Community returns tonight after NBC unceremoniously put it on hiatus halfway through its third season, and it's a television event you would have had a hard time not knowing about if you spend any time online. While few expected the low-rated cult hit to see a fourth season, fans at least felt they needed closure, and far more for this show than for other single-camera critical darlings like it, such as 30 Rock or possibly even Arrested Development. Why? Because despite its well-deserved reputation for kooky, abstract humor, Community has some of the best-developed characters on television. More importantly, they’re characters who have evolved and changed as people, giving the audience a deep need to see how our beloved study group at Greendale Community College finally ends up.
Ever since Arrested Development ushered in the era of single-camera sitcoms that get more critical ink than viewers, the form has tried to distinguish itself from the traditional three-camera soundstage sitcom—eliminating the laugh track, introducing edgier humor, and borrowing the plotting and continuity strategies of better dramas. The continuity demands force writers to come up with more sophisticated characterizations, which in turn provoked divergent characterization trends. Some shows—like 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm—take a cynical view of human nature, portraying their characters as deeply flawed human beings whose attempts to overcome their worst tendencies usually end in failure. But other single camera sitcoms have started to experiment with characters who change and grow in a way reminiscent of dramas, instead of the two-dimensional clowns of traditional sitcoms.
Community, like Parks and Recreation and even The Office, has taken this approach. Indeed, a sitcom about community college students really sets the stage for change-and-growth characters, because going to community college is something people choose because they want to change and grow as human beings. This may be why Community is more successful at portraying character growth than other sitcoms that have tried; we have an easier time believing that people can grow when they’re given an explicit reason to try. Unlike other sitcoms, where tender moments can drain the humor out of a situation, the sweetness of Community anchors the show, allowing it to spin out ever more absurd situations and jokes.
It helps that the characters grow without losing who they are at their core. Britta learns she can grow up and let go of her adolescent passions without giving up her desire to help people. Jeff becomes more compassionate, but doesn’t lose his fundamental shallowness. Shirley learns to deal with her rage issues by letting go a bit of her desire to suppress and control her emotions. Troy becomes a happier person by embracing the geek inside, and Annie learns that she can relax a little and still be a straight-A student. Only Pierce—who exists as the villain and foil—and Abed, whose role as the Greek chorus gives Community an extra layer of post-modernist credibility, refrain from real change. They’re already the best versions of themselves (or I suppose worst, with Pierce), and so change would be meaningless.
All of this made it incredibly painful when NBC reacted to the low ratings by yanking the show mid-season without any word of when—or if—it would come back. Sure, much of the reason the audience went nuts with anger was that we desperately want the pitch-perfect satire of other genres, forms, and story-telling devices. (Ironically, while the show has found ways to parody everything from Lord of the Rings to Glee, they’ve never done a send-up of the three-camera sitcom.) But what made it hurt the most is that we’ve come to believe in these characters, in a way that’s elusive for other sitcoms. We want to know how their lives turn out. Will Annie transfer to a state school and eventually recover to the point where she can consider grad school? Will Jeff return to his corporate law firm or will he put his legal skills to better use now that he’s grown some semblance of a heart? Will Britta get over her pedantic phase to become a professional psychologist? Will Troy figure out a way to both have his friendship with Abed and occasionally get laid? Never finding out the answer would be like reading Dickens, only to find the last few chapters of the book have been torn out.
Now the show is definitely coming back to finish the season, and fans can expect that show-runner Dan Harmon is clued into our genuine concerns for the characters, and our hope to see the characters reach the end of their journeys. Interestingly, the hopes of fans were played for laughs on an earlier episode, when Britta introduces Abed to British television shows that have predetermined lengths, instead of the going-until-the-ratings-drop method of American shows. The other characters scoff when Britta defends the British method, saying, “That’s the great thing about British TV. They give you closure.” The other characters sneer at Britta, as they usually do, but we fans know Britta has a point.
Since Community is unlikely to see a fourth season, they only have ten more episodes to give us this closure. I trust Harmon and crew to do right by the fans on this one.