It feels like Community has spent so much time lately with beginnings and endings that between these bookmarks and its signature themed episodes, there’s hardly been much time for a “normal” episode of the show. Because of this, it was a bit of a surprise to learn that apparently on top of everything this season, the Save Greendale committee has actually been, well, saving Greendale. In contrast to the show airing directly after it, Parks and Recreation, which shows us every step of its stories and creates episodes around this, Community has chosen part one of its two-part finale to simply tell us what’s been going on. It’s not entirely the show’s fault, given its 13-episode season order, but it leads to a weird entry for the episode that from the beginning felt a little bit off.
The irony of the fact that making Greendale into a place people would want to be is also dooming the institution was pretty wonderful, but as “Basic Story” stumbled towards its conclusion, I had the constant sense that Community’s writers knew where they wanted to end things, but not how to get there. While Abed was given probably the most screentime of any of the characters, most of his storyline consisted of him…not doing anything. There was a scene with him talking to himself in the hallway, with the vision of himself responding wearing a long white beard for no apparent reason (or even joke, at least that I could see), serving no purpose except to show that’s what he was up to. It’s been a long time since Abed’s fourth wall-breaking observations have been particularly funny, and here that was all he was given to do. Maybe there will be a payoff in the second part of the finale, but I kind of doubt it, as he could’ve been cut out of the episode entirely and it wouldn’t have had much effect.
What did work, on the other hand, was the tension between people like him, Annie and the Dean, who desperately want Greendale to stay the same, and the rest of the group who’s happy that things have improved. In particular, Jeff’s pathos here felt legitimate in a way that sometimes it just doesn’t. He didn’t feel happy or sad about what he saw changing about Greendale around him; he felt conflicted, and that’s not an emotion that Community focuses on often. It’s a show about quick turnarounds and inspiring speeches, even when they’re being mocked, and this sort of doubt on his part and fumbling towards what his future should be added some much-needed depth to the show.
The idea of the school being sold to Subway itself was pretty great (who didn’t enjoy seeing Jared right there in Greendale?), and Michael McDonald did an excellent job making the insurance appraiser memorable with just a few scenes. But nevertheless the episode never quite came together, perhaps because of how everything moved so quickly. At the beginning of the episode, we learn there are no more problems with Greendale, then the school’s being sold, then Jeff proposes to Britta, then there’s treasure found, and as things jump along there isn’t much time for the characters to figure out how they feel.
Jeff’s proposal was a big thing, too, yet it’s impossible not to feel like this will go nowhere because if Community returns (which seems likely, whether or not it’s on NBC), it’s impossible to imagine them staying together. Dan Harmon is brilliant in some ways, but his view of serialization is all about callbacks, not permanent character growth, and before too long Community tends to revert to how things were before. It’s a show that likes its status quo, which wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t constantly give lip-service to change. That’s also what makes the Subway storyline feel so safe. The gang will, undoubtedly, return Greendale to how it was before, if not now then at the beginning of season six, so the stakes don’t feel particularly high. I’d love to see part two of the finale really pull out the rug and surprise us by making this proposal serious, or letting Subway retain the school and setting the entire sixth season in the Subway College (or City College, or anywhere else, really). Maybe it was Abed’s constant reassurances that this was all a story that really kept things from getting too interesting, as by now, we’re all like Abed and understand all too well how Greendale’s stories work. For part two, my hope is that for once Dan Harmon will step beyond his story circle and tell a story that doesn’t return to the familiar. I just don’t think that’s particularly likely.