Community: “Basic Story”
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Season 5, Episode 12 The last two steps on Dan Harmon’s famous story circle are that a character returns to a familiar situation, having changed, thanks to the events of the story. It’s a great summation of the way that stories work, but it’s also one of those things that’s difficult to make work across the entire span of a TV series. In some ways, season five of Community has been wrestling with this throughout. How can Greendale, source of so much of the unfamiliarity that drove the first four seasons, now be so familiar, as it will surely become after so long spent there? And how can the show keep generating great stories when everybody has reached a point of contentment? In retrospect, this is exactly what the Save Greendale committee was about: If we save Greendale, then there won’t be any wacky chaos. And without any wacky chaos, there’s no show.
“Basic Story,” part one of a two-part season finale, has a tricky order to fill: It wants to apply a structure to the season retroactively. This can be incredible when done well, but when done poorly, it can just feel desperate. The Save Greendale committee ended up not being as potent of a story generator as it might have seemed to be at the start of the season, but it’s there for the show in the end, when it can handily reveal that saving Greendale also means destroying what makes it a good sitcom setting. If the school is suddenly a good school and not one where crazy things happen, well, then, it might be the kind of place where people mostly just got educations and didn’t go on wacky adventures. It might even be the kind of place that would be of interest to Subway, desperate to have an already existing campus to turn into a new Sandwich University. (Eat fresh.
As such, “Basic Story” is also about how all of the characters occupy a kind of sitcom purgatory (which you can read more about here, and now I’m just seeing it everywhere). When Jeff and Britta decide to get married, it’s a pivotal moment both for the show and the episode, but it’s mostly notable as a sign of something that can’t happen so long as they remain sitcom characters. If Community is renewed, then Jeff and Britta will be right back there squabbling; if it’s not renewed, then they stand a chance of squabbling while opening up their cabinet full of grocery bags. TV shows are often all about a kind of fundamental resistance to change. Because the characters on Community are at least somewhat aware they live in a TV show, then their inability to move past the versions of themselves that have landed at Greendale might eventually grow all the more frustrating.
Really, having one of the central tensions of the episode be “Jeff and Britta want to get married now” shouldn’t work. The two have danced around the question of their coupling so many times from so many different angles that it’s difficult to find a new way to pick up that particular ball unless the show is going to give it some new meaning. And yet I found myself enjoying that moment more than almost any other in the episode (and this was an enjoyable episode overall), because I think it spoke to Abed’s insistence that everybody was in the middle of a story, even if they didn’t want to admit it. Jeff and Britta largely decide to get married because it will give meaning to the five years they’ve spent at Greendale. Jeff started his voyage by trying to hook up with her, and she started her voyage trying to resist. If this is a story where the characters return to a familiar situation, having changed, wouldn’t they be getting married? The fact that it feels arbitrary ends up being part of the point: Jeff and Britta decide to get married because that is a thing people do to mark a major passage in their lives. And neither of them is quite willing to admit that leaving Greendale would be a major passage for them.
Of course, it seems entirely likely they won’t have to leave Greendale, which will return them to that familiar spot. Earlier in the episode, Abed tries futilely to think of a way that Greendale might be saved unexpectedly. The best he can do is buried treasure, and then, as if the show has a god who’s listening only to Abed, he, Annie, and the Dean discover an actual treasure map behind a picture of Greendale’s most famous alumnus, a computer science professor who was a millionaire and genius but once had sex with a computer, so you just know what he’s known for now. (The placard on the picture says the truth is behind this picture. The Dean never knew it was literal.) Abed, who sees stories everywhere, who throws off the whole rhythms of the show when he can’t find them (and leaves the camera so that we’re just staring at a student slurping on soup), has seemingly willed an unlikely answer to the school’s problems into existence. And Jeff and Britta just want to move on, but they’re going to be unlikely to get to—at least right now.
The title of the episode is “Basic Story,” and if you think about it, the most basic story of them all is that stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Somebody does something. Complications ensue. They resolve the situation. In this story, we’ve seen Jeff start a study group to get in the good graces of the pretty girl. Then we’ve seen a long, long series of complications. And now, theoretically, the story should “end.” But it won’t get to, because this is a TV show, and God willing, there’s one more season and a movie to get to. What’s fun to see here is the way that the show plays with the idea that the characters might no longer be as into this as the people watching or writing them. Community has always set Greendale up as a purgatory. It’s a very TV setup—the place where you least want to be is the place where you learn who you need to be. But at the same time, the whole idea behind purgatory is that it ends, that the fires eventually burn away your sins and you move forward to paradise. (This episode throws out the name Dante for a reason.) A TV show only ends when somebody is good and ready to have it go away, and even that might not be enough for fans, who may will new episodes into being through their imaginations or crowd-funding or something.
Above all, “Basic Story” is about how the tension that is needed to get the storytelling drug we crave could be a little exhausting for those who aren’t Abed, for those who aren’t looking around every corner for something that might kick off the third act. Longing for more story is just a basic human desire, and it’s one that Community is almost always careful to fulfill. But longing for more story also deprives the world of endings, and endings are what help us make sense of those stories in the first place (even if they aren’t as important to understanding an ongoing TV show as we’d all like them to be). Pierce got his ending through death, as we all will. Troy discovered that his journey and evolution would have to take place elsewhere. Jeff and Britta are likely lying to themselves about their stories being “over,” but it would be a nice thing to think, wouldn’t it? And Annie and Abed and the Dean need Greendale to keep existing, because they’re not yet done being prepared by it for whatever paradise awaits them in the next world. Greendale has always been a waystation, a place between places, but for that to have any meaning, there needs to be somewhere else to go to, and right now, there isn’t, at least not yet.
My favorite shot: We peer into the faculty lounge, where nothing story-wise is happening whatsoever, then look back down the hall, where Abed is fleeing away in terror, just before he has an epiphany (given to him by himself, naturally enough).
I know that Subway is generally pretty good about product placement that makes fun of itself as product placement, but this episode took that to a new level. I think my favorite was that the school’s new mascot is the Subway Beings.
Also, Jared Fogel was there.
I have come to really like the two board members as recurring characters on this show. They’re basically playing caricatures of evil board members, but they’re really fun at doing so, and the two actors have a nice chemistry.
Everything is going well, but when the Dean gets on the public address system… ah, he just hit the button accidentally. He wanted to make sure everything was fine.
I liked the tag quite a bit, if only because Jonathan Banks and John Oliver singing together is something we should have gotten sooner. I’m going to miss these two if season six happens.
I really loved Michael McDonald’s portrayal of the insurance appraiser, and the increasingly bizarre and labyrinthine rules and restrictions he informed the group of. As it turns out, the city defines a dog as any creature that moves on four legs.
“Unsubscribe!” Unsubscribe indeed, Leonard! Unsubscribe indeed.
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