As much fun as the finale for Community’s fifth season was, I doubt there were many surprises for any longtime fans of the show. That may sound odd, given that the episode revolves around a search for lost treasure through the long-undiscovered basement of Greendale, resulting in the appearance of a semi-feral Chris Elliott and a robot who can feel emotions (kind of), but with Community it’s never been much about the specific, zany route from point A to B, but rather the emotional beats that make up that story. Here, though, it was pretty much the same as every other Community season finale, from the rote bits of closure to the jokes about how in all likelihood we’ll still be seeing more of this cast. It could’ve been retitled “Community Finale 101.”
That lack of surprise has been the only real disappointment of Dan Harmon’s return to the show, which has been both consistently funny yet a bit off despite itself. Perhaps it was the time away from the show granting him and the rest of its previous staff a bit of perspective, but since their return Harmon and the rest of the writers seemed to have crystallized what it means to be Community. The show had a strong identity before, and last season we saw what happens when someone without quite the same spark of genius uses that same formula, but it wasn’t until now that it seemed set in stone. While Community’s episodic stories can go anywhere and do anything, its character relationships are pretty much stuck in the mud. If the show didn’t thematize character growth, this might not be such a big problem, but as it stands the Community formula has become more of a hindrance than a blessing.
The great parts about this episode were the strange elements that we’ve never seen before: the robot made of gold, the bit character taking a strange journey into another character’s mind for essentially no reason whatsoever and Chris Elliott being just so… Chris Elliott. These were the defining parts of “Basic Sandwich,” and what made this finale still something special. But through all of them there was the assurance that Greendale as we knew it would return, that Chang would betray everyone, that Jeff and Britta’s short-lived engagement would be done and essentially forgotten before the season even ended. Once you remove the strange bits, this was Community by the numbers.
That’s not a terrible thing, of course. Community is consistently funny, perhaps moreso now than ever, but even its most fantastical ideas of late feel like retreads (see: “G.I. Jeff”). Humor is about surprise, though, and while individual jokes frequently had electricity, the main journey was weirdly lacking. When we learn Jeff has to show the robot emotion in order to get it to function properly, it’s difficult to tell whether this is an acknowledgment of how much of a cliche this idea is or whether Community truly believes that this is a good ending to the season. Most likely both, but as is the problem with Abed, acknowledging a problem doesn’t actually make it go away.
All of this sounds horribly negative, and “Basic Sandwich” doesn’t deserve to be seen as a letdown. It was a good episode, completely solid, and Community’s fifth season was likewise. However, the show’s capacity to surprise, and with this go from good to great, seems to be permanently diminished. I don’t think that it’s necessarily that Greendale itself is no longer interesting, either, but rather that the stagnation of returning these characters to their prior relationships at the end of every episode (or, at most, season) has given us all the traction we can get. While the study group moved from being students to being the Save Greendale Committee, it did little to change the group dynamic. It’s no surprise that the most interesting episodes of the seasons were those involving Pierce and Troy leaving, and it’s because for once we had entirely new stories. Once things returned to normal, though, Community just found a new status quo and returned to where it was before.
Community hasn’t been renewed yet, and as such the question remains whether it’s worth continuing the show (the fact is that it almost certainly will have another season, whether on NBC or Netflix or wherever else, so no need to panic). I would say yes, because the show’s still very good, and with Harmon staying on that will likely continue. Conversely, I doubt at this point that it will ever be as good as it once was—not just because its novelty has worn off, but because of the rules the show has made for itself—but that’s not a good-enough reason to stop watching. A lot of shows peak and continue; there’s nothing wrong with that, and Community maintains a high standard of intelligence and humor, even if that extra edge of surprise seems permanently lost.