I wanted to write something in celebration of Community‘s season finale tonight, but I have gone back and forth as to what is I actually wanted to write about. A ranked list of the episodes? Nah (at least not yet). A list of the best moments? Boo. More about Pierce? Meh. No, instead I’m here to talk about why I think season two has been better than season one.
In a lot of ways, that seems like a completely obvious and uncontroversial opinion. Community‘s buzz has only grown in its second season and outside of Parks and Recreation, it is probably the “internet TV criticism” circle’s favorite series. Most of us love Community. But as with anything, I’ve seen the tide kinda-sorta change on Community in the second half of the season, especially in light of the storyline with Pierce (and Shirley’s pregnancy to a lesser extent). Folks in comments sections and even a few critics and reviewers have noted that they prefer the first season of the series, where it felt like Community was more interested in showing us how these people were really good friends, not just telling us that they are while having them yell and scream at one another. Throw in the sometimes distracting “theme” or “gimmick” episodes, and it is easy to see why some people might be bored/disenchanted/angry with this season’s more obvious structural tendencies. And I’ll be the first to admit that all those things are pretty much true and I am one of the people who is especially charmed by that kind of storytelling. I know it’s not for everyone, it just happens to be for me. So yeah, you’re right: Community season two is not like Community season one. But in my humble opinion, it’s been better because of that.
I never want to give the audience and the fans more credit than they deserve, but it feels like after the positive response to “Contemporary American Poultry” and “Modern Warfare,” Community could never really go back and it showed early on in season two. “Basic Rocket Science” felt like theme for theme’s sake, but those are the kind of episodes that are now expected of Community and Dan Harmon and company have had to manage those expectations with their storytelling desires all season. It’s impossible to say that everyone liked “Poultry” and “Warfare,” but it sure felt that way last spring. With you’re working on a series with such a small audience, it’s probably hard not to just give them exactly what they want. So yeah, this season has had a lot more structurally innovative episodes and a lot less Greendale-centric, class- or campus-based episodes.
But I’m not sure really sure that’s the kind of series Dan Harmon wants to make anyway. Season one was a really great opening season of comedy. I’ve seen every episode at least three or four times and will continue to watch them with fully developed enthusiasm. But Community was never meant to be a traditional sitcom. It never was in voice or content, but I don’t really think the structural bases used in season one were really indicative of the series Harmon and company wanted to make. In your first season of producing a series, you’re going to make some broadly appealing episodes that might help you become something of a hit or get you some attention. Community did not become a hit and it didn’t really get that much attention until it started doing those more obviously interesting and risky episodes in the spring of 2010. And once those innovative episodes were well-received, it signaled to the crew that it was okay to take even bigger risks and try to be even more innovative in the second season. In my mind, they’ve almost all paid off.
It’s sort of unfortunate, but once you introduce episodes like “Warfare,” you can’t go back. I’ve enjoyed every single episode of Community‘s second season, but when they take a step back and deliver an episode like “Competitive Wine Tasting” in between greats like “Critical Film Studies” and “Paradigms of Human Memory,” it’s a bit disappointing. I’m smart enough to know that the writers might need a break from those insanely difficult episodes or that the budget doesn’t allow them to do so every week, but it still disappoints me a bit. I’m fine with episodes such as “Wine Tasting,” but it is just not the same and there is no way to not feel that way. And although there have been people calling for a more character-centric return to storytelling, the general perception of episodes like “Wine Tasting” and “Celebrity Pharmacology” was very similar to mine.
From my perspective, I would much rather watch a series that cleans the slate and tries something completely new each week than one that plays it mostly safe and comfortable. That is an obvious statement to make, but it comes with the knowledge that some of Community‘s shots have missed in season two. I’m probably more sympathetic to Pierce and that whole story than most, but I’m not blind to the fact that it hasn’t had its issues along the way. Same goes for Shirley’s pregnancy. Those are two of, if not the, biggest stories this season has toyed with and I’m more than willing to admit they’ve been problematic in spots. But I can’t help but be charmed by a series that takes its two least developed and least popular (and oldest, mind you) characters and builds entire arcs around them in its second season. Jeff, who sometimes overwhelmed the first season, has been a minor character in a number of this season’s episodes. Britta has similarly had less to do this season. I’m not saying that’s a wholly original concept or approach to season two storytelling, but within the confines of a broadcast network sitcom, it feels at least partially novel. And for me, novel and messy is always better than steady and comfortable.
The group dynamics have been altered in season two, but why shouldn’t they be? From my vantage point, I sometimes found season one to be too saccharine and comforting when it came to the group. Outside of the fact that this is a television series with this specific premise, there is really no reason why this group of people would be friends. Abed and Troy yeah, and maybe Jeff and Britta, but that’s it. Those two pairs. In real life, these people would hate one another and we would hate them. They have very little in common (aside from popular culture!), are from completely different backgrounds and age demographics, etc., and those differences and tensions are bound to manifest. That’s exactly what this season has been about. Like many relationships, the first season was the (mostly) honeymoon phase. The characters got along, they thought others’ various eccentricities were cute or bearable. But after a whole year of those eccentricities, they stop being cute and start becoming super-annoying. Pierce is a lovable, old racist until 12 months with him make you realize that’s more of the latter than the former. Throw in some group-wide flash-points — Jeff’s hook-ups, Abed’s mental break, Britta’s general awful-ness — and the family bonds start to fray.
That’s season two of Community. This group is a family and season one was all about showing us that. Sure, it might be nice to see that a little more often, but tensions have been high since Jeff screwed Britta and made out with Annie and then the whole group found out about it. In a family, tensions don’t go away, you just try to delay them with a speech, a card, some flowers or whatever else. In this series, that is where the Winger speeches come in. Everyone in this group is miserable and annoyed with one another (expect Troy and Abed), but they can’t really do anything about it or bring it up again. Ignoring it is much better, but when insane things happen like Pierce’s drug problems or the paintball, those tensions and struggles manifest. They try to fix them, but never really can BECAUSE THEY SHOULDN’T REALLY BE FRIENDS TO BEGIN WITH. The thing is, each and every one of these people has no one else, especially at Greendale. They’re alone and miserable no matter what their age or interests are, and that’s why they’ll continue to yell at one another, break up the group and then come back together. This is their family now and like a lot of families, it sucks. But they’ve made their choices and they have to live with them. For me, all the fights and all the speeches make complete sense and they’ve helped make season two a much more interesting and complex season of television.
I understand if you like season one of Community better. That’s cool. But I feel like there are reasons for why this season has been structured and written in the way that has been. That purpose, however messy the execution sometimes is, is what makes season two a much more compelling season for me.