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How the king of meta TV got its groove back

“Community” cast, from left to right: Former cast member Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Gillian Jacobs, and former cast member Chevy Chase. The show, now in the midst of its fifth season, airs Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on NBC.  (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

“Community” cast, from left to right: Former cast member Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Gillian Jacobs, and former cast member Chevy Chase. The show, now in the midst of its fifth season, airs Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on NBC.
(Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Dylan LemertBy: DYLAN LEMERT
Columnist

The strange world of television sitcoms, for its overall breeziness and oft-criticized shallow brand of humor, is a curious place to find programming aimed more at genre-bending than good ratings.

But in its fifth season, the Dan Harmon helmed “Community,” a show notorious for the way it plays with pop culture and television conventions (hence the term “meta”), has more to say about the current state of the industry than most anything with a laugh track.

For the uninitiated, “Community” is a show about the shenanigans of a study group set against the backdrop of a small community college in the fictional town of Greendale, Colorado. (Or at least that’s what the show was about, at one time. It’s now something of a different beast.)

But the series’ tense production history is perhaps what it’s most famous for nowadays, the show’s well-documented struggle to simply keep its spot on NBC’s lineup eclipsing the meta-humor the show has since become known for.

Here’s the rundown: “Community,” though by critic agreement an increasingly inventive show, was briefly axed after its third season, a product of gradually declining viewer ratings. Fan outcry eventually prompted NBC to bring the show back for a fourth, though truncated season, but not without firing series creator Harmon first, replacing him with two co-showrunners.

Season four pressed on, but with mixed reviews from both fans and critics who notably missed Harmon’s influence. During this time, longtime cast member Chevy Chase angrily stormed his way off the show. Rumors of permanent cancellation circled, when, in a joyous and surprising move, Harmon was re-hired in order to return the show to its former glory, and promptly began writing a fifth season.

Not yet out of the woods of setbacks however, fan-favorite actor Donald Glover joined Chevy Chase as the second full-time cast member to leave, bowing out early during the current fifth season to pursue a blossoming rap career (assuming the moniker of Childish Gambino–heard of him?). Nevertheless, Harmon’s involvement coped with the losses and adequately, if abruptly, wrote Glover’s character out of the show.

Boy, have we “Community” fans been put through the ringer.

The good news? Rare is it when a piece of television is able to rebound the way this show has, especially after experiencing the leave of main cast members and original creative lifeblood. The meta (there’s that word again) narratives that elevated the show to its original fame (episodes like “Modern Warfare,” in which Greendale’s campus is turned into a post-apocalyptic warzone over a game of paintball, a satire of pulpy action flicks, or personal favorite “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” in which the study group hilariously plays through the popular role-playing game in order to brighten the spirits of a fellow student) are again effectively brought to the show’s forefront.

Last week’s “G.I. Jeff,” for instance, was an illustration of the show’s wackiest borders, a prime example of what “Community” does so well when it’s peaking. The episode, which was 95% animated in the style of 80’s action cartoons, leveraged its style for the sake of ultimately unearthing the show’s emotional heart. “Community” is a show that routinely plays off like it’s one thing, when it’s almost always really about something else, usually something much more profound than paintball wars and Saturday morning cartoon parodies.

It’s this something else that’s the show’s heartbeat, it’s muse; a quirky, sometimes dark, but always ingenious trip.

In short–I sometimes flip to “Community” for the laughs, but it’s the quick-cutting dialogue and fourth wall breaks I stay for; the situations so absurd I can’t look away; the madness that skirts on genius. To say the show’s legacy has so far been perfect would be false (obviously; see above). But given the nature of its script, its characters, its soul–maybe imperfect, in this case, is just the right type of perfection.

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