By Chris Dole (Twitter: @chrisdole86)
When watching the hugely entertaining season finale of Community this week, something occurred to me. If Parks and Recreation, in its ever-expanding world and portrayal of small-town city politics and governing systems, can be equated as the comedy equivalent of The Wire (and given creator Michael Schur’s clear interest in that show, and how they are essentially the mirror image of how government works and doesn’t work in modern America), then I think you could make a reasonable case for Community as the comedy equivalent of Deadwood.
Yeah, it sounds silly. But hear me out. Sure, both shows have exceptionally different premises, but they come back to a very, very similar theme: the idea of humanity as one organism, one family, or one study group - how these groups form out of chaos, what shifts their dynamics, what breaks them apart, and how much stronger we are once we have formed that society. Tonight’s episode of Community embraced that wholeheartedly, but it’s a theme that’s been becoming clearer and clearer over the course of the season (and the show as a whole), starting from the Apollo 13 episode, and popping up in episode after episode (offhand, I can think of Cooperative Calligraphy, Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, and Paradigms of Human Memory easily fulfilling that theme for the study group, but D&D, Mixology Certification, the politics episode, and numerous others reflect that as the group deals with the wider environment even beyond Greendale). And sure, it’s often played as a joke (Paradigms of Human Memory, in particular, made terrific hay of how often the group fights like it’s about to break up), but there’s still something deeply, occasionally achingly sincere behind it. Like Deadwood, Greendale has been developed as a place where we could go down any corridor, follow any group of students, and they have the potential to be as richly characterized as the main study group. Hell, maybe that’s why the main class this year was Anthropology: after all, it’s the study of humanity.
Indeed, Greendale’s mascots and mottos are curiously resonant, in this context. The nightmarish figure of The Greendale Human Being is a magnificently horrifying punch line, but when the students chant “HUMAN BEINGS!” at the end of the paintball standoff, it’s suddenly triumphant. Similarly, “Welcome to Greendale, you’re already accepted!” is a joke. But Pierce’s speech at the end of the episode turns that nearly tragic – the man has been going to Greendale for 12 years because it’s the only place that would accept him, “sickness and all.” In Greendale, characters from Jeff Winger to Abed Nadir to Annie Edison to Benjamin Chang to Starburns have found a place that, while not perfect, will take them as they are, and won’t demand (like City College) that they become an arrogant, faceless regime – just another bunch of students who won’t amount to much.
The governing principle of Deadwood comes from the episode “The Trial of Jack McCall” where Reverend Smith speaks at Wild Bill Hickock’s funeral. Humanity, he insists (quoting from Corinthians 12), is composed of one body, and we cannot separate from each other just as, say, an arm cannot function without a brain driving it. And while Smith is clearly losing his mind, he has a point. Similarly, when Pierce talks about how Greendale has accepted him, he’s a lonely, bitter old asshole who’s just alienated his first genuine friends in years. But he too has a point.
The moment where this crystallized for me (in Community) was the scene in the Anthropology classroom where they brought virtually every recurring student still standing out, and gave virtually all of them a genuine moment. Hell, even freaking Quendra was there! It was a terrific demonstration of how much depth this show has built into it, and why it’s going to be more than just a reference machine like some people deride it as. Every one of these characters, even someone as gimmicky as Magnitude, is a Greendale Human Being – whatever that means. They’re all part of the (student) body. And all of them matter.
You can actually draw some nifty parallels between some of the characters on both shows too (Chang and Farnum come to mind), but I won’t belabor the comparison, which is, after all, kind of a stretch. The point is, Community has truly embraced its title this year. And that, among many, many other things, is why this season is a gigantic step beyond the first, and one of the absolute great seasons of television period. It’s a triumph of character evolution as the study group fractures and reforms in the face of the year’s trials, how each character breaks in different ways as they are increasingly beat on, and how they come together again whenever the chips are down, only to suffer their first genuine (if likely temporary) loss. Like Deadwood, it was wildly theatrical and stylized, playing with genre the way that show played with language. It was able to soar to hugely successful comedic and creative heights (nearly half the episodes this year could legitimately be discussed as all-time classics – an extraordinary record). And like Deadwood, it was exceptionally well-acted and directed. But many shows are that. Community comes the closest to replicating Deadwood’s warmth and humanism (or, at least, the closest since Lost, who occasionally pushed that too far to the detriment of other elements, but that’s neither here nor there). It may seem odd to use those words to describe a show about ruthless killers in the Old West, or about slacker college students in a cut-rate local school, but there it is.
I know people have already started talking about what genres they’d like to see next year. On a purely fanboy level, noir would be great (can you imagine a Bogart-esque Abed narration?), and a musical would be fun (mostly because I’d suspect that Shirley would grab the lead in that, and if there’s one character who’s still a bit underserved, it’s her), but me? I most want to see 22 Short Films About Greendale. If any show can pull it off, it’s this one.