Community: Season 4, Episode 12
Heroic Origins
In a lot of ways, "Heroic Origins" was inevitable. At some point in a sitcom's run, if it is fortunate to last long enough, there will be a flashback episode. Cougar Town had its earlier this season, Friends ran long enough to have several, and How I Met Your Mother is built around flaahbacks. The mileage on these episodes varies, and "Heroic Origins" is not among my favorite of all time. But sitcom writers throughout time think jokes like Annie having frizzy hair and braces in high school are funny, so, here we are.

Much of season four of this show has seen me (or the show, depending on your perspective) waffling back and forth on the success of the new iteration of Community. I generally think the show is less intelligent and innovative than it used to be, its less intuitive about its characters and their evolutions, and its sort of running on autopilot. All of those problems were present in "Heroic Origins," which has less a plot than a very weak frame about Abed studying the gang's history instead of actual history. It sounds more like the beginning of an idea in a pitch room than an actual fleshed out script, but it does remind me of the way the classes the study group takes tend to provide each season with a thematic backbone, and that is one of the nice touches I think the show has continued to pull off in season four. In season one, the gang took Spanish as they learned to communicate with one another. In season two, they took Anthropology as they became more of a family unit, functioning together in the larger and more diverse Greendale world. In season three, they took biology as they dealt with the specter of their own mortality as a group and questioned whether anything could tear them apart. Now, in season four, as the gang is cemented and as the show has started to coast, the group is taking history. It's fitting, and if it was being pulled off slightly better, it might even excuse some of the weaker aspects of this season. But "Heroic Origins" is ultimately a pretty lazy episode of the show, and it doesn't use that thematic weight for anything more than flashback gags, some of which are awesome, and some of which are just ok.

I know this space has become less about reviewing individual episodes of Community over the course of this season and more a long, rambling conversation about what the show lost, and how it changed, when Dan Harmon left. I've tried to avoid spending too much time dwelling on the past (and mostly failed, I think), and I do not think all of season four's problems can be pegged on the new showrunners: ultimately, this is an aging sitcom with aging sitcom problems. I just think those problems were exacerbated when it lost its creative vision. Basically, I think Community gave up. It stopped being a daring, innovative, emotionally complex television show and became a broad, cartoon-y, gimmick-y sitcom settling into old age. Now, don't get me wrong, it was most of those things even in its earliest seasons, but its broadness was offset by how much was going on under the surface, its gimmicks generally overlapping its innovations, and its emotional complexity helping it to transcend the standard sitcom template. And I don't know if it stopped trying, if it lost the magic, if the new writers didn't have what it takes, or if its just gotten old, if this was inevitable for the show as it entered its fourth season. I have opinions on this, obviously (I think season four with Dan Harmon would have been more interesting, but not empirically and doubtlessly better than what we have now. I wasn't crazy about the back half of season three, and had that continued, we'd be watching one of the most batshit things on television right now, and probably for worse), but we can vary on those, and ultimately, which one is true isn't as relevant as the fact that one is true.

"Heroic Origins" is smug in the way every flashback episode is, trading on the knowledge we have about the characters for jokes that tend to be fairly cheap, and using the opportunity for a bunch of callbacks at the same time. Annie's pill-popping and Troy's jock behavior didn't work all that well for me, while a lot of the little flourishes and callbacks definitely got a smile, even if accompanied by an eye-roll (Magnitude came up with "Pop Pop!"). But ultimately, this is an empty exercise in fan service, and it bears the weight of that. Again, all flashback episodes trade on our knowledge for some cheap jokes and then try to reveal something heartwarming we did not know to make the episode seem worth it, and perhaps if the idea that the gang were "destined to meet" actually warmed my heart at all, I'd feel better about this episode. But again, that feels like the laziest possible conclusion to an episode designed to be loved for reminding us of other things we loved than on its own merits.

A lot of this review has danced around the episode itself, and that's for a very simple reason: there's not a lot to say about it that isn't rote recitation of what happened. This is yet another example of the show being all surfaces and an empty core. What is this episode about? Well, its about destiny, I guess, and the group loving each other, if you want to stretch it a little bit. But really its about putting on wigs and play-acting the past. That's all well and good (seriously, it is. I actually quite often love flashback episodes, and while it wasn't a season highlight, Cougar Town's left a smile plastered on my face for its entire runtime), but it reminds me of what I'm missing the most this season: depth. This is Community as kiddie pool--not the worst place to stick your feet for twenty minutes, but not exactly refreshing, either. Also, you're probably standing in kid pee.

I find myself looking forward to next week's finale for exactly the wrong reasons: it spells the end to the season, and thus, the end to me spending several paragraphs every week trying to explain the emptiness this show now engenders in me, and the hole it refuses to fill. I'm fairly certain I won't review Community if it gets renewed, because I don't think there's much here for me, anymore. This isn't the type of show that warrants weekly criticism, anymore. Its a show that would probably benefit from being watched with my critical faculties turned off. The Community I loved thrived on the emotional connection between the fans and the show (and thus between the fans and Dan Harmon). This Community leaves me feeling detached. It's not a good feeling, to sit down looking to spend time with some fictional friends, and to leave each week feeling like something is slightly off, something is missing, and the spark is gone. At this point, all I can say is I hope Dean Craig Robinson's giant spider thing doesn't completely derail next week's finale. I'd like a quiet moment with the characters I've loved for four years before the show heads off into that good night, for a summer, or forever. Let's hope that finale lets me feel just a little bit of that Community magic again. Because after 12 episodes of this shambling zombie, I'm about to put a bullet in a thing I once loved before it eats me whole.

Grade: B-


-Well, the end of that got darker than I expected. Not putting bullets in anything, I promise! Also, realizing I could just edit that right now...yup...I could...but I won't. Also also, despite the fact that I will almost certainly not write about a theoretical fifth season of this show from week to week, I think I would probably still watch it.

-"Britta, we're done. I had a hamburger the other day, and suddenly I'm not cold all the time."

-"I had six different reconstructive surgeries!" "I had to smile when I didn't feel like smiling. That hurts my face!"

-"You were the one at the mall!" "You got me busted for drugs!" "You were out there somewhere and you weren't looking for me?"

-"I tried sawing Jeff's arm off..." "Why do you keep saying that?"

-"I wanted to write a prequel and I ruined everything. I guess it could happen to anyone. I should probably write George Lucas a note of apology..." "Ok, let's not get crazy here."

-"This better not awaken anything in me..." A call back to one of my favorite jokes!

-I really do hope the finale knocks it out of the park next week. Let's all meet back here in seven days and talk it out, yeah? Who's bringing the chips and dip?
Tags: Community
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