At some point, it all has to end. NBC's Community will close up shop, whether it’s later this spring when NBC announces its fall schedule, after six seasons and a movie, or after it somehow incomprehensibly surpasses The Simpsons for longest-running sitcom and everyone complains even louder how the show isn’t as funny as its earlier golden years. But Community isn’t like other shows. It staved off cancellation due to low ratings thanks to a fervent fan base; it survived the departure of creator Dan Harmon and a creatively tepid fourth season; and now it sits a half hour away from yet another uncertain future after Harmon’s return. Community wants everyone to know that no matter how many stays of execution it earns, the end of a show is ultimately inevitable.
The last time Harmon had a chance to oversee how the show said a potential goodbye—third season finale “Introduction to Finality”— it played like a series finale. The final montage of that episode showed each of the characters moving on after a long year into an uncertain but fathomable future. When the show got picked up for a fourth and subsequent fifth season, it cast into doubt whether the final note could live up to that satisfying punctuation. Fourth season finale “Advanced Introduction To Finality” has the rare distinction of being just about the worst episode of the show imaginable, effectively tearing down much of what made the show great while attempting to engage in fan service by using the Darkest Timeline. But “Basic Story” isn’t just another attempt to give the study group plausible ellipses pointing out past a possible cancellation. It’s a commentary on the very idea of sitcoms reaching a point where their pattern no longer makes sense, realizing that juncture has been reached, and calling an end to that familiar repetition and allowing everyone—including the fictional characters—move on from the 30-minute stories.
What I think is so special about this episode is that it’s stylistically unassuming. I’ve broken down my theory of a spectrum for Community episodes, and this one basically defies classification. It’s a “regular” episode of a typically outlandish show. Tonally, it shares a lot with “Repilot,” and thus much of the first season, and already that creates a calming bookend if this indeed the penultimate episode of the show. Few shows care to acknowledge the idea that material may be running thin, even obliquely, and this episode goes out of its way to suggest that all of the zany things it pulls out don’t come from a limitless place. There is an endpoint, and someday, whether by network decision or creative exhaustion, it will arrive.
Oh, right, there’s plot. That’s the thing about episodes like this that are so on-point about life in general: they almost make the nuts and bolts superfluous, even though that adds all the laughter. The Save Greendale Committee has been so successful in turning the inefficiencies of the campus around that there’s not a lot left to do. To Jeff, that’s the sign of a job well done, worthy of taking a moment to breathe and relax. But Abed, meta-character versed in all the sitcoms patterns that he is, refuses to sit still. He keeps trying to concoct crazy schemes so that the committee will still have something to do, they’ll all hang out the way they have been, and nothing else will have to change. It’s an easily relatable urge since Abed’s life has changed so drastically without Troy, and because he defines his life in relation to other fiction story structures. (As someone who has devoted thousands of hours to picking apart and analyzing fictional stories, I sympathize with this compulsion.)
The scene where Jeff drags Abed out into the hall might as well go ahead and break the fourth wall. If there’s no more trouble for the former study group to confront, and no more classes for them to go to, then there are no more easily crafted story arcs to digest. Abed’s note that Jeff literally drags him across a threshold to tell him there is no story in the Committee’s success is both a comment on how artificial story arcs can be when applied to life, and a beat in the modest arc of this episode. Structurally, this is a thing of beauty. And hey, Abed going crazy at the idea of a sitcom story following him no matter how hard he tries to escape it is pretty damn funny.
Meanwhile, thanks to the work done by the Save Greendale Committee, the hapless trustees (who apparently went to Yale, though that’s not surprising) are so thrilled that the campus now holds a modicum of value that they turn around and sell it to the highest corporate bidder: Subway. In essence, the attempts to save the school becomes the very thing that ensures its devolution into a “Sandwich University” that wants Jeff to pivot into teaching “Sandwich Law.” There’s your ridiculous story beat, as the party celebration the insurance inspector’s conclusion promptly gets cut short now that they need to actually save the school.
It’s impressive how plainly this episode calls attention to sitcoms growing older and creakier, relying on increasingly ridiculous antics to keep the excitement heightened though the spark has long since passed. Community doesn’t look like it wants to do that. t even comments on the likelihood of online social media campaigns designed to save struggling saving something struggling to stay afloat. It’s preparing all the viewers for its inevitable end, and saying how that’s more than okay, because reaching the end is a mandatory part of telling a great story.
And by the end, “Basic Story” veers into the danger zone, throwing Britta and Jeff together in a ridiculous marriage proposal, and gifting Abed, Annie, and the Dean their buried treasure Hail Mary to prevent the school being sold. Chang is even back to his double-crossing ways, eavesdropping on everything in preparation for next week’s “final” big showdown. (Or is it?) This is a lot of build up, and like “A Fistful Of Paintballs” in the second season, a promising first half still feels incomplete without the falling action next week. But with only half the story at hand, Community continues to engage with sitcom history, viewer expectations, and its own internal evaluation of quality. It’s a show that constantly examines television as a medium with a legacy and openly tries to find its place in that timeline.
The list of truly great sitcom finales isn’t very long, and I’m sure varies from critic to critic and viewer to viewer. I’m not hoping for something like that with Community, because I think my favorite episodes will always be from somewhere in the middle of the season, with a concept I personally connected to or a powerful message involving my favorite characters. But an emotionally satisfying capstone is very important to the legacy of sitcoms—as How I Met Your Mother demonstrated just a few weeks ago—and after Harmon finished his first tenure as showrunner with what could have served as a memorable series finale, then the fourth season left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, the show is once again set up to potentially go out on a high note that sends a meaningful message about how we think about television.
• The tag, a delightful shared moment between Jonathan Banks and John Oliver, rewards the two amazing recurring characters from this season with a potential familial link. There’s got to be a way to get that English cousin on the show if there’s a sixth season. Might I suggest Jimmy Carr?
• That’s a picture of the hilarious Chris Elliott as Greendale founder Russell Borchert, the man who contracted the first computer virus.
• The Subway Black Card: Free five-dollar foot-longs for life. What a deal?