Community: Season 5 Episode 12 - “Basic Story”
April 10, 2014, 8:00 p.m. (EST), NBC
Over the course of Community’s fifth season, it has been contending with its own ending. Sure, the show is now positioning itself toward a sixth season (and, Dan Harmon promises that should renewal come, there will be a movie), but season five has prepared, from the beginning to be conclusory. This is a show that has focused, over its run on building a weird, absurd, unpredictable world where anything can happen, and it has succeeded. But “Basic Story” is about how even the unpredictable becomes predictable over time. Every show eventually reaches a logical conclusion point, and Community has been contending with that all season.
The “Save Greendale” campaign is all about this, really. None of these characters have much reason to stick around at this point, and yet, here they are, clinging to the setting, begging to make it hospitable for just a few more stories. “Basic Story” makes this subtext text, and in doing so tells a tale of possible endings and how unsatisfactory they all might seem. It isn’t that the end should be so desperately far off; in fact, we’re closer to it than ever before, and that feels right. It’s just that no one, not even the characters on this show, wants it to be time quite yet. There are still stories left to tell. There are still endings left to be written.
This season tried to make the “Save Greendale” committee into a new story generator after the series’ premise was basically exhausted (the show was about community college students, and everyone graduated). The committee hasn’t been able to generate many worthwhile stories, but that becomes the point, almost, in “Basic Story.” If Greendale is saved it fails to be the sort of place that can generate stories about how weird, wacky, and dysfunctional it can be. If Greendale becomes a regular school, it ceases to be the place where all of the things we love have happened. If Greendale is normalized, what kind of show are we even watching?
As an example of the larger point “Basic Story” is making (and I am increasingly convinced that point is brilliant, even if the Abed subplot puts too fine a point on it), look at Britta and Jeff’s decision to get married. It feels both totally in character and totally wrong as a potential conclusion for their characters. It also feels like the sort of thing that simply cannot happen while they are sitcom characters. This show could end with Jeff and Britta together. That has been a possibility since the beginning. But it shouldn’t. That feels too neat for a place like Greendale, and that, again, is the point of this episode. Our characters have spent the season cleaning Greendale up, but the more grime they scrub away, the less place the school has for them to be as zany and dysfunctional as they are used to being.
Jeff and Britta’s marriage proposal, a potentially real moment (even if not the one we hoped for) is broken up by Abed, Annie, and The Dean bursting in and doing silly, over the top sitcom dances while announcing that what will save them is “buried treasure.” Even as reality seeps in, contrivance and zaniness might save our characters. The real world is drab and boring and full of grocery bags. But if Greendale survives, it will let us look for buried treasure, and listen to Leonard say “Unsubscribe” to our crises. It will let us be our best, weirdest, selves for just a little while longer, and by comparison, the real world looks just a bit paler, just a bit more disappointing as a result.
The marriage proposal is an attempt to impose meaning on a narrative that the characters are telling themselves, and on a narrative we are watching. It isn’t that Jeff and Britta should get married; its that, failing any other major accomplishments, that would make them both feel like their time at Greendale meant something. But these two aren’t agreeing to get married to mark the passage of time. Their union would simply tether them both to the type of insanity they have grown accustomed to. It would let them spend just a little more time in a world they (and we) have come to love.
When Community reached the end of its third season, a stretch of episodes that was weirder, and wilder, and less effective than any previously in the show’s run, it tried to tie up its narrative, fearing that cancellation would make that the end of its story. It is doing that again now, but in a far better, far more interesting way than ever before. “Basic Story” is arguing that narratives have to come to an end, but it is doing so in a way that feels reminiscent of a great novel, the sort of story you hope will never end, even as you turn the pages and watch yourself getting closer and closer to the conclusion. These characters are clinging to lives that are receding from them, and it is hilarious and heartbreaking, bittersweet and beautiful to watch them try.
Greendale is purgatory. It is a place every person comes because they’ve made mistakes they have yet to atone for, because they are longing to be better, to be worthy of the futures they dream of. One of the truly genius ideas in Community’s DNA is that this is a show about people trying to change that recognizes these changes come slowly (slowly enough for an entire run of a television series, in fact). Every television show ends, but only once all of the situations run out, only once the fans, or the creators, or the cast, feels like these people have gone around the mulberry bush enough, have learned the tough lessons they need to internalize, have grown in a way that television characters rarely do. All of these characters are still baking, like cookies in an oven unsure whether they are done. Jeff and Britta think they are, even though everything we know about them says they are not. Annie, Abed, and The Dean cling to the idea that they are still dough, and will dive into the impossible or implausible if it lets them stay in the oven that is Greendale just a little bit longer. They want this story to continue, just a little bit longer. Don’t you?
- -“I commented on his commentary. I drew a circle around Abed, baby!” “I don’t think its nice to pigeon-hole people’s gimmicks…”
- -“Are you guys drunk?” “Good look proving it…before we’re not!”
- -“Dean, start learning Swedish.” “I’ll do my best!” “Hickey, do you keep in touch with any criminals you busted?” “Mmmm…five.” “Get ‘em down here!”
- -“I love scotch. And myself. I tolerate Greendale.”
- -“That’s why this inspection is going to be the most boring thing that’s happened here since Britta dated Troy.”
- -“But the city defines a dog as any living entity with four legs and a tail. So, raccoons, bears, mountain lions, mice. These are all just different sizes of dog.”
- -“And you shall find, salt is the taste of another man’s bread, and hard is the way up another man’s stairs. Dante, let’s proceed.”
- -“No, Abed.” “Me with a beard!” “Keep fighting the story.”
- -“Your gas leak is repaired, all your fire exists actually lead outside, and, I am told, no new species have been discovered here in a week.”
- -“Let me be one of the six this year!” “Craig. Craig! This vending machine is not going to tip over and crush you.” “Why not?”
- -“You want us to tweet ‘Save Greendale’? I’m sorry, Annie. The reason I have fourteen followers is that I don’t post things like this. They come to me for atheistic rants and pictures of my meals, not this nonsense.”
- -“Great. Thanks for making my joke accurate. Now it’s hilarious.”
- -“By the way, he was a millionaire and a genius. He has sex with one computer, and that’s his legacy?”