forward in our hearts.


And that’s a lovely message to leave us with in a season that’s been sometimes messy but always ambitious, always pushing the limits of what the show could do, and always trying to find new ways to tell stories about these people. It was by far the most fraught season of the show, in terms of ratings and in terms of stuff happening behind the scenes and just in terms of the creative staff trying things that didn’t always work. But when I look back on this season of TV in the years to come, I don’t think I’ll remember all of the struggles that got us to “Introduction To Finality” or even the moments in that episode that I didn’t like. I’ll remember the group walking down the hallway, the theme song starting to play under them. I’ll remember Shirley letting Jeff throw the case for his own good. I’ll remember Abed admitting Britta’s the best therapist he could have. I’ll remember Troy realizing that his potential and his friends don’t have to stand in each other’s way. And I’ll remember Leonard reviewing Let’s Potato Chips (as well as his tall, muscular, African-American roommate).

Most of all, though, I’ll remember the idea that we all have a choice, that we can all put off our own destinies or embrace them. We don’t have to put off growing up to be with our friends, just as we don’t have to give up being with our friends to grow up. There’s much more to life than just the same stuff we’ve always known, and when we finally reach the point where we’re ready to head off into our own unknowns, we’ll carry bits and pieces of each other with us all the while. The title of Community has always been a description, yes, of the place where these people met and the kind of world they built for themselves. But it’s also always been a promise, a hope that someday, we’ll all find people who make us feel at home and become parts of a larger, warmer whole. If that had been the last thing we ever saw of this show, it would have been a lovely way to leave it.


“Digital Estate Planning”: B
“The First Chang Dynasty”: A-
“Introduction To Finality”: A
Season three: A-

Stray observations:

  • I don’t entirely know how to feel about Abed falling in love with a computer character. There are some good gags there, like when Abed realizes all she can do, but it’s ultimately a build-up to something that doesn’t pay off. Maybe we’ll get more next season.
  • I really liked video-game Giancarlo Esposito, and a giant, floating Colonel Sanders head is always going to be a good time.
  • The fact that Troy just keeps hopping around while everybody’s standing there discussing the game suggests to me that Troy and I play video games in roughly the same way.
  • Now that we’ve seen how Troy’s arc ends, man, what a disappointing use of John Goodman. Bringing him into these two final episodes for, effectively, cameos was a waste of a great actor (and one the show probably paid a fair amount of money to employ). Goodman plays everything he got very well, but that part could have gone to anyone.
  • Favorite costume is Jeff’s magician getup, followed closely by Britta’s outfit. But I liked how Troy and Abed really got into their roles, like they would.
  • I really liked the “Sorry, it was so clear in my head” gag. That whole montage was perfectly edited. Actually, this episode had really strong, crystal-clear editing, and that helped everything work just right.
  • I don’t know about you, but I could listen to Chang play the keytar all day long. I hope the show has a full episode of him doing so next season.
  • The biggest laugh in all three episodes is probably Troy saying that he can do whatever he wants because he’s the air-conditioning repair school’s messiah. (Okay, it’s also really funny when he tells the air-conditioning repair people that the new vice-dean needs to go to jail.) In general, the air-conditioning repair school is just the right side of silly, staying fairly close to what you might suspect a real secret society would do, but also being just goofy enough to always let you know it was joking around.
  • Even as that montage at the end seems to close off the storylines for the characters (in case of series finale), it also leaves a bunch of interesting avenues to explore in season four. I’m looking forward to it.
  • That shot of the cast walking toward the camera, about to start cramming for the test, is the sort of thing that will probably pop up in future montages of beloved TV comedies (assuming anyone remembers this show in 25 years).
  • I really try not to talk about the behind-the-scenes stuff in these reviews, but the thought that Dan Harmon won’t return with this show is one that worries me. Community could be a solid sitcom without him—the cast is great, and the fundamentals of the show are strong—but it’s never going to have the weird flashes of brilliance without him. If some sort of deal can’t be worked out with Harmon, then I think the show’s best bet will be to find some other person with a different take on the material, then turn him or her loose. Having someone who’s trying to be Harmon is just going to remind us how much we miss Harmon. I really hope it doesn’t come to that, but it’s hard for me to imagine the show being what it is without its creator.
  • Remember that the best thing you can do this summer is turn more and more people onto the show. The whole thing’s on Hulu, so if you have the cash to spend, get a Hulu Plus subscription and show your friends your favorite episodes. Live viewers are always going to be what NBC prefers, followed by DVR viewers who watch within a couple of days. If the show can keep enough of those in its move to Friday nights, it will likely get a full-season order (and maybe even another season).
  • As always, thanks for hanging out with me all season long. I’m looking forward to Friday nights with you in the fall. The passion you guys show for this show is astounding, and it’s impressive to me how much you can care about this show. I thank you for choosing my reviews for all your general goofery, and I thank you for always making me feel welcome in comments, even when you’re telling me I’m a jackass. This show’s fandom has gotten an unfair reputation for being uncompromising and mean to other fandoms. While that might be the case at other sites, it’s never been the case here, and I’ve appreciated the way you’ve both taken and dished out criticism of the show with good humor and friendliness. Not every site can boast a readership this engaged, and you’ve made these boards a great place to be.
  • Now, c’mon. 100,000. You know you can do it.