After five years, it's time to drop the pretense that Community is an underdog on network television. As it approaches a syndication-worthy number of episodes, the once-constant fear that the show would be cancelled seems like a ghost story Annie might tell Abed just to rattle him rather than a legitimate concern. While not official, its renewal for a sixth season appears to be nigh, and even the show itself acknowledges this fact: "We'll be back next year," Abed says in "Basic Sandwich," the season five finale that aired last night. (The cruel twist of fate, of course, would be for now to be the time NBC decides to pull the plug. The show remains on the cancellation bubble.).
This on-the-verge-of-ending fear has been so palpable that the past three season finales have felt more like series finales instead, operating under the assumption that yes, this could in fact be the curtain. The final episode of season three was titled "Introduction to Finality" and the lamentable season four finale was "Advanced Introduction to Finality". Community fans seem perpetually in the midst of a "save our show" campaign, hashtags (#sixseasonsandamovie, #savegreendale) and all. The show has never been given an easy time when it comes to renewals from NBC, which gives credence to Harmon and the crew always preparing for the worst, but the show just hit the 97-episode mark. That's many more than most of NBC's recent comedies, and many more than most shows on network television get these days (not to even mention cable, though low episode counts there are purposeful). The lovable losers label works for the characters on the show still, but no longer for the show itself: Community is very much a winner.
There's a moment roughly halfway through "Basic Sandwich" between Abed and Annie when the show, meta as ever, addresses its own longevity. Shaken by the Jeff & Britta marriage announcement, Annie asks Abed, "Even if we do save Greendale, which Greendale will we be saving?" It's a good question. The show has survived the ousting and return of its creator and show-runner, and seen the departure of two of the original Greendale seven. The premiere of its fifth season was essentially a series reboot (in an interview with HitFlix's Alan Sepinwall, Harmon admits as much) and while season one spent ample time in Chang's Spanish class, season five barely spent any time in class at all after the two-part premiere. But the characters themselves are still pretty much the same—("Stop developing," Annie tells Abed, responding to his rambling spin-off possibilities, but if you think about it...)—and the central conceit of the show—(broken people, as Harmon calls them, brought together by a fledgling community college)—remains the same. The show is different without having really changed at all. Through it's ever-tumultuous life, Community has remained relatively, impossibly stable.
In "Basic Sandwich" the Dean takes a crack at The Office, mocking the idea of a one-hour wedding episode. It's a throwaway line, but there's also a foreboding there. The Office is another show that declined in its later years, and by its sixth season seemed to exist solely to let the audience spend time with the characters they'd grown comfortable with. Community is nearing the same fate, that's why the standout episode of season five was "Cooperative Polygraphy" – the humor and heart of the episode came simply from these characters we've grown to know so well. The mere fact that we've had almost 100 episodes with these characters is proof enough that Community can stop sweating its fate.
"Honestly, I might be ready for Community to be done," Todd VanDerWerf writes in his AV Club review of the episode. "As much life as this season has brought to the show, it’s not hard to feel as if it’s started to run out of stories to tell." If you think about it, what's different at the end of season five than how it was at the beginning? Troy is gone, and that's about it. This season of Community was undoubtedly a return to form, but it didn't do much besides give us more time at Greendale. The show has reached a place of static comfort.
A show constantly afraid of its own demise has finally found an appropriate place to end, and the fact that it could end without feeling cut short is a victory enough for Community. "This is our show, and it's not over," Abed tells Annie. It's more defiant than it needs to be: while never astounding, ratings for this season weren't awful (hovering between 2.5 and 3.5 million) and NBC doesn't seem to have anything better to replace it with, as much as the tag last night mocked. Word, too, is that a movie isn't out of the realm of possibility. Instead of being on the verge of cancellation, Community is on the verge of fulfilling its started-as-a-joke aspirations. It's no longer the show that could; it's the show that did.