“You moved dirt around Greendale’s grave!” roars school board villain Carl (“That’s right, we’ve got names!”) at the conclusion of Community’s fifth season finale, “Basic Sandwich.” “Your school is still bankrupt! It is still unmarketable! And it is still on the permanent chopping block of anyone who has any say in its future!” You don’t often hear schools called “unmarketable,” nor that they’re on the “chopping block,” but those are terms thrown around in the world of television—and thus they were appropriate to end an episode where the most meta show on television continued to out-meta itself. Frankly, I haven’t heard a television show comment more explicitly on its own shaky future than the second season (and, unfortunately, series) finale of Sports Night, which included the line, “Anybody who can’t make money off Sports Night should get out of the money-making business.”
But we’ll get back to that. “Basic Sandwich” picks up right where last week’s “Basic Story” left off: with the gang attempting to save the school by discovering the hidden treasure of founder, “anti-deoderant activist, and millionaire” Russell Borchert (played by Chris Elliot, doing a character who’s weird even by Chris Elliot standards). “We’re like the Goonies, except our story tracks logically,” Abed says, as he and the Dean move seamlessly into a gag about how the characters in that movie all talk at the same time. As with the “G.I. Jeff” episode, Community remains your go-to source for very funny jabs at thirty-year-old popular culture.
The outcome of their mission isn’t much of a surprise—though it’s not a total gimme, considering the show’s considerable melancholy and occasional interest in blowing itself up—but this has never really been a show about tight narrative anyway. From the beginning, the greatest pleasure of Community has been the sheer density of its jokes, the golden-age-of-Simpsons volume of funny bits thrown at the screen in rapid-fire succession, no reference too odd or esoteric. “Basic Sandwich” has as many gags-per-minute as you could ask for: the reference to Big Chief Drunky, “the school’s first and least acceptable mascot”; the posted debate topic that solidifies the ‘70s time capsule element, “Who’s hotter, Elliot Gould or Donald Sutherland?”; “It was a weird time, The Bionic Woman won an Emmy”; the hilariously on-the-nose “Open The Door” by The Secret Doors; and the priceless background visual of the Dean nearly choking to death on a ‘70s children’s toy.
The sheer time spent laughing out loud at “Basic Sandwich” reminded this viewer of the relief that accompanied such non-stop chuckling back at the beginning of this abbreviated season, with “Repilot.” That rat-tat-tat timing was something that the “gas leak year” could never recapture, no matter how hard it tried—but that wasn’t the only bit of mojo Community got back this year. This is a show that loves its characters, and that has, at its best, somehow managed to balance that wink-wink joke-joke spirit with affection and concern for the people at its center. It’s a little remarkable how understated and lovely the “blast of human passion” scene is; writer Ryan Ridley and director Rob Schrab don’t push the point, and much of what happens there is not remarked upon (including the fact that the last, simple interaction is between Jeff and Annie, which is interesting).
The fact that the show maintains a connection to its characters, and their emotional lives, is all the more remarkable when taking into account that, in this season, Community has become even more preoccupied with itself. It’s not just throwaway gags, like the Dean’s reaction to Jeff and Britta’s possible wedding (“What does this look like, an hour-long episode of The Office?!?”). It’s in long bits like Annie and Abed’s “development” conversation, where Abed comforts his friend and roommate thus: “It isn’t just their show. This is our show. And it’s not over. And the sooner we find the treasure, the sooner the Jeff-Britta pilot falls apart.” The more you think about the way this show is multi-tasking, the more remarkable it becomes: the show is entirely self-aware, borderline indulgent, and thus the characters can increasingly only be seen as constructs, elements in an increasingly transparent illusion. And yet we still care about them as people—even when they’re literally doing takes to camera, as Abed does after stating (for Annie and for the audience) “We’ll definitely be back next year.” Well, here’s hoping.