Binge-watching is relatively new to me. I've only done it with a few shows (that I'd never seen before - I can rewatch a DVD boxset quite easily, though). In the last few months, I've worked my way through Daredevil, Chuck (blog about this coming soon), and most recently, Community.
I've had a curious relationship with Community in recent years - my regular cohorts with The Same Faces, Mike & Allan, are obsessed with the show, and had been encouraging me to watch it for ages. I had tried on one occasion, about 18 months ago, but the timing was wrong - I'd just finished binge-watching Parks & Recreation's first five seasons at the time, and was looking for something similar to view next. The trouble was that Parks & Rec's narrative rattles along, the characters develop quickly (by sitcom standards), and there's no messing around with "will-they/won't-theys"; characters enter relationships very quickly on Parks, and I loved that. So when I initially watched the first nine episodes of Community, I got frustrated by the return to the more classic standalone episode format, and gave up on it. However, I recently found myself with a rare free weekend, a netflix account, and nothing specific in mind to watch, so I decided to give Community another go. Now, in a different head space, I enjoyed it very much, and rapidly made it through all six seasons (this happened to be the weekend prior to the season 6 finale being released on Yahoo, so the timing was now superb). Because I live in a very nerdy corner of the internet (as you may be able to tell from the other posts in my blog), I'd known about Community's various off-screen troubles, without ever having seen an episode. The low ratings (based on the Nielsen system, at least), constant fear of cancellation, actually being dropped from NBC's schedule during Season 3, the sacking of showrunner/creator Dan Harmon, an apparent quality drop in Season 4 (which I actually don't think is all that bad), the rehiring of Dan Harmon, Chevy Chase's departure, the re-cancellation, and the ultimate move to Yahoo Screen - I knew about all of it. So when I sat down to watch it, it was interesting to me that my overriding feeling about all these things was - I'm not that surprised.
Community is, fundamentally, a show that appeals to an incredibly specific, yet loyal fan base. People who adore pop-culture love Community. Yet, it's had constant difficulty with low ratings - especially during it's NBC years - and I think the reason for this is simple: if I were to know nothing about, say, Doctor Who, then the episode that's set entirely at the Inspector Space-Time convention would be lost on me. If I was a look-in viewer for that episode, I probably wouldn't watch again the next week, confused by the obscurity of the references. The show doesn't really have anything week-to-week to capture the interest of the casual viewer. By contrast, The Big Bang Theory (which was Community's dominant competition during the NBC years) may also be about a group of nerdy guys, but even if you don't know anything about physics, superheroes, or Star Trek, then you can still get invested in Leonard & Penny's love story. As I've said before, a great love story can heighten any narrative. You root for the couple throughout all their troubles, highlights, break-ups, etc. I'm not sure Friends would've made it to 10 seasons without the Ross & Rachel sub-plot. Similarly JD & Elliott on Scrubs, Ted & The Mother/Robin (depending on your feelings about the finale) on How I Met Your Mother, and currently Jake & Amy of Brooklyn-99. It doesn't matter what your show's about (friends, doctors, cops, etc), it's always easier to invest in emotionally when there's a romance to root for (it's one of the reasons I love Chuck so much, but that's for another day). Community doesn't have this, which is surprising, because Geoff has two love interests in Britta & Annie, who each have had two or three (Troy, Geoff, Subway, etc) love interests themselves. It's this confusion over who to root for that complicates matters, leading to a divide in the fan base over who Geoff's true love is; Britta or Annie. The problem is, I'm not even sure the writers know at this point, as every time Geoff starts to lean one way or the other, they do something to undermine it (at the end of Season 5, Geoff & Britta decide to get married, but Abed points out this is just a panic move, and in Season 6, Annie tells Geoff to kiss her, so he doesn't regret it for the rest of his life, and it's ok, because she'll "only regret it for a week"). PICK A SIDE, WRITERS! Personally, I'm Team Britta. I think she and Geoff are two sides of the same coin, and compliment each other nicely (when the writers aren't going out of their way to undermine this); she's also the original love interest from the pilot, so I stand by that choice! By contrast, I don't know what Annie would see in Geoff - he's 20 years older than her, he's a fraudulent lawyer, he's a slacker who gleefully picks "blow-off classes" to coast through his degree, and he's a narcissist. Annie is 18-23 (depending on which season you're watching), a smart, studious workaholic, who only wound up at community college because she had a break down, mostly brought on by a need to be noticed. On paper, Geoff couldn't be a worse match for her. Yet the furthest Geoff & Britta's relationship has ever reached is "friends with benefits" - which happened predominantly off-screen - and they've never actually tried to be more than that. I'd really like to see what would happen if those two characters were together. Or really, any two characters on any sitcom that have a protracted relationship build up. Just pull the trigger already! So many sitcom writers seem to be afraid of putting their characters into happy, functioning relationships for fear that it'll remove dramatic tension. Yet some of my favourite sitcom relationships have made that transition early and gone from strength to strength Leslie & Ben/April & Andy on Parks & Rec, Chandler & Monica on Friends, Howard & Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory, Steve & Susan on Coupling, etc. Don't get me wrong, I don't want Community to copy those other shows, "just because it's worked for them" - no, I'd like to see it because I'm very curious about what the Community version of a long-term relationship looks like. The show is unlike any other, so my assumption would be that Harmon would have a unique perspective on what the modern relationship is. The only relationship within the group so far was the (curious) coupling of Troy & Britta, and 99% of that happened during season 4, when Harmon wasn't there.
The next problem the show has suffered from is through no fault of its own - the constant threat of cancellation has meant that the series has never been able to commit to either an ending or a cross-season story-arc. One of the first - and most basic - things I learned about story (when I was a five or six years old) was that you have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Community had a great beginning (fraudulent lawyer goes to community college to get his degree, meets a pretty blonde, and accidentally creates a genuine study group in order to try and seduce her), plenty of middle (Geoff grows to genuinely care about the members of the study group, and seven unlikely misfits become close friends), but no definitive end (including Abed's would-have-been-canon Meteor-wipeout scenario, had the show not returned for season 6). Not knowing for sure whether you're back each year, means that you can't lay the ground work for things to come, but equally, the possibility that you might yet come back means you can't commit to a definite ending. It's unfortunate in many ways that the show started it's #SixSeasonsAndAMovie campaign, because it's most successful season (from a network perspective) has been the sixth - Yahoo seem keen to make more episodes, yet #SevenSeasonsAndAMovie wasn't the deal. Six seasons have now been made, they've got a network who's actually backing them to go on, but the question has now become, "do we stop and make the movie or do we go for season seven?" More than any other, the season 6 finale felt like an ending, which was odd, because they could quite easily kick on now, and make another 4 or 5 seasons with Yahoo; except they're hemorrhaging cast (Yvette Nicole Brown being the most recent departure, who has moved to a more secure job on CBS's hit remake of The Odd Couple), and going on without the original group is seeming harder and harder (Brie is apparently lining up movies, Jacobs is working on a netflix show, etc). Only four of the original core-seven remain, and each of the other three's replacements have only lasted one season each so far (John Oliver's long overdue return, for example, was a highlight of season five, but unfortunately he had to go and get successful on his brilliant HBO show, meaning he disappeared again in season 6). The loss of Donald Glover as a foil for Abed has also taken away some of the show's magic; again, Glover was just too talented to stay on such an unstable show, and was snapped up by FX to make his own series. Whatever happens with Community next, I hope they make a decision for the long term. If it's a movie, and that's it, grand - commit to it, and make that the ending. If however, they decide to make season 7, Yahoo needs to commit to season 8, 9 and 10 as well, so the show knows that's it's going to be there long term, and can evolve. As it stands, the characters are trapped in a state of limbo without an end goal - it's no longer graduation, as Geoff has already completed his degree, and the others (weirdly) re-enrolled. Why are they staying at Greendale? If they're all going to become part of the teaching staff (per Geoff's season 7 pitch), that'd be great, but they need to set a new overall objective for the group, and have them work towards it again.
My final issue (and then I'll talk about the things I like, I promise) - which is sort of tied to my last point - is that the characters haven't really evolved over the six seasons. Geoff, Pierce, Shirley, and Abed are/were all more or less the same characters they were on their first appearance as they were on their last. Geoff is still a narcissist, Pierce never ceased to be inappropriate (despite Troy living with him for a season or so), Shirley continued to be the Christian, single mother, who you don't want to cross, and Abed continues to be Abed. Part of this may be because of the show's uncertainty about returning each year, but I'd have thought that some more obvious developments should've happened over time. Geoff loves his friends now, yes, but they're still second behind himself, and he's still a slacker, even as a teacher! By contrast, other characters have changed, though not always for the better. The Dean and Britta have both become vastly more interesting. Originally they were simply there for (elaborately dressed) exposition and to serve as the love interest, respectively. Over time though, The Dean has become a far more well rounded character, and Britta has become a real goofball (a term I've never previously used) - the concept that she's "the worst" has given Gillian Jacobs something to play against, and it works really well as the character desperately tries to prove that she's not. However, Annie and Troy actually became less unique as the series went along. For Annie, as the role of love interest started to transition to her from Britta, her character has fewer quirks, and became the more archetypal "girl next door". Gone are the days where Annie could trigger a bottle episode just be having lost her favourite pen. Don't get me wrong, she's still great, because it means she gets really interesting things to do whenever the show has a themed week (such as the Law & Order episode, the season 2 paintball episodes, and in "Intro to Recycled Cinema"), but in the other weeks, her character's not as defined as the others - maybe she should've had a drugs relapse? Y'know, something lighthearted and whimsical... Troy is the series' ultimate team player; the trouble is that I can't describe his character without mentioning Abed. They come as a pairing, and Abed's character is so strong that he tends to dominate the relationship (a point observed by the writers in the blanket/pillow fort war, when Troy finally has enough of doing what Abed wants to do). The attempts to better separate Troy from Abed must've been what led them to the relationship between him and Britta - but again, that means Troy was defined by his relationship with another character. Eventually, the only way he could become a character in his own right was by leaving, which was such a huge loss, as he and Abed's dynamic duo were really the show's heart (hopefully Glover will return for the movie). Ken Jeong's Chang, by the way, started weird, and has gotten even weirder as the show went along. This should be congratulated - his one liners are incredible, and his character has probably grown the most out of everyone on the show.
Don't think that these things have stopped me liking the show though - they really haven't. There's no episode that I wouldn't happily watch again, and every one has something great in it. But really, the highlight - Community's trump card - has to be... the paintball episodes.
Let's not kid ourselves, the first three (Modern Warfare, and the season 2 two-parter) are undoubtedly the best ones, but they're all incredible. It's a viable way to have genuine, hardcore action scenes in a sitcom, with guns and explosions going off, but no actual deaths. It's such a genius device, and they could comfortable get away with doing one in every season (season 3 only had a flashback to a film noir style competition, but it was just a fragment - I wouldn't have burned through two concepts in season 2 to be honest; I'd have kept the Star Wars episode for another season and just done a two-part Western theme). The competition episodes are great though, as the whole campus goes crazy - Hot Lava was also a particularly strong example, along with the Blanket/Pillow Forts. Community's ability to do such high-concept episodes in just 20 minutes is were its strength lies, and credit has to be given to Harmon and the Russo brothers for making those viable objectives.
I said at the beginning of this blog that if I were a casual viewer, I might struggle to get the pop culture references; well, fortunately, I'm not a casual viewer, and I love every Easter egg, reference, and celebrity cameo the show has had. I've written a few blogs about "what I'd do with the movie" etc for other shows/franchises, but I can't do that for Community. It's so unlike any other sitcom that the movie options are pretty much limitless - I'd hope it includes a paintball competition, John Oliver, "Troy & Abed in the morning!", and the fan-unifying Geoff/Britta/Annie threesome (haha), but other than that, it could be literally anything. I'd imagine Abed will be keen to make sure that it's "not just an extended episode like the Simpsons movie", though.