Friday, 18 May 2012

Television - Community 'Digital Estate Planning / The First Chang Dynasty / Introduction To Finality' season finale reviews

Despite Dan Harmon and his team expressing their confidence at Community being renewed for a fourth season following its return from hiatus, 'Introduction To Finality' ended in a manner more appropriate to a series, rather than season, finale. NBC burning off the last three episodes in one night didn't inspire much hope prior to last week's confirmation of the series getting an order for thirteen more episodes, and had that announcement been delayed a week, fans would surely have been up in arms at Introduction To Finality's conclusive montage to the Community theme song, 'At Least It Was Here', showing each of the characters preparing to take the next step in their lives.

The subject Jeff was revising for his biology finals was cellular mitosis, the process by which cells divide and allow organisms to grow. The final episodes of this season were all about that mitosis, separating from the group to grow as individuals: Pierce discovered he had a brother who could understand the years of suffering he endured at the hands of his deranged, ivory-wigged father, and became an equal partner in his business with Shirley. Britta finally found something she wasn't the worst at, in the process helping Abed  break out of the fantasy life he has used as a comfort blanket since arriving at Greendale. Troy separated from the Troy-Abed cell with a step towards a future making the most of his talent. It felt like a new beginning for the characters, and an end to the series.
Though we now know that not to be the case, rumours have arisen recently that showrunner Dan Harmon might not be returning for the fourth season. His contract is reportedly up and no extension has yet been signed. Does he know something we don't? Might those public spats with Chevy Chase have made him think twice about returning? It's all baseless speculation, as no-one will know for sure what is happening until an official announcement is made, but should he not return, the 'Introduction To Finality' montage would certainly have been a fitting end to his reign, wrapping up the character arcs that have been building over the past three years.

[EDIT: Harmon's departure has since been confirmed by Sony.]

We'll be seeing the study group again this autumn, but in what form remains to be seen. Theoretically, nothing needs to change: the same seven people could still crowd around the same table at the start of their fourth year as they always have done. Whilst this season's more serialised storytelling elements often haven't played as well as the stand-alones, it would be a shame were the new dynamics set in play last night to go unexplored.

Few comedies are brave enough to meaningfully change the circumstances on which they were founded, yet it can bring a breath of fresh air to programmes in risk of going stale: love it or loathe it, The Big Bang Theory made such a move last year with the introduction of two new female characters to the cast, who have not only gone on to be key to the series' creative revival, but sorted out some problems which have persisted since the beginning (Howard Wolowitz, to be precise). Community leaves us in good condition, but hints of repetition have begun to sneak into Jeff's end-of-episode speeches, Pierce's constant antagonism, or Shirley too often being reduced to support character. Tweaks to the formula are not necessarily needed, but certainly wouldn't hurt.

To go through these last three episodes one-by-one, 'Digital Estate Planning' was fun but the weakest of the three, out of place in the middle of the story arc about Chang taking over Greendale and the study group being expelled. Had it been a stand-alone on any other week, it would have been a fun outing with a nice pay-off for Pierce, even if there was a lot of filler in reaching that point. As has been the case for many of this season's prestigious guest stars, Giancarlo Esposito was largely wasted in a role demanding he sit behind a screen for the bulk of the running time. As a master of conveying great depth of emotion with very little movement, he made the most of his limited material, particularly in showing how touched he was at Pierce forfeiting the game at the end, but the role never felt in any way written for him. John Goodman and Michael K. Williams have also been underused, but their characters felt reasonable specific to what they could bring. Esposito's Gilbert, on the other hand, could have been played by any other actor.

The gimmick, which had the group entering into an 8-bit video game, brought plenty of fun moments - like the new credits sequence, or Shirley and Annie accidentally murdering a blacksmith, his wife, burning down their house and thus robbing Abed's new digital wife Hilda of all her family and possessions - but never justified itself as the medium through which this particular story had to be told. Pierce's emotional pay-off might have been sweet, but the best high-concept episodes justify their gimmicks as the only (or at least, the best) route to achieving those revelations. It took a paintball war for Jeff and Britta to finally move from friendship into a sexual relationship; Abed created six different timelines in an exploration of what each member brought to the group; Annie headed inside the Dreamatorium to understand Abed's fears of being an outsider, and her own need to move on from her crush on Jeff. 'Digital Estate Planning', on the other hand, didn't need its central conflict - Pierce and Gilbert battling for the Hawthorne inheritance - to be played out in video game form. While amusing, even if the cast's voice acting came across as strangely uninterested (perhaps due to them not compensating for the inexpressive avatars), the episode felt out of place and a little hollow.

'The First Chang Dynasty' was better in terms of continuing the end-of-season story arc, but didn't have a lot to offer in terms of big laughs. The heist trappings and Chang's imperious excesses were fun, and Troy's decision to accept the invitation from the air conditioning annex was played for the right reasons, ending the episode on an effective cliffhanger (albeit one only lasting the length of the ad break). As in 'Digital Estate Planning', there were severe flaws in the episode's narrative - why would the school administrators be so supportive of Chang when everything, including admissions numbers, pointed to him running Greendale into the ground? - but was entertaining enough, with Soderbergh-esque multiple flashbacks and ridiculous costumes, to get by. The writers' willingness to ignore real-world logic in favour of a gimmick remains problematic, most keenly felt in the post-hiatus episodes, so fingers crossed for Greendale to be back next year as a real, if crazy, place, rather than cartoon. A heist to save Dean Pelton from a despotic Chang is fun, but loses its emotional weight when the stakes only exist in a fantasy world.

Fortunately, 'Introduction To Finality' was by far the strongest of the three and the best finale (if you exclude the first half of last year's two parter) the series has produced to date. It was a neat trick to present Troy moving away from his friendship with Abed as a good thing, rather than the devastating emotional blow suggested by Pillows And Blankets. Doing things that make us uncomfortable is often a requirement of personal growth, and while Vice-Dean Laybourne (whose final appearances were tragically brief) has gone about his attempts to recruit Troy in all the wrong ways, it was a lovely twist to have it end up being a positive step forward. The air conditioning annex's various pretensions of grandeur were delightfully silly, from their biblical search for the One True Repairman to the sun chamber showdown, and got big laughs each time the bubble was burst ('Jeez, Dennis, are you on coke?'). Forcing Troy to step up to the plate and reshape the annex in his own image was a neat way of making his realise his potential as an individual.

Jeff also took what deserves to be the most important step in his growth away from the sarcastic cynic who arrived at Greendale trying to cheat his way back to his old job. While he's accepted the study group members as his friends and the college as somewhere that has turned him into a better person, in the back of his mind he has always been working towards the same goal of getting back to his law firm and resuming the life that was taken away from him. As unpleasant a person as he was before being disbarred, he still equates those days with success and personal fulfillment. The court case thus served a double purpose in getting Shirley and Pierce to reconcile their differences and become equal partners in the sandwich business, but most importantly in showing Jeff that his real success has been in becoming a more decent human being at Greendale, rather than sacrificing his soul for status and money at a firm where trust and friendship are a weakness. Though this year's Winger speeches have tended towards the cloying, Jeff's revelation in (seemingly) throwing away the possibility of returning to his old firm was big enough to justify the sentiment, adding poignancy to his usual 'be a better person' schtick.

Despite a post-hiatus drop in form, which nevertheless produced such gems as Virtual Systems Analysis, Urban Matrimony And The Sandwich Arts, and Basic Lupine Urology, Community's third season for the most part stood up admirably against its spectacular second, despite never quite achieving the consistency to surpass it. Remedial Chaos Theory and Documentary Filmmaking Redux will go down as two of the all-time greats, with Regional Holiday Music not far behind. It's impossible to know what Greendale will look like when the study group reconvenes for its fourth year, or whether Dan Harmon (or possibly Chevy Chase) will still be on the register, but 'Introduction To Finality' reminds us of how exciting and refreshing change can be. See you next term!

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