“[TV] has to be joyful, effortless, fun. TV defeats its own purpose when it’s pushing an agenda or is trying to defeat other TV or being proud or ashamed of itself for existing. It’s TV. It’s comfort. It’s a friend you’ve known so well and for so long you just let it be with you. And it needs to be okay for it to have a bad day, or phone in a day. And it needs to be okay to get on a boat with LeVar Burton and never come back, because eventually, it all will.” —Abed Nadir
After 110 episodes consisting in turn of three increasingly offbeat but technically standard network seasons, one gas-leak year, one revived network season in the wake of the gas leak, and one revived season on Yahoo’s streaming service in the wake of network cancellation, no one seems to know what’s next for “Community.”
The season six finale, “Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television,” is not only the most impeccably named episode of TV in the history of ever, it is also a surprisingly satisfying finale that may or may not be a finale after all. This season, facing the loss of three original characters and an unfamiliar format, felt at times more like fan fiction about a great show than the show itself—incredibly funny and generally well-executed fan fiction, but still a step removed from the real thing. But as a reviewer at TIME reminds us, “Community was always its own best critic. And its own best defender. And its own best analyst, and parodist, and fan-fic writer.” “Emotional Consequences” wears all of those hats like the Dean wears all of the costumes he’d kept in the closet this year.
As tends to be the way with finales—even for sitcoms—these days, ambiguity lingers around the episode as we fade to hashtag. While it looks a lot like showrunner Dan Harmon and episode co-writer are saying goodbye to the show and the study group, it could also be said that they’re setting up the possibility of it going on with some more character turnover. And then there’s the hopeful tease of #sixseasonsandamovie at the end, contrasting the fact that earlier in the episode even Abed himself told Jeff it was time to stop living by that phrase. Maybe it’s a dead dream built on an old joke played out by “Community” fans; maybe it’s a real possibility for the near or distant future. The gang goes to L.A. together, perhaps? Hollywood Abed makes a movie about making a movie about a show about his friends? A beloved reunion after a few years, maybe—I mean, they gave “Entourage” a movie, so anything seems possible. But for now, the season/probably-maybe-series finale lets us let go of the need to pitch the future.
Needless of everything else that was fulfilling and flawless about the finale, let’s remember that at “Community’s” core—no matter how many meta-layers that core is buried under—is a show about people in community college. In other words, a show about characters who, like most of their audience, have no fucking idea what’s coming next in their lives—and with that in mind, the probably-maybe-finality of the episode is extra poignant.
Granted, there are tons of very popular shows about floundering fuck-ups and young (and not-so-young) adults just trying to figure out where to go from here, because contemporary television audiences—namely, underemployed millennials in an unstable world—can relate to that. And “Community” is largely not like most of these shows, because instead of following the formula, it characteristically adds a meta-level to the postmodern dilemma: The show itself is a floundering fuck-up. It disappointed its parents (being NBC, and Harmon that one year he lost control of it), couldn’t make enough money to survive on, and doesn’t really seem to have a plan for the future. “Community” stood on the brink of cancellation for so long that four out of six season finales have been written as possible series finales. It has sometimes suffered from inconsistencies, and while a lot of long-running jokes were set in place early on, not too many plot points were. And how could they be? Characters left because cast members did; entire storylines were written around product integration because sponsors were needed. Harmon, the writers, the cast and the crew played the cards they were dealt and stayed in the game a long time, but a lot it was out of their hands. Too many variables. Uncertainty about the future resonates not just within the show, but also from it.
“Community” has stumbled plenty, as we all do in college, but I think it remains in a league of its own as far as sitcoms go—not necessarily above others, but apart from them. As creator and showrunner Dan Harmon admits in his oddly touching closing monologue (tacked onto the last episode in the most Dan Harmon way possible, as a disclaimer at the end of a fake ad for a fake board game about the show), “some episodes [were] too conceptual to be funny. Some too funny to be immersive, and some so immersive they still aren’t funny.” The show was always off-beat, always highly referential, and always self-aware, but it grew further away from mass audiences the more it grew into itself. With each season, the percentage of the jokes which were running gags or inside jokes with the devoted audience grew, and the percentage of the jokes which stood on their own shrank a bit. And while part of this is a natural side effect of getting to know anything, part of it also seemed defensive, like a loud “fine, we don’t need you anyway” to viewers that weren’t already on board—after all, a community is built on banding together, on keeping enemies out. “Community” alienated the average, television-owning cable subscriber in order to strengthen its connection with the weirdos who adored it—weirdos who watch TV over WiFi, and weirdos for whom, like Abed, the emotional consequences of broadcast television are not so distant from those of “real life.”
The season six finale, for all its bizzaro pitches, ironically makes a season seven nearly impossible to imagine—but then, how many of us can imagine our next season?
It’s TV. It’s comfort. And it needs to be OK for it to be as unsure what’s coming next as we are.