For the better part of a decade, NBC consistently aired a handful of all-time great sitcoms all on the same night. Starting with The Office in 2005 until Parks & Rec ended in 2015, sitcom greatness aired on Thursday nights on NBC. The Office, Parks & Rec, 30 Rock, and Community are all held up as exemplars of the form. As someone who was a big fan of three of those shows while they were airing, I somehow managed to never really watch Community. That is an oversight I’ve fixed over the last few weeks. I have friends and acquaintances who maintain that Community among the sitcom greats. After watching the whole series, I can’t agree. Among NBC shows of the time, I would rate it fifth, below the three previously mentioned shows and the criminally underrated My Name Is Earl.
Despite my reservations about the show, the first two seasons are really good. The cast and concept are impeccable. The show manages an excellent balance of high concept explorations of genre and character development. Really, the cast is what really pushes the show over the top. I am not going to go into everyone individually, but there is not really a weak link there. It gives a solid reason to gather this disparate group of characters and builds a compelling world for them to inhabit.
Then season 3 happened and the wheels promptly fell off. There is the occasional episode that shows the greatness present in the first two seasons, even surpassing it at times. Most of the season, though, has this feeling of sweaty desperation to it. In contrast with a show like Parks & Rec, which took two seasons to really find its footing, Community hit the ground running early but seems to have run out of gas by this third season. The characters get pushed further and further, and they start to fray. Character is sacrificed for the plot. Their relationships and mannerisms seem at least partly determined by the needs of the episode. If someone needs to act out of character to make an episode work, then that is what they do. That doesn’t mean there isn’t the occasional excellent episode, but you can feel the show straining.
Honestly, even if you had no idea about the turmoil going on with the show I think most viewers would pick up on the fact that something is not right in season 3-5. I include season 3 in with the troubled seasons, though I know many people count it among Community’s ‘great’ seasons. The behind the scenes troubles are well documented and come across in the show. Creator Dan Harmon did not return for season 4, in part because of conflicts with Chevy Chase. Chase had conflicts again and left during the next season. After that, Harmon returned. Then Donald Glover left early in the fifth season, though it seems his departure was amicable. While nearly everything about Chevy Chase’s career paints him as difficult to work with, I understand why he was not happy on this show. Not only is he stuck playing seventh banana on the show, his character is also hated by the rest of the cast and stupid racist. As the first three seasons go on, his character pushes deeper and deeper into his worst traits. A justifiable character development choice, but likely not a fun one for Chase. Season 4, other than leaning hard into the racism at times, actually lets him be the wise elder figure that usually uses him to mock. I’ll have some more to say about season 4 further on. With season 5, the show comes off pretty mean spirited, dumping on the whole previous season and on Chase personally.
The accepted narrative about this show is that season 4 is the weakest season, and it found itself again once Harmon returned. Maybe it is just a symptom of how the show does not quite work for me the way it does for its fans, but I think season 4 is better than the seasons that surround it. Season 3, as I said above, is a sweaty mess. Season 5 has some highlights, but struggles with how the show has really pushed beyond its original concept. And season 6, while largely enjoyable, feels like it has lost too much to be the same show it started as.
My real problem with Community, why I think of it as fine more than great, is that I just never really connected with the characters. The show, especially from season 3 on, seemed to treat the characters with contempt. And if the viewer was dumb enough to care about the characters, the show had some contempt for thta viewer as well. It is an understandable tough task to fit the characters into the shows frequent parodies and homages and keep them as distinct and clear. Instead, they become one or two traits that are hammered on repeatedly.
I feel like I’ve been pretty negative writing about this show, which is honestly not how I think about it. I really liked it in the first two seasons. After that, when it was good it was still really good. It is just that the quality was so variable. And the bad episodes are degrees worse than any of its NBC contemporaries. The post-Carell seasons of The Office are more enjoyable than the bad parts of Community. The show is really harmed by the inevitable comparisons to the shows that aired at the same time. Still, it is leagues better than anything on CBS. Community is a good show that doesn’t quite stand with the giants.