The tagline “a show set in a community college” runs beneath the title card of Community’s “G.I. Jeff,” and that’s an important distinction. Greendale is a setting within the episode’s animated G.I. Joe fantasy, and it’s what originally brought together the group of people Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) finds standing around his hospital bed when he awakes from his booze-and-pills-induced Saturday-morning fantasia. But like so many episodes since the show’s pilot, “G.I. Jeff” is not about community college. It’s about aging, adulthood, arrested development, mortality, and the mechanics and economics of 1980s cartoons. All of these themes combine for one of the funniest, most poignant statements Community has made in a couple of years.
Internal jokes about what Community is “about” stretch back to the show’s first season, when it started shedding the clothes of a smart, well-acted hangout sitcom to reveal something stranger—something more special. The “show about community college” riff has a specific precedent in season four’s “Paranormal Parentage,” uttered by Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) as he watches the members of his study group on closed-circuit TV, treating them like the fictional characters he’s always (accurately, in a sense) identified them as. In that moment, the joke falls flat, a flash of self-awareness from a machine that was still teaching itself how to function after its mad creator, Dan Harmon, was forcibly removed from the lab. The season-four writing staff recognized how far Community had come from its low-premise beginnings, as does the group a resurgent Harmon assembled from various eras of the show for season five. The difference between the show now and the show then is that it started treating Greendale Community College like a living organism, rather than a throwaway joke.
During a rebuilding year that could have suffered from the departures of original cast members Donald Glover and Chevy Chase, Community triumphed by rallying around its home base. The slogan of the season has been “save Greendale,” and in addition to making a handy headline for show-preservation efforts (which, in light of syndication packages and NBC’s continued inability to launch new comedy programming, seem more unnecessary than ever before) those words have taken on a talismanic importance following the show’s time among the living dead. The Save Greendale Committee that reunites the principals after their fourth-season graduation is merely a function of plot—albeit one that mapped out a nice landing for the two-part season finale—but its spirit infuses these 13 episodes. There needs to be a Greendale, because it’s what unites these characters, it’s what gives them reason for being, and it’s what defines Community as a primetime refuge for broken people on both sides of the TV screen.
Not that season five is without flaws: Jeff’s return to campus catalyzes the whole season, but the show struggled with what should come next, pushing him through a reluctantly accepted teaching position, an accidental O.D., and a spur-of-the-moment marriage proposal. A reinvestment in the faculty—a returning John Oliver and a spectacularly well-rounded Jonathan Banks—makes up for the loss of Glover and Chase, but writer Megan Ganz’s departure for Modern Family robbed the show of the only person who knew how to craft rich, detailed material for Yvette Nicole Brown’s Shirley. While entertaining episodes in their own right, sequels in spirit and form like “G.I. Jeff,” “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” and “Geothermal Escapism” live in the shadow of the show’s second season, the most even and consistent mix of Community’s attention to character detail and its lunatic verve for genre experimentation. As if to confirm that going back to basics was the smartest move Harmon and crew made all year, season five’s big swings at live-action concept episodes like the dystopian fantasy “App Development And Condiments” and the David Fincher-esque thriller “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” have been the most unwelcome echoes to the empty stylistic departures of season four.
Keeping those episodes afloat, however, is the sense that their breaks from established reality were initiated by adventurousness, rather than obligation. Both are experiments that pull back the roof on Greendale, drop in a foreign threat, and sit back to watch the chaos unfold. The most rewarding passages of season five focus on the study group and survey where its members stand after half a decade of knowing each other—the prime example of this, “Cooperative Polygraphy,” is one of the series’ all-time greats—but these episodes have done tremendous work toward rebuilding the environment around them. Seemingly stunt-cast guest players like Walton Goggins, Mitch Hurwitz, and Vince Gilligan wound up enriching the world of Greendale, pinch-hitting in places where established weirdos like Leonard (Richard Erdman), Star-Burns (Dino Stamatopoulos), and Vicki (Danielle Kaplowitz) might have ground their own schtick to death. The net result is a show that hasn’t felt this alive and vital since Harmon’s season-three decision that where he was going, he didn’t need any roads.
The four-year-degree timetable set out by Community’s premise was always going to be a hurdle for the show. Having nullified the lost weekend of season four with a wink and a gas leak, the last 13 episodes reset the clock—but then there’s the unnatural life of the ongoing TV series to deal with. With another wink, the opening part of the season finale, “Basic Story,” deals with that too—but knowing and acknowledging aren’t the same as eliminating a basic fact of television production that effects every sitcom, no matter how smart or inventive. The genius of “Basic Story” involved restoring the sense of danger that the Save Greendale Committee was supposed to mitigate, a sense that carries over to the thrilling (if slightly inferior) second part, “Basic Sandwich.” Even as its characters are arguing that Greendale has no more stories to tell, Jay Chandrasekhar’s camera drifts through the hallways, orbiting a sun that still has some flicker to it. That camera isn’t like a show that continues lumbering ahead, even though its reserves of story and character are tapped—it knows there are still many corners of Greendale to explore. (One corner that’s received an appropriate, heartwarming amount of light: The way in which the departure of Donald Glover’s Troy reinforced the bond between Abed and Alison Brie’s Annie.) The important thing to remember is that these characters aren’t trapped like the metaphorical, theater-haunting ghosts of “Bondage And Beta Male Sexuality,” a spectacular half-hour that uses new and old character configurations to illustrate how far these people have come—and how far they still have left to go. They’ve progressed to the point where they don’t necessarily need Greendale, but the show has been refreshed by the notion that Greendale needs them.