Community’s fifth (and final?) season comes to a bumpy close, and Leslie Knope continues to overachieve.
COMMUNITY: “Basic Sandwich”
Let’s leave no 1970s stone unturned — wait, this decade’s a little out of my wheelhouse; leave no pet rock unturned.
I did not love this two-part finale. There were a lot of individual moments that I enjoyed, but “Basic Story/Basic Sandwich” never really hung together for me, given the fantastic season Community has had up to this point. (My favorite episodes of Season 5? “Geothermal Escapism,” “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality,” “Advanced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.”) The reason for this might lie largely with me, as my television diet is so highly serialized, I always more appreciate finales that organically flow out of existing plot strands. Seasons 2 and 3 did this well with the Greendale/City College rivalry, where as here we just got the return of Subway, for some reason, and a half-hearted refocus on the Committee to Save Greendale that the show has ignored for most of the year. Fortunately this week, we also got an abrupt resolution to the equally abrupt engagement of Jeff and Britta, which was one of my primary concerns from “Basic Story”: the crisis resolved, and Greendale saved (again), things are broken off with almost no discussion, which is true to the impulsive nature of these characters and risks nothing. But that plotline couldn’t die without the re-emergence of Annie into the equation, as she has the most visceral reaction to Jeff and Britta’s announcement, signaling that if Community is granted a sixth season, we haven’t seen the last of this conundrum. But the shipping is not even on the top ten list of things that interest me about this show, so let’s move on.
Dan Harmon did, however, manage to pull off a neat trick, not only serving up a decent season finale, but one that could serve as a series capper by directly commenting on the nature of finales themselves (through Abed, of course). The moment between he and Annie in the secret, time capsule-d corridor beneath the school best exemplifies it, when he yet again re-frames the situation in the language of television, remarking that Jeff & Britta are looking for a spinoff series that would only last about six episodes: “The point is, this isn’t just their show. This is our show. And it’s not over.” And when — having discovered not only the still-living computer professor, Borchert, but a document still giving him legal ownership of Greendale — the gang fends off Subway and board members Richie and Carl (that’s right, they have names), the moment is the kind of wiseacre triumph that sums up Community in a nutshell. Greendale, like the show itself, is unmarketable, bankrupt, unrepentantly strange, and will never be widely respected or accepted. Retorts the Dean: “Around here, we just call that Wednesday.” It reminded me of late Season 3 Arrested Development, when the show dropped all its pretense and was straight-up hammering down the 4th wall. In that case, that was an unjust cancellation. But Community is just lucky to have made it this far.
I say there were loads of individual moments and gags that worked like gangbusters, and that’s true: the film reel on Greendale’s history (“Today’s now is yesterday’s soon!”); the Dean giving himself the Heimlich because no one will even turn around; the deep weirdness of Borchert himself (psychologically undone by the thought of Woody Allen voicing a cartoon ant). But nothing landed quite like Richie’s “mind jacking,” a Tim and Eric-esque flight of absurdity that was funny on its own, but hysterical as setup for the episode’s tag, which was Harmon cutting off with a chainsaw the hand that feeds him (and really, who wouldn’t watch Mr. Egypt with B.J. Novak, or Questlove’s Celebrity Beat-Off? Coming to NBC this Fall, or Winter — “depends on what fails!”) Less successful is the continued pendulum swinging of Chang. The show came a long way in rebuilding his character as a functional human being, but just once, I would have liked to have seen him align himself with the good guys against the outside force. His sudden Pro-Subway stance was given no more explanation than “I think I’m just mentally ill,” which — while funny — makes him a nothing of a character. Even Shirley, who has been totally marginalized this season thanks to the rise of Hickey and Duncan (please come back, guys!), has remained consistent throughout all the madness.
But if this is the end of Community (despite Abed’s assurances that they’ll be back next year), it went out true to itself, which is the most we could have reasonably hoped for when Dan Harmon returned to the fold. The series is a champion of the weird, but has also been successful at finding the beating heart underneath — Jeff’s effort to restart the Borchert’s computer with human emotion, by thinking positive thoughts about the others in the room, gives the lie to the argument that Community cares more about its gimmicks than its characters. Not every storytelling choice works, but I would rather the writers fail because they tried too hard, than because they got lazy. (Looking at you, “gas leak year.”) As Borchert comes to learn, the idiots of the world have won, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t keep fighting back, making things that we want to see, not just pandering to the lowest common denominator. Even with all the cast and creative upheaval, Greendale — and Community — is still a great place to be. I would be okay if things ended here, but I want one more. I want the prophecy to come true. I want to see it get even stranger, irrecoverably so, and go out in a blaze of glory. And I want to see what Harmon does with the prospect of a real, conclusive finale, not one that has to serve multiple purposes. Let’s cue up the Dave Matthews one more time.
Season Grade: A-
PARKS AND RECREATION: “One in 8,000”
I have to be her stress Shamwow: I wrap myself around her, I soak up all of her stress, and then after the kids are born someone can squeeze me out into a bucket.
The title of this episode refers to the odds that Leslie would have triplets (in what Dr. Saperstein refers to her uterus’s “going out of business sale”), and also perhaps the likelihood that Leslie, when hit with this news, would keep her self together and not FREAK THE EFF OUT. But it’s true: Leslie and Ben are expecting not one, not two, but three little bundles of joy (“triple cherries!”), and it is mission critical that she keeps her stress levels down. While the pregnancy is great timing for Ben, who came to realize just last week how ready he was to start a family (while throwing a check that he now desperately needs in the fire, something that is still unremarked-upon), it’s less ideal for Leslie, who is trying to drag this Unity Concert across the finish line before making her next big career decision. Yet it is Leslie, not Ben, who is a radiating (even for her), beatific presence, while Ben agonizes over their family’s financial future. The cost of raising three kids through college? Two million dollars! (He shouldn’t worry, though — as Leslie says — they’ll all be super smart and will likely have universities paying them to attend.) What Leslie has realized, as she tells Ben at the end of the episode, is that everything they’ve been through is preparation for this moment.
This episode as a whole was a welcome re-centering on Leslie and Ben as a unit, after having them driving separate storylines (and only occasionally sharing the screen) for the last few episodes. And it brings us back to the heart of what makes Leslie great, an unstoppable ray of sunshine who will accomplish anything she sets her mind to, whether it’s fundraising, running for office, or starting a family. It is in her nature to always, always overachieve. Why have one baby when you can have triplets? Why chill out just a little when you can channel Pawnee’s “Thought For Your Thoughts” as the world’s most somnambulant auctioneer? If she does this right, she and Ben will have raised one third of the Supreme Court! And best of all, this time it doesn’t come at the cost of her friends, or depend on the whims of the Pawnee electorate. As a result, it’s Amy Poelher and Adam Scott at their most endearing, and culminates in another patented Parks “awwww” moment when the rest of the department — like when they stepped up to help Leslie with her campaign — pledges to give the couple whatever they need. Larry has lots of baby clothes. Ron is eager for the challenge of building a triple crib. Tom…wait, where’s Tom? Funny, I didn’t even notice he was missing.
Babies — and even triplets — are a well-worn sitcom stunt, intended to juice up the narrative when things are getting stale. But in Parks‘ case, where change is the watchword, it actually comes in an unexpected way. We were distracted by the shiny thing over here (in this case, Leslie’s job offer with the National Park Service), and didn’t see the babies coming from over here. If the show hadn’t been renewed for a seventh season, is this the road it would be taking? Perhaps not. And besides, the show just had a baby arc with Ann and Chris. But whether it’s in line with “TV conventions” or not, it feels organic and right for this moment, and these characters. And this week, at the joint birthday party of all the “various Dexhart” lovechildren — a Johnny Karate gig — it provides a funny throwaway plot for Andy, who is so determined to keep this secret, even from April, that he’ll make up all sorts of lies to throw his wife off the scent. (Again, nothing we haven’t seen before on television, but we enjoy these characters so much we don’t think about the clichés.) Unfortunately for April, Larry’s not dying. She scratched his back for nothing. (He did, however, swallow his wedding ring, which is soooooo Larry.) But even April has to admit that Andy was right to keep the secret, demonstrating real maturity and trust in one of television’s weirdest marriages.
Bringing it all together is the C-story with Ron and Donna, who rarely get paired off and make the most of it here. The two are volunteering at the school of Ron’s step-daughters, where Donna is trying to avoid the music teacher, an old flame named Joe (Keegan-Michael Key of Key & Peele, who makes everything he’s in better.) She describes Joe as “her Tammy,” and Ron thinks she knows what that means, but discovers that Joe is actually an incredibly nice guy: great with kids, going out of his way to help parents, making muffins, and even knows a thing or two about woodcrafting. But when Ron brings his misgivings to Donna, she explains that it’s true — she doesn’t like what she turns into when she’s around Joe…someone domesticated and boring. Fatherhood has made Ron more empathetic (“You take that back!”), and he he sums up the spirit of the episode with this line: “Don’t mistake drama for happiness.” Sometimes the stakes can be low. Sometimes you can just hang out, and be happy. It’s a good word for fans of Parks, reaching the end of its season without many clear objectives. With only sideways glances at the Unity Concert, and no follow-up discussion about Leslie’s job offer, where are we going in next week’s season finale? Ron would say it doesn’t matter, as long as you enjoy the people you’re traveling with.