Last night’s Community saw the show continue its strong fifth-season form with an ambitious episode taking social apps to their logical extreme. Greendale was chosen as the beta testing ground for “MeowMeowBeenz,” which allows you to rate your friends on a scale of 1 to 5, and within hours, things descended into a dystopian caste system, ruled by the landed elites with a “5” rating, before eventually being brought down by a populist revolution. It was a clever, well-directed, audacious piece of television. But it kinda forgot to be funny.
That’s a bit of a simplification, but it’s also increasingly a trend in this latest season, which has seen creator Dan Harmon return after the faltering, zombified fourth season NBC tried to cram down our throats after he was fired. Fans and critics howled at the Harmon-less Community, and they’ve largely applauded his return. In a lot of ways, season five is Harmon’s most ambitious effort yet, on a show that had already been known for busting the traditional comic mold, but part of his recent ambition has been a drift away from, y’know, having tons of jokes.
It’s not like Harmon is suddenly incapable of that material. His new Adult Swim show Rick & Morty is teeming with the kind of madcap comedy that Community featured a little more in its early years. But let’s look back at some of the plots of recent fifth-season episodes:
In “App Development and Condiments” last night, Jeff (Joel McHale) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) worked to bring down the rating-obsessed society, with Britta eventually triumphing in toppling the regime but finding herself abandoned the minute she started abusing her own power. It was a clever meditation on the fetishization of popularity and how celebrities have become the new ruling class. While there were funny concepts, like the neo-Roman set created for the ruling class’ headquarters, or the speed with which Greendale society collapsed and re-formed, there was so much story to get through that there wasn’t really time for related silliness.
Last week’s “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality” felt like a spiritual sequel to season two’s equally melancholy “Mixology Certification,” exploring Britta and Professor Duncan’s (John Oliver) inadequacy and Abed’s (Danny Pudi) struggle to be empathetic about Professor Hickey’s (Jonathan Banks) hobby drawing crappy duck cartoons. The big moment for Duncan was deciding not to take advantage of a vulnerable Britta, while Abed and Hickey realize they both want to create art, but struggle with their emotional limitations. Where “Mixology” ended in some agreeably bittersweet chaos, every plot in “Bondage” was resolved on a quiet, minor-key note.
And “Geothermal Escapism,” the January episode that bid goodbye to Troy (Donald Glover), was another classic season two trope: “Greendale descends into madness because of a silly game!" Instead of paintball, it was a campus-wide “The Floor Is Lava,” but again, these concept episodes mean there’s so much explanation and world-building to get through, coupled with an emotional farewell to Troy to cap everything off. When the paintball episode first aired, the audaciousness was spellbinding, but now with every new big concept episode, the shock value has dissipated.
Harmon’s feel for his characters and skill with episodic plotting feels unmatched. The show is always an interesting watch, and NBC should certainly keep it around as long as it continues to be so creatively interesting (don’t give me any ratings guff—there’s nothing promising that’s going to blow Community’s numbers out of the water). But perhaps because of the shortened season (only 13 episodes), Harmon is seemingly shedding the lighter, less daring episodes that would pad the earlier seasons. There’s not so much of the gang just hanging around the table and quibbling with school issues, or tripping over some nutty Chang behavior. No, even Señor Chang (Ken Jeong) can’t have a plot without him tearfully questioning his own sanity at this point.
This isn’t really a complaint, more of an observation. I don’t need Community to give me belly laughs every week, and I’m happy for Harmon to see what happens when he pushes against the boundaries of his show’s formula. But there’s certainly a danger in being too melancholy. If our heroes, who seem more stuck in their lives with every passing year that they spend in college, don’t start turning things around soon—just a little bit—I’m going to really wonder what kind of message Harmon wants us to take away from it all.