The darkest timeline and a premature goodbye
The Story So Far...
That's not to say things didn't get weird (natch.) This season had the requisite assortment of oddball moments, characters and storylines, be it Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and her shared foosball history with Jeff (Joel McHale) and their subsequent anime battle or the wonderful product-placement integration of Subway into the show, as the sandwich shop takes human form and falls for Britta (Gillian Jacobs.) But nothing was as weird as the stories surrounding best buds Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi.) The stories centering on the imagination playroom in their apartment called "the Dreamatorium" introduced the show's now-integral Doctor Who homage Inspector Spacetime, while the story of Troy's destiny as an air-conditioning repair student, stalked by the school's true power, Vice Dean of Air Conditioning Robert Laybourne (John Goodman), frames and guides the year's biggest running plot, the break-up of Troy and Abed (...in the morning.)
Their split, much of which is spurred by Annie (Alison Brie) moving in and Troy's burgeoning maturation (leading to the most heartbreaking non-handshake in TV history), is part of what might be the season's biggest stumbling block, as things not only got weird, but they got dark. Late in the season, when the show was on the brink of cancellation, a series that had previously been at worst inaccessible verged into the uncomfortable, like "Virtual Systems Analysis," where Annie joins Abed in the Dreamatorium. What starts as a make-believe game of time constables, but becomes an evaluation of who Abed is to his friends and who he sees himself to be. The story gets legitimately serious, as Annie tries to break through Abed's pop-culture walls to help him, and it's tempting to say there's not a lot of laughs in this episode. Then, when Britta (Gillian Jacobs) unwittingly tries using her knowledge as a psychology major on Dark Abed (the evil alternate universe version of everyone's favorite social misfit), things go from bad to much worse. Bonesaw worse.
Perhaps it's the heavy flow of plot-driven storylines, like Chang (Ken Jeong) and his plot to take over the school, which spans several episodes, that backed the show into a corner of having to tell stories, rather than just having fun (which they still do, of course, often with throwaway lines of pure genius.) It also highlights one of the season's issues, as Chang became too big a character for his personality, and his new role as a power-mad security guard doesn't work as well as the oddball, yet sad Spanish teacher he started as. The stranger side characters always work well in moderation, as seen in the welcome sporadic appearances by Magnitude, Garrett and Starburns (each of whom is infected by the season's creeping darkness, especially Magnitude.) Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) on the other hand, could probably support entire episodes on his own wacky self, as his love/hate relationship with Jeff, his power struggle with Vice Dean Laybourne and the general crumbling of Greendale Community College let his manic genius shine (like only devil lingerie can.)
One thing that this season got right more often than not-so-right was the theme episode. Season three is loaded with specially-formatted stories that resulted in some of the most memorable of the run, including the brilliant "Remedial Chaos Theory," where the group warps through alternate timelines of the study group, giving the fans one of their favorite memes, that of "the darkest timeline." As seen in previous seasons, the show has a lot of fun with parody and genre tropes, led by an impressive roster of writers and directors, but it was taken to a new level with a Ken Burns-like documentary on the war between Troy and Abed's rival forts, a classic storytelling episode about scary tales, a fantastic heist film, a pitch-perfect Law & Order take-off, a Hearts of Darkness-inspired look at the making of the school's new commercial and the undeniably incredible video-game episode, "Digital Estate Planning." Producing nearly the entire episode as a video game, and casting the characters as adorable little 16-bit sprites set the show loose in an entirely new way, and created something never seen in sitcoms before, while maintaining the show's theme of togetherness.
As good as the writing and technique is on Community, without the cast as constructed, it's unlikely it could work the same way. Everyone in the study group is so pitch-perfect and multi-dimensional, from McHale's insecure con-man to Brie's sugar-sweet coil of rage and motivation to Glover's evolving man-child. With a show that changes tone rapidly and spins into surrealism on a whim, the actors need to the able to keep up, and there's not much the crew here can't pull off, with Glover standing out as the MVP of the group, delivering some of the funniest and most touching performances of the season, sometimes in the same episode.
Ensembles tend to succeed best by finding smaller couplings that work well together, but Community never limits itself in that way. In fact, only the Troy and Abed duo remains consistent, with the rest pairing off in numerous ways (though oddly, never Troy and Shirley), and normally working best as an entire group, which makes the meetings around the study room tables and ("Remedial Chaos Theory") so much fun. It may be the incredible chemistry of such talented performers at work, but it also hammers home the show's main theme of friendship. That theme carried through to the final episode of the season, where, with no word as to the future of the series, the show was given a proper ending. It's really quite touching to see how everything comes together, and that Harmon had the opportunity to say good-bye to his characters, but with at least 13 more episodes to come, one has to figure that it will make wrapping up the series again even harder.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks are strong and clear, putting the dialogue in the center channel, while the side and rear speakers offer some enhancement for the music and some minor atmospheric effects in the surrounds. There's nothing dynamic about the mix, but there are also no negatives of note.
Here's a breakdown of the tracks:
Each of the three discs sports a set of outtakes, while the third has a short bonus entry, for a total of over 22 minutes of gag reel footage, which are truly funny, and incredibly dirty, with more than enough oral sex jokes for any Community fan (and something special for Annie and Jeff fans.) That you have the chance to enjoy Glover's imitation of Bill Cosby and Brie's freestyle rap stylings is just a wonderful bonus. Each disc also has a set of deleted scenes, 13:12 in all, though there aren't cut scenes for each episode. A lot of these aren't particularly memorable, but make sure to check out the clips of Garrett on Disc Two and thank me later.
The remaining extras are on Disc Two. First up is the 6:22 "A Glee-ful Community Christmas," looking at everything that went into the music-heavy episode. As with most things involving this cast, this is a fun time; an enjoyable collection of interviews and on-set footage.
For a series as meta as Community, "This is War: Pillows vs. Blankets" (13:25) is a perfectly meta complement, as it's a documentary about the documentary in the series. Breaking down the episode's production from it's writing to the heavy set production, and pretty much everything else in between. It's a nice chance to see a lot of the people on the show you don't normally hear from, along with a decent look at the somewhat chaotic production environment that partially cost Harmon his gig.
Disappointingly, the cast evaluations aren't the only extras missing, as the annual DJ Steve Porter remix (reportedly shown at the 2012 ComicCon) is also not included.
The Bottom Line