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Community Watch: You're Already Accepted

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“For a Few Paintballs More,” the conclusion to Community‘s epic two-part finale/sequel to its vaunted first-season paintball extravaganza, wasn’t quite the tour de force of last week’s “A Fistful of Paintballs”; but since I was on the road and couldn’t weigh in on that one, this is a good time to give credit where due, and look back on an often great, always ambitious season.

The most astonishing fact of this season’s finale is that Dan Harmon and company even attempted it. “Modern Warfare” is such a hallmark of sitcom awesomeness that the natural thing to do would be to retire its number and move on. Instead, they doubled down.

And while it would be ridiculous to expect the sequel to entirely recapture the magic of producing a paintball action-thriller on TV for the first time, “A Fistful of Paintballs” was possibly even more inventive and accomplished technically than the original, a dynamic and visually playful piece of filmmaking that managed to both lovingly spoof and actually reproduce the romanticism of the Westerns it emulated. (Bonus points too for using Josh Holloway in a manner that used his chiseled looks and recalled his Lost rogue Sawyer—”Son of a bitch!”—without doing so too literally.)

The second half hour last night wasn’t the same kind of showpiece, but rather a straight-up good time. A lot of people (myself included) have focused on the parody aspects of Community, but I think the show deserves credit for what it chooses not to parody. The easy thing to do here would be to go where Family Guy and so many other shows have and simply spoof Star Wars straight up all the way through—work out some sort of trash-compactor scene, play up the parallels to the Death Star assault, etc. Instead, Community recognized the parallels (which you probably picked up on seeing the white-suited stormtroopers at the end of last week) and knew when to back off and let the stakes—the characters’ decision to fight for Greendale, flaws and all—stand on their own.

The episode finished, meanwhile, with a scene that returned to a basic character-dynamic story the show has been wrestling with all season: the relation of Pierce to the group. We saw the study group ready to take him back, after his Darth Vader-like act of redemption, and Pierce—for once with something like the high ground—walk away. The last shot, with the paint-covered study group sitting in silence at the space where Pierce had been, underscored just what a wild ride they (and we) had been on, reminded us what a malleable playing field the study room had been (D&D play field, winter wonderland, battle zone, &c.) and emphasized now the characters had changed from randomly mismatched students into a kind of family, though the sticky paint of common hardship.

But I can’t say I felt a deep emotional resonance to Pierce’s walking away, and while I will be delighted for the show to come back, I’m not on the edge of my seat waiting to see how the fallout will be resolved. Which sort of sums up how I’ve felt about the season as a whole.

I love Community. But I think it’s fair to say that I don’t love-love Community quite as much as some of my critic colleagues—I’m thinking, say, Alan Sepinwall or Todd van der Werff—who consider it the best sitcom on TV or damn near tied. This, like many differences of opinion, probably has partly to do with what we each value most in a comedy. (I say all this because Community is one of those shows with an intense fan base for whom saying “It’s not the best comedy on TV” = “I hate it,” so a little explanation is in order.)

I enjoy the hell out of Community and am continually amazed by its inventiveness. What puts it, for me, slightly behind a Parks and Recreation, or Louie, or the recently departed Party Down, is the feeling that there’s a certain ceiling on the depth and dimension of the characters. On a show like Parks, characters may behave extremely, but I feel like I’m watching fully realized people, with idiosyncracies and hallmarks that are drawn from life. On Community, I feel like I’m watching expertly drawn sitcom characters, created by people with a tremendous knowledge of TV history and tropes and story structure. They can be deeply moving and funny and the writers know them well enough that they each have a distinctive dynamic with each other.

But—like on the similarly highly stylized 30 Rock—I also feel slightly distanced from them, even in a very emotional piece like this season’s “Mixology” episode. The second season of Community has done a good job of rounding out ensemble characters like Troy—if I have to give one MVP award this season, it’s Donald Glover—but I also feel like I’ve seen a lot of variations on “Britta acts righteous and gets a comeuppance” and even a strong episode like “Fistful” returned to the character note of “Jeff is vain.”

None of these things, though, mean that the show can’t be great on its own terms. (To continue the 30 Rock parallel, I rarely feel like I deeply connect with 30 Rock, but I find myself quoting it in conversation maybe more than any other show on TV.) At its best, I look at Community like—and I mean this in no way as an insult—a really good graphic novel, which uses the characters as finely drawn archetypes and experiments with rendering them in one drawing style after another, which keeping their essential core. (Or a series of postmodern short stories: the clip-show episode was not just an accomplished parody, but a formal experiment like a lost Italo Calvino collection.)

Looked at this way, Community is only on the surface a show about a college for adult learners. In reality, it’s a show about the idea, Disparate People Facing a Common Challenge, and it finds excuses to rerun that experiment in as many lab conditions as possible.

So it is that, in season two, we’ve seen the study group as: characters in a Western (at least twice), astronauts, stop-motion figures, zombies, educational-play characters, mental patients, mystery suspects and more. Whereas a more realistic sitcom would try to get to know Jeff by telling us more and more about him (which, yes, Community has done to an extent), Community instead looks at what “Jeff,” the storytelling idea, represents—the character who believes he needs no one but really does, e.g.—and tries to solve him by reproducing him in all the formats that popular culture has provided for that idea.

That necessarily means a lot of swinging for the fences, some home runs and the occasional strikeout, all of which we’ve gotten from Community. Watching it try (and succeed more often than it has a right to) has been a blast. But beyond the comedy and the technical flash, there’s still a simple emotional core to the show, which last night’s episode captured in the poster that the invading City College army mocked: “Welcome to Greendale. You’re already accepted.”

In that small note—which the episode wisely did not dwell on—is the quest that Community’s constantly morphing set of archetypes are on: acceptance, even if it’s in the context of a very mediocre college. That’s Community to me—a show that sets incredibly high standards for itself, while telling a story that is a love letter to low standards.