Judge Erich Asperschlager will die eventually, once it has been...earned!
"Monkey knockout gas! Now that's the kind of grounded, sensible thinking I want to see this year."
It's been a crazy year for Community. After two seasons on the brink of cancellation, getting a third felt like a major victory. No matter what happened, fans took solace in knowing they were getting at least one more year of the best show on TV. Halfway through the season, NBC announced that the series was going on "indefinite hiatus." The fanbase lashed out with angry tweets and the gnashing of virtual teeth that continued until the network finally clarified that the show had not been cancelled and would return in the Spring to finish out a full season. Tempers cooled. Fans waited. The crisis, it seemed, had been averted. When the show came back, it had the added bonus of a post-hiatus ratings bump thanks to the increased visibility. Even though those numbers settled over time, the Greendale faithful remained optimistic about the show's future, especially once NBC announced that it would be back for at least a 13 episode fourth season. Then, two days after the finale aired, series creator Dan Harmon was fired from the show, in a press release, on a Friday night. He confirmed the news in a pained blog post, saying that he would not be involved with the show in any way going forward.
To be fair, Harmon didn't make Community all by himself. He was surrounded by top-tier writers and the best ensemble cast on network TV. But everything about the show—the humor, the characters, the tone—was essentially his. Harmon okayed everything. He obsessed about details. He drove execs crazy by working and reworking scripts until the last minute. He had a reputation for being at best a perfectionist, and at worst an obstacle to his own success. There may have been good business reasons to fire Harmon, but "business reasons" have never made a TV show better. IfCommunity's Harmon-less fourth season is great, it will be because of the talented writers, actors, and crew—not because someone at Sony thought with their wallet.
All of which makes Community: The Complete Third Season a bittersweet DVD release. Removed from the infighting and network drama, Season Three is great fun to watch. It's ambitious, and clever, and has some of the best episodes in the entire series. Freed from the yoke of trying to please everyone, Harmon and his writers take the show to new places, delving deep into the characters with storylines that threaten to tear apart friendships, the school, and even the fabric of space and time.
Facts of the Case
Community: The Complete Third Season has 22 episodes across three discs:
For better and worse, Community is most famous for genre parody episodes like "Modern Warfare" and "Epidemiology" (aka. "the paintball and zombie ones"). From the outside, it probably seems like just another show that confuses pop culture references with jokes. But it's not. The genre episodes exist because they are fun, and because they provide new ways for Harmon and his writers to explore the characters of Jeff (Joel McHale), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Abed (Danny Pudi), Troy (Donald Glover), Annie (Alison Brie), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), and Pierce (Chevy Chase). When Community changes stylistic gears—like it does in the Law & Order inspired "Basic Lupine Urology," or the brilliant Ken Burns send-up "Pillows and Blankets"—the jokes land not because the characters change to fit the situation, but because they are just being themselves: self-righteous Britta, narcissist Jeff, out-of-touch Pierce, sweetly judgmental Shirley, uptight Annie, childlike Troy, and Abed the media-obsessed robot with a tenuous grip on reality.
The season's central story is Troy and Abed's changing friendship. More specifically, as Harmon explains in one commentary track, it's Troy coming to terms with "the cost of being Abed's friend." Some of their problems come from outside influences—Annie moving into their apartment, a sinister Air Conditioning Repair School Annex plan to break them up—but most are the result of natural tensions that develop in any long-term friendship, even one as symbiotic as theirs. Those tensions mount until a literal war—in this case, a campus-wide pillow fight—breaks out. When it does, we are invested in the conflict because Harmon and crew have tapped into basic truths about the evolution of friendships.
Troy and Abed get plenty of screentime, but their relationship is just one of many explored this season. Some one-off episodes break the characters into pairings—like the Jeff and Shirley-centric "Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism," or Annie reliving her addictions through Britta in "Origins of Vampire Mythology"—but most tackle the group as a whole. In the Halloween anthology episode "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps," the scary stories reveal as much about the teller as the others; "Competitive Ecology" looks at the group from an outsider's perspective—fellow bio student Todd (David Neher)—and it's not pretty; and in "Virtual Systems Analysis," Abed and Annie examine the group dynamic by way of the Dreamatorium, a spare room in Troy and Abed's apartment they've turned into a holodeck for their overactive imaginations.
The most thorough dissection of the Greendale Seven happens in "Remedial Chaos Theory"—the best episode this season and perhaps the entire series. During Troy and Abed's housewarming party, a random dice roll to determine who will get the pizza creates six different timelines, each of which plays out over the course of the episode. The multidimensional narrative (a sitcom first, as far as I know) allows the writers to experiment with the characters, showing how people act when certain members aren't around, all without changing the "real" timeline. As a bonus, the episode introduces "the darkest timeline," an amusing play on a sci-fi trope that pays off in important ways later on in the season. "Chaos Theory" is a masterful bit of storytelling that illustrates everything the show does right. It's also an indication early in the season that, this year, anything is possible. Perhaps it was the fear of cancellation, or maybe Dan Harmon simply decided to go for broke, but the third season of Community stands alone in network comedy history. I don't know how they got away with it, but don't expect to see anything like it again soon.
Season Three not only juggles a lot of major story arcs, it raises the stakes all around. In Season Two, Pierce got addicted to drugs and left the group. This season, he faces off against his uber-racist, ivory wig-wearing, Southern gentleman father in both real life ("Advanced Gay") and in the virtual world (the animated 8-bit video game tour-de-force "Digital Estate Planning"). Shirley, meanwhile comes in fresh from last season's paternity scare and raring to make her entrepreneurial dreams come true. Her fight to open Shirley's Sandwiches pits her against her fair-weather business partner Pierce, Dean Pelton (Jim Rash, finally getting regular cast status), and even the Subway corporation—who deserve credit for giving the writers leeway to poke fun at TV product placement. I'm inclined to give them my business based on the "corpo-humanization" gag alone. Eat fresh!
Chang has always been over-the-top, but his storyline this season goes even over-er. His evolution from living in the school's air ducts to paranoid campus security guard to getting the study group expelled, kidnapping Dean Pelton, and using a child army to take control of the school may not reveal a ton about his character, but that's not what Chang is about. He's always been a foil for the study group. This year, he graduates to antagonist, with a rise to power plot that culminates in a three-episode arc at the end of the season. Even if the extended Chang time rubbed some fans the wrong way, without it we wouldn't have gotten John Hodgman as a shifty psychiatrist in "Curriculum Unavailable," or the intricate Ocean's Eleven-style heist in "The First Chang Dynasty."
Chang's story also ties into the endgame of my favorite season subplot, Troy's recruitment into the A/C Repair School by Vice Dean Laybourne, played by my favorite guest star, John Goodman, who utters my favorite line of the season, "That's why there's an astronaut in the corner making paninis. Isn't that right, Black Hitler?" The story isn't given the attention it deserves. The plot disappears for large chunks of the season, only to come back suddenly in time for a season finale that also includes a courtroom drama and the return of Evil Abed. Even so, Troy's story ends with a thrilling climax that involves secret societies, prophecies, murder, and something called the "Sun Chamber."
But that's not all the noteworthy stuff this season. I still haven't mentioned the stand-out performances from Dino "Star-Burns" Stamatopoulos, The Wire's Michael Kenneth Williams as Biology professor Kane, Nick Kroll as a German Foosball nut, and Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito. There's also Inspector Spacetime, the Changlorious Basterds, "Normal Troy and Abed," Leonard's YouTube snack reviews, Beetlejuice, Alison Brie's Batman impersonation, Keith David's narration in "Pillows and Blankets," and the awesome "Regional Holiday Music" episode—a Christmas musical takedown of Glee that gets better every time I watch it.
Community is so packed with jokes, details, foreshadowing, call-backs, and Easter eggs, it demands repeat viewing. It's made for DVD. Although the Season Three set is yet again available only in standard definition, not Blu-ray—possibly due to Greendale budget cuts—the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks great, with strong detail, natural color, and the visual chops to handle everything from elaborate pillow forts and imaginary space battles to Dean Pelton's frequent costume changes. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio mix is just as capable. Dialogue is crisp and balanced with the audio effects and music—whether it's the Hans Zimmer-esque score during Abed's Dark Knight transformation, Jeff and the Dean's karaoke rendition of "Kiss From a Rose," or everyone constantly humming Michael Haggins' smooth jazz ditty "Daybreak."
Given all the peripheral nonsense this year, I half-expected Community: The Complete Third Season to ship as a barebones set. Thankfully, Sony has done these DVDs right, with a solid collection of bonus features to distract angry fans. There aren't as many as previous seasons—the Harmon-hosted "cast evaluations," for example, are missing (for obvious reasons), and the once-lengthy featurettes have been scaled way down—but there's still plenty to get excited about:
• Like previous sets, The Complete Third Season has audio commentaries for every episode, half of which feature Dan Harmon. As sad as I felt every time he makes reference to the fourth season he won't be around for—the commentaries were recorded during production—Harmon is as opinionated and passionate as ever, whether blowing the whistle on Wolfgang Puck's catering con or being completely bummed out that the backing track for Troy and Abed's Christmas rap is off by half a beat. Dan isn't the only draw in the commentaries, however. The cast takes up a lot of slack, trading off and providing a ton of insight into the process of making the episodes. The commentaries also feature the writers, and guest stars like Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Martin Starr. No matter who's on the mic, they are all worth listening to.
• "A Glee-ful Community Christmas" (6:22): One of two episode-specific featurettes, this look at Season Three's holiday entry is mostly made up of cast interviews. They talk choreography and singing, often in self-deprecating ways, and dish on their favorite holiday songs. It's short compared to previous season featurettes, but still fun.
• "This is War: Pillows vs. Blankets" (13:26): A Ken Burns-style documentary about the making of the show's Ken Burns-style documentary episode. It goes into more detail than the Holiday featurette, and is broken up into sections including "The Writing of the Episode," "The Building of the Set," "Who is the Ultimate Warrior?," and the pressing question: "Blankets or Pillows?"
• Deleted Scenes: Although there's a good number of new scenes included, don't get too excited. Most are very short—just a beat or a joke. In total, they only add up to about 12 minutes of new footage. Better than nothing, but I have to believe there's more sitting on a shelf somewhere.
• Outtakes: About 20 minutes of flubbed lines and messing around, spread across all three discs.
• Bonus Outtakes (2:45): This added bit of goof-offery is presented under the title "Intro to Bodily Functions," and is every bit as disgusting as that sounds.
Even though Sony cut a few corners to get this set out ahead of Community's October return, The Complete Third Season is a fitting tribute to the end of an era. This season's production was marked by highs and lows—interrupted by a hiatus that threatened the future of the show, capped off by the victory of an announced fourth season and the agony of losing the visionary who made Community what it is. There are too many stories in too many styles to fit neatly into 22 half-hour episodes. It is scattered, over-reaching—and utterly brilliant. Dan Harmon may not have made it to a fourth season, but he and his writers packed enough into this one that fans will be able to mine its comedic gold for years to come. I can't foretell Community's future, but I'm thrilled I can celebrate its past.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2012 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.