Last week, I praised Community for finding a proper, respectable groove in the second half of this short fourth season. The show had embraced small, if even simple, character moments and ditched some of the tremendously gimmicky leftovers from the Harmon era that populated the early chunk of the season. If the show was/is is going to get canceled, I found this to be a fine way to go out.
"Advanced Introduction to Finality"... was the exact opposite of all of that. Although the episode was not the apocalyptic nightmare that Twitter might have led you to believe, it was still truly terrible. It leaned way too heavily on a story thread that had no business existing past the Season 3 finale, it attempted to construct a plot full of nostalgic callbacks with that thread, and then it decided that all of the stupidity and gimmickry was actually all a psychological construct meant to put a button on four seasons' worth of growth and maturity. Clearly there was an attempt to tie everything together, but the episode got way too bogged down in what amounted to pointless, winking fan service. Also: It didn't make a whole lot of sense.
Even at the height of my adoration for Community, I recognized that certain facets of the show just weren't/aren't for me. Inspector Spacetime is something I didn't care for after the first few jokes, and watching the show run it into the ground over the last 30-plus episodes has not been especially enjoyable. This year's trip to the Inspector Spacetime convention was generally miserable. Similarly, although I really, really loved the alternate timelines in "Remedial Chaos Theory," I was mostly over the concept by the time Abed and Evil Abed interacted at the tail-end of Season 3. I hoped against hope that last week's end tag wasn't going to impact the finale too much, but unfortunately, I was dead wrong.
Jeff's graduation from Greendale was one of the show's most important moments, and for whatever reason, the writers (this script is credited to one of the best, Megan Ganz) decided that the best way to tell that story was to reintroduce the alternate timeline and combine it with another seminal Community story element in paintball. The resulting plot followed Evil Jeff and Evil Annie sneaking into the prime timeline to convince Jeff that he must take a job at an old coworker's firm by destroying his emotional connections with the members of the study group (and the Dean). From there, the episode devolved into a few entertaining bits, but those were outnumbered by a great many more eye-rolling scenarios; for the first time in weeks, it felt like Community was trying way too hard to prove to us how "cool" it could be, to remind us of its history. And while the nods to former riffs and the shoddy "action" sequences were problematic in their own right*, the episode capped it all off by revealing that the whole story took place in Jeff's head. None of it really happened, nor does any of it really matter.
*It's hard to fault the show too much for what were clearly major budgetary restraints, but when you ask me to fondly recall the sleek, visually impressive paintball episodes and then provide a short sequence with the study group simply standing in the cafeteria in the darkness—at which point you then mix in a few Matrix nods—I can't help but consider how far you've fallen.
Although I appreciate the effort in trying to link two big concepts with Jeff's fears about leaving Greendale now that the school and its community have helped him become a better man, the logic of this episode left quite a bit to be desired. Help me understand this for a second: Why would Jeff have what amounts to an Abed-like experience with the darkest-timeline folks, and how in the hell would Abed be able to have his own experiences, seperate from Jeff, within that same construct? Community often asks us to buy into complicated or wonky stories or environments, but it also almost always does the work to make sure we understand how the logic of any given episode is working. Here? Absolutely not. I have no idea why Jeff would even care to understand the complexities of the darkest timeline, or what happened to the various doppelgangers within it, but even if we sideline that and pretend that he listened to everything Abed told him, the story still doesn't make much sense.
And at this moment, I can't decide whether the episode's decision to simply back away from the inter-dimensional throwdown made the story better or worse. The story was poor enough that it's nice to know that it didn't really happen, but I also sort of wish that the show would've just kept its commitment to the audacity and stupidity of the bit. At a certain point, it had already mostly ruined Jeff's big moment; turning that moment into a complete internalization ruined it just a little bit more.
Good news, though: Book-ending the terrible portion of the episode were two really nice, typical Community Season 4 sequences with Jeff and the group discussing their feelings pretty openly and honestly. Jeff's fears about leaving the one place he's grown to call home and his ultimate decision to accept graduation but stay away from the remnants of his former life were all well-executed and particularly well-performed by Joel McHale (who has really carried the show this season). The graduation/wedding ceremony was cute and warm like all of the season's best moments—Jeff calling the Dean Craig really got me—and the brief conversation at the table made an earnest attempt to conclude Jeff's series- and season-long arc. It ended just about where we assumed it would years ago, and didn't really get there in the best of ways, but hey, it was moderately satisfying.
This is a weird review to write because as of late Thursday evening, we still don't know whether Community is returning for Season 5. As a series-ender, "Advanced Introduction to Finality" was a particularly lame way to go out. As a season-ender, it still sent us off with a sour taste in our mouths, but there is hope for the future. The most important thing to take away from this episode is that, despite its numerous flaws, it's just one bad episode. One bad episode does not define an entire season, nor does it define an entire series. The failures of this episode do not negate Season 4, which was by and large amiable and interesting—if oftentimes frustrating—and they do not invalidate NBC's decision to bring the show back for it in the first place.
However, if the show does return: No. More. Alternate. Timelines.
– I saw a number of people online comparing this to live-action fan fiction. They're probably right, and the Jeff/Annie stuff felt particularly icky.
– Once again, the funniest bit of the episode came from Donald Glover, who made the Battle of Two Troys work way better than it should have thanks to lovely line delivery.
– I get why we hate Chevy Chase, but poor Pierce: nothing to do.
– Todd in the house for Jeff's graduation/wedding ceremony! I hope you got the help you needed Todd.
– Really glad we did that Changnesia stuff, guys. That absolutely amounted to several great, conclusive stories.
– Seriously, if you can explain the logic of Jeff's daydream and Abed's role within it, I will greatly appreciate it. But I don't think you can.