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Community: The Complete Third Season
The darkest timeline and a premature goodbye
Loves: Community; smart, quirky sitcoms; most of the cast; Dan Harmon
Likes: That we're getting a season four
Dislikes: That it's only scheduled for 13 episodes, Chevy Chase
Hates: How the Harmon thing went down
The Story So Far...
Springing forth from the imagination of unconventional creative genius Dan Harmon and his team of merry pranksters, Community is, on the surface, the story of a study group of misfit community college students, but it's really a tale of friendship, defined by the surreal world it exists in and the creative ways it's told. Three seasons have aired on NBC, garnering an obsessed fanbase and critical acclaim, with the first two seasons released on DVD. DVDTalk has reviews of both sets.
Season three of Community is a defining one, for a number of reasons. Having established its characters and loyal core of viewers, it went all-out to stake its claim as TV's most surreal, yet heartfelt comedy. Knowing low ratings put the series' continued existence in jeopardy, the show wound to a legitimate ending for the study group a small, yet stalwart band of fans had come to love. Those same ratings (along with some other issues) led to Harmon being forced away from steering the ship following the season. Despite the concerns, the show continued to draw plenty of laughs and tell sincere, yet hilarious stories of friendship.
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 22 episodes of Community's third season arrive on three DVDs, packed in a pair of slipcased ThinPaks (which feature a lot of show-related art all over them.) The discs have animated anamorphic widescreen menus (based on the show's opening titles) with options to play all the episodes, select shows, adjust languages and check out the extras. There are no audio options, but subtitles are available in English and English SDH.
The anamorphic widescreen transfers look very nice across the board, with appropriate color and a rather excellent level of fine detail, seen throughout the show in hair, background textures and close-ups. Black levels are consistently solid, and there are no noticeable issues with compression artifacts.
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.
One of the first real victims of the Harmon Fiasco is the extras on the Season Three DVDs, as Harmon is not on hand to do the cast evaluations, like on the first two DVD sets. Fortunately, he did participate in the commentaries, which were recorded before the final two episodes of the season aired, and thus before things went a bit crazy. There's a track for every episode of the season, and though Harmon is here for 11 of them, Glover (probably too busy) and Chase (well...) are not. Fortunately, Brie is back (after missing the Season Two commentaries, and she and the rest of the study group and all the others involved, including Rash, guest stars Martin Starr and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and many members of the crew, keep things entertaining and informative, covering topics like their love of GalaxyQuest, the effects of the show's budget, thoughts on where the show didn't work (especially in terms of accessibility) and Jacob's obsession with RuPaul's Drag Race. It's a bit sad to hear Harmon's talk of Season Four, and the lack of perspective on what would happen shortly after these tracks were recorded makes them definitely a moment in time, but listening to them joke and laugh, in a very uncensored way, makes the tracks almost as entertaining as the episodes at times.
Here's a breakdown of the tracks:
- Biology 101 - Gillian Jacobs & Yvette Nicole Brown
- Geography of Global Conflict - Joel McHale, Jacobs, Alison Brie, Martin Starr and supervising producer Andy Bobrow
- Remedial Chaos Theory - Dan Harmon, McHale, Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Brown and co-executive producer Chris McKenna
- Competitive Ecology - McHale, Jacobs, Brown and supervising producer Maggie Bandur
- Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps - Harmon, McHale, Jacobs, Brown and Jim Rash
- Advanced Gay - McHale, Jacobs, Brown and writer Matt Murray
- Studies in Modern Movement - Harmon, McHale, Jacobs, Brown, Brie and Rash
- Documentary Filmmaking: Redux - Harmon, McHale, Jacobs, Pudi, Brown and Rash
- Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism - McHale, Brown and writer Chris Kula
- Regional Holiday Music - Harmon, McHale, Jacobs, Pudi, Brown and story editors/writers Steve Basilone and Annie Mebane
- Contemporary Impressionists - Harmon, McHale, Pudi, Brown and writers Alex Cooley and Kyle Newacheck
- Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts - McHale, Jacobs, Brown and Malcolm-Jamal Warner
- Digital Exploration of Interior Design - Harmon, McHale, Brown, director Dan Eckman and McKenna
- Pillows and Blankets - Harmon, McHale, Pudi, Brown and Bobrow
- Origins of Vampire Mythology - Harmon, McHale, Jacobs, Brown, Brie and Rash
- Virtual Systems Analysis - Jacobs, Brie and Murray
- Basic Lupine Urology - Harmon, McHale, Brown and director Rob Schrab
- Course Listing Unavailable - Jacobs, Brown, Dino Stamatopoulos and writer Tim Saccardo
- Curriculum Unavailable - McHale, Jacobs, Brie, Starr, Bobrow and writer Adam Countee
- Digital Estate Planning - Harmon, McHale, Jacobs and Brown
- The First Chang Dynasty - Jacobs, Brown, director Jay Chandrasekhar and writers Alex Cuthbertson and Matt Fusfield
- Introduction to Finality - Jacobs, Brown, Basilone and Mebane
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
So many series get cancelled before they get a chance to say a proper good-bye. In its third season, Community experienced the opposite, putting a neat bow on the series, only to get a (currently temporary) reprieve. But before that premature adieu, the series put out several gems of quirky meta comedy, along with plenty more examples of the alienating, out-of-left-field choices that made the show unique, critically acclaimed and low-rated. Though the DVD set has suffered from some off-camera drama, there's still plenty for fans to enjoy, including the entertaining commentaries that effectively double the content in the set. Though there's not a lot here that will convince the unconverted, for those enrolled at Greendale in their hearts, it's like a big study group hug after a Jeff Winger monologue.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.