With episodic television and episodic television reviews, it can sometimes be challenging to see the forest for the trees. Since the beginning of Community's fourth season, I've been urging myself—and I think we've all kind of been urging each other—to give the show some time. It was never going to be what it was, but that didn't it mean it couldn't grow into something else that was also good. While I've enjoyed a number of this season's episodes, I still find myself wishing for more, or for something else. It's hard not to.
Yet, over the last four episodes, Community's writers have pretty much figured things out. I'd say the string of episodes beginning with "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" were all "pretty good" to "very good," as if the current writing staff had finally wrangled control of the show away from big expectations, the Ghost of Dan Harmon, and/or any number of other things. The manic energy, the shrieking, and the overwhelming sense that everyone was trying too hard had all been stamped out. In their place was a more straightforward and lower-stakes version of Community, but also one that understood above all else what these people mean to one another. Though the show may no longer go to the same lengths to reinforce the study group's bonds, the writers have figured out how to tell enjoyable, mostly creative, and emotionally valuable stories. That might not be enough for you, and it might not be enough for NBC to keep the show around for another season of low-rated obscurity, but as the fourth season comes to a close, it's enough for me.
"Heroic Origins" was another example of the show's current upswing, and while it leaned hard on a conceit that we've seen recently (the members of the group debate what they mean to one other and discuss how certain experiences have changed them), there was enough variation to make the story enjoyable. Abed's attempts to trace the group's pre-Greendale connections provided some smart, entertaining recontextualizations of history—that Jeff defended the stripper who slept with Andre, that Abed more or less ratted Annie out for her drug problem—and allowed the group yet another opportunity to reaffirm the fact that, however they came together, they can't help but stay together. A few moments stretched continuity a little for my liking, most notably Troy admitting that he lied about not remembering Annie and actually decided to fake his keg flip injury because of her pilled-up speech, and it was kind of a bummer that Pierce didn't have more of a role in the story, but I can forgive both of those problems because the story came together in such a simple, sweet fashion.
Above all else, I think the writers finally realized that they could just let the audience's love for the group carry them through some crucial stories. Think back to earlier in the season, when the plot was much busier and the characters were involved in a number of hijinks that weren't really about their larger bonds. To be fair, I liked a few of the individual character arcs (particularly Pierce's in "Paranormal Parentage" and Jeff's in "Cooperative Escapism and Familial Relations"), but overall I felt like gimmicks and outside forces where pushing Community's characters, and the group as a whole, in too many different directions. The show's biggest strength is the chemistry between the main characters; we like to see them together, even if they're breaking up, or arguing about arguing.
Thus, it's probably no coincidence that three of the last four episodes have been about the group interacting in a single space. Those dynamics work best, and if this is truly the end of the show, I'd rather spend more time with everybody yelling, crying, and hugging in the study room than doing anything else. "Heroic Origins" sort of had it both ways, because the flashbacks allowed the episode to integrate a little more plot into the proceedings, but it always came back to the study room and the group's present-day conversations. The flashbacks gave us fun glimpses of things we'd previously only heard about, but it was the study room conversations that added the impact. Whether it was Jeff's realization that no matter how much he changes in the present, he can't undo the less-admirable actions from his past, or Abed's temporary realization that he was the group's super-villain, this episode did a fine job of letting the past inform the present, even with information that we pretty much already knew.
And despite the convenient nature of the episode's ending, I'd argue that it was one of the season's stronger conclusions. Community's problems with final acts are well-established, but this one worked because it didn't totally need a rousing Winger speech (which, at this point, are getting a little stale) to bring everything and everyone together. Destiny, serendipity, or the neutron energy of Pierce's religion brought six of the Greendale Seven back to the place where they all decided to attend Greendale in the first place, all for very different reasons. Was it a little silly that the show simply wrote away all of Chang's evil-doings with a few Abed lines about starting over? Of course. Was the ending mushy? Oh absolutely. But in the moment, I didn't care, and I don't now. I love it when shows start looking back because they know they're either A.) making a big leap forward or B.) ending, and no matter what happens, Community did that with this episode. I don't think this "Heroic Origins" was as overtly funny as some of the show's recent efforts, but that didn't matter. I've given up assuming that Community is going to make me laugh as much as it used to. However, the show has found a nice heart without going as dark or complex as Season 3 did, and this episode felt like another variation on that theme.
Finally, "Heroic Origins" also allowed for another episode full of strong performances from the cast. Danny Pudi made detached, douchey Abed almost immediately sympathetic; Alison Brie merged some of the things we saw from Annie back in Season 1 with some extreme and animated behavior; Joel McHale and Yvette Nicole Brown proved yet again that they make for one of the show's best moderately dramatic pairings, and even Ken Jeong sold that final scene where Abed finally invited him into the group.
There's only one episode left in this season, and probably in this series. Things started out a little rough, but you know what? The writers figured it out. If you haven't been watching, I urge you to check out the last few episodes and I really urge you to watch the likely series finale. If the last few offerings are any indication, Community is going to end with its beating heart very visible. The writers have rediscovered how to let the characters love one another, and we should all spend one last episode expressing our love for them.
– I seriously missed Chevy Chase and Pierce this week. It's really unfortunate that Chase is a prick and the production team couldn't deal with him anymore, because Pierce would fit into this version of the show very, very well.
– Not too much Dean Pelton this week, but Jim Rash really sold the "I hope this doesn't awaken something in me" line as only he can. His bit about the mall being a great place to find students because they're awake during the day made me chuckle.
– Uh, seriously: Chang tried to murder everybody, and enslaved the school. It's Greendale, but the dude kind of deserves his comeuppance, no matter how much froyo he pays for.
– I'm a little concerned that the finale is going to be overstuffed with plot. We know that City College is going to attack with its giant spider (shots at Wild Wild West? I hope so), and for whatever terrible reason, characters from the alternate timeline are going to show up. That certainly undercuts my hope that we'll get another episode like the last few, but I'm willing to hold out hope. I've never been a big fan of the show's season finales anyway.