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The 'Community' season (series?) finale: A perfect ending about never ending

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I won’t say goodbye to Community. I did that last year, when the show was actually canceled. And the show has said goodbye to itself on a few different occasions. Season 3’s season finale could’ve been a series finale: It pretty much ended the “journey” phase of Jeff Winger’s character arc; it ends with a Life-Goes-On montage that feels very series-finale-of-Friday-Night-Lights; it was called “Introduction to Finality.”

The final episode of the de-Harmonized fourth season was called “Advanced Introduction to Finality.” It featured an all-a-dream plot marginally less crazy than the Roseanne all-a-dream series finale; it also let Jeff graduate.  By comparison, the re-Harmonized Season 5 finale didn’t come with much closure. But NBC never gave Las Vegas any closure, either. The cast told me that they even held a boozy wake for the show. Who saw Yahoo coming?

The season 6 finale appeared on the internet yesterday, over at Yahoo Screen, the home of guacamole commercials and advertisements narrated by Keith David. The episode is called “Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television,” and it is written like the perfect Community series finale. Which doesn’t mean it’s written like a series finale.* There are no showdowns or final reckonings, no self-sacrificial protag fatalities, no trials, no (true) flashforwards, no (unqualified) romantic declarations. People leave, but it’s not clear if they’re leaving forever or just for the summer.

I’m hesitant to talk much about the plot. You could go watch the episode right now even if you stopped watching Community years ago. Heck, if you never saw Community, and you don’t feel like investing lots of time with one of the great byzantine meta-pop funny-sad sitcoms of the last age of television, you could maybe just watch this episode and get the flavor. “Emotional Consequences” is a typical episode of Community, and like so many typical episodes of Community, it is conceptual (don’t call it a parody!) and it has a unique structure. (Behind-the-scenes was a Community all-star team: Creator Dan Harmon co-wrote the script with longtime lieutenant/less-openly-unhinged-co-conspirator Chris McKenna, and the episode was directed by Rob Schrab, who goes back with Harmon all the way the Heat Vision and Jack days.)

But in the ultimate ouroboric twist, the concept for this episode of Community is, well, Community. Another school year has ended: The sixth year this onetime study group has been here. Or “the sixth season,” as Abed insists: Community’s central operating procedure has always been that Abed thinks he is on a TV show, which either makes him insane (because reality isn’t a TV show) or the most sane person in the room (because he is, in fact, on a TV show.)

Long ago, Abed insisted that their “show” would last for six seasons and a movie. Well, they made it to six seasons. Some people left—Pierce, Shirley, Troy—but four original regulars remain, and supporting players like Chang and the Dean were promoted to leads without much fuss, and there’s at least half a Springfield of supporting characters spread throughout the world of Greendale.

But new departures loom. That’s a problem, from the audience’s perspective. As someone who loves Community, it’s hard to ponder the show with the original cast further depleted. This isn’t Law & Order, where you can have legit debates about best-ever cop duos (Orbach/Bratt > Orbach/anyone else) or get defensive about overlooked epochs (Linus Roache’s two seasons as ADA > Sam Waterston’s last eight seasons as ADA.) This is SVU—not the same without Stabler, wouldn’t exist without Benson.

Crucially, the potential loss of more leading cast members is also a problem from Jeff’s perspective. So the final episode of Community’s sixth season is a riotous pitch session for season 7, with every character imagining their own version of how the study group that stopped studying years ago could still find a reason to meet around a desk.

This is all laugh-out-loud funny—I’m a sucker for those moments on Community when an actor plays their character the way another character sees them, which means I’m a sucker for Gillian Jacobs raising self-parody to an art form—but it has incredible resonance on micro-emotional and macro-cosmic levels. “What do these characters really want?” is a question this episode asks. “What do any of us really want?” is another one. It’s meta, but one of the best things about Community is how it finds sincere emotion lurking in its self-deconstructive rabbitholes. The “Seventh Season” as a concept becomes a palpable symbol: For heaven, or for the best version of your life, or for the lingering hope that whatever’s over the horizon will be something better or maybe something you left behind.

How can I explain this properly? It’s like someone took The Simpsons Spinoff Showcase and made it into the closing montage from Six Feet Under. It’s like somebody took all those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys from the early ‘90s—Rock n’ Rollin, Mutant Military, Sport, Wacky Wild West, Cyber Samurai—and treated all those action-figure variations like psychoanalytical portraits of the Turtles’ inner hopes, dreams, fears, failings.

And it feels like, having already filmed a series finale or three, the show decided to offer a critical analysis of Community—a meditation on its strengths and weaknesses, an attempt to grapple with What Television Is in TV form. It’s a final loving ode to old-fashioned sitcom structure—one of the imaginary season 7’s is Jeff’s version of Married with Children (or maybe Yes, Dear), and the final shot of the remaining gang implies a spinoff in a bar where people say “Cheers” a lot (let’s call it Britta Perry’s Place.) Hell, this final episode of Community could be a swan song for the whole idea of the network sitcom: NBC has officially given up; Community was the last holdout from the Silver Age.

Maybe Community will be back. After that last shot of the gang, a hashtag flashed onscreen: #AndaMovie. It seems impossible that it won’t happen. Twin Peaks is coming back for a third season. Entourage has a movie. Somebody somewhere is talking seriously about more Prison Break. Nobody’s talking about a Deadwood wrap-up movie, but that’s just because David Milch is working on the Las Vegas wrap-up movie. Community could continue.

But if not, it went out with… well, a bang? A whimper? A whimpering bang? I don’t want to spoil what happens to the characters, but is it okay to spoil the end-tag? A typical American family plays a board game based on Community. Before you think “Is the show going to pull a St. Elsewhere and pretend that this whole series has been a board game?” the typical American dad holds up a card marked “snowglobe” and says “The whole show is happening inside this game!”

Not so fast, Dad. The sassy son holds up a tiny script—the script for the final (?) episode of Community, complete with the words they are saying right now. It’s a Mel Brooks gag plays for pathos: “Don’t you understand?” says dad. “This means we don’t exist. We’re not created by God. We’re created by a joke. We were never born and we will never actually live.”

And while this fake family that only existed for a meta-gag realizes their non-existence, a commercial announcer starts reading a disclaimer which is about Community the game, until it’s just about Community:

Dice not included.
Lines between perception, desire, and reality may be blurred, redundant, or interchangeable.
Characters may hook up with no regard to your emotional investment.
Some episodes too conceptual to be funny, some too funny to be immersive, and some so immersive they still aren’t funny.
Consistency between seasons may vary.
Viewers may be measured by a secretive obsolete system based on selected participants keeping handwritten journals of what they watch. Show may be canceled and move to the internet, where it turns out tens of millions were watching, may not matter.
Fake commercial may end with a disclaimer gag which may descend into vain Chuck Lorre-esque rant by narcissistic creator.
Creator may be unstable.
Therapist may have told creator this is not how you make yourself a good person.
Life may pass by while we ignore or mistreat those close to us.
Those close to us may be watching.
Those people may want to know I love them but I may be incapable of saying it.
Contains pieces the size of a child’s esophagus.

Of course the announcer is Harmon, playing himself, getting the last word. Of course his last word is self-critical and narcissistic and self-critical about how narcissistic it is; of course it’s referential and nerdy and passionate and angry; of course it ends on a piece of throwaway hilarity about the possibility of dead kids; of course it only gets to that throwaway gag after the most weirdly personal moment in a TV show that was always weirdly personal. (Who knew a TV sitcom could feel like so much like the diaries scrawled around John Doe’s apartment in Seven? Who knew a sitcom like that could be great?)

Maybe Community isn’t gone. Maybe it will never be gone. Maybe, if you’re a different kind of fan, it left a long time ago: With Troy or Shirley, with Harmon the first time, midway through Season 2 when things really got weird. Maybe, for you, it was never here. Never actually born, which means it will never actually die.

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Let me know what you thought about the Community finale! Email me at Darren_franich@ew.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Geekly Mailbag.

*To get spoiler-y for a second, though, you could argue that the series finale of Community (if that’s what this is) has a weird resemblance is Mad Men. They both end with an advertisement. They both focus on the show’s chief male-protag avatar achieving something like cosmic peace, based on an epiphany that everything ends but also nothing ever changes and everything is everything and everyone is alone together. Also, in both finales, Alison Brie goes to the airport.

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