“Keep fighting the story. Keep fighting it until it falls apart.”
A bearded version of Abed said this to the real (non-bearded) version himself while on the Joseph Campbell hero journey of last week’s lead-up to the fifth season finale of Community, “Basic Sandwich,” and dammit that is what he did.
There is a lot that happens in this final episode of 2014, all of it is extremely meta and not much of it matters outside of manufacturing a situation for the characters to show each other what’s really important here: love for one another and a sixth season followed by a movie.
It is ridiculous, self-reflexive, funny, convoluted, and filled with Dean (so much beautiful Dean), but the most important thing that “Basic Sandwich” does is declare victory. It’s too bad that it just barely misses the mark on what could have been a tear jerking ending by leaving a specific main character – who’s been part of the group since the beginning – out of the finale’s emotional climax.
This week we break the steady rhythm that Dan Harmon had established of opening most non-parody episodes at the Table Mk II, celebrating a small victory. Instead we’re treated to an exposition dump that sets the stakes for the final twenty-something minutes of season five via reel-to-reel projection of the life and love of Russell Bochert: the founder of Greendale played by guest star Chris Elliot.
The first dean of Greendale – rumoured to have died from the world’s first computer virus which he contracted from having sex with a lady CPU of his own making – apparently harboured a secret vault in this old office which holds in it buried treasure. If the Save Greendale Committee can get to it in time, then they can buy the school out from under Subway and Dean can really go nuts with the place.
Buzz and Shirley enter with the blueprints they requisitioned from city hall, revealing that not only does Greendale look exactly like Duncan’s penis (which looks exactly like a bunch of scattered buildings), but there is a sealed-off stairwell underneath the teachers’ lounge that leads to the original computer sciences department.
After the credits roll, the team is already on the trail of the treasure, Buzz toting along a pickaxe for good measure. Chang is on their tail, listening in as Hickey digs a hole in the wall with his old prospector tool to reveal wires which Duncan electrocutes himself on.
Dean, caught up in the excitement of a treasure hunt, wonders if the sparks could spell out the next clue, when Jeff calls for a stop to the madcap scheme to run away from closure, and everybody rolls their eyes at his plan to get married with Britta
“What is this? An hour long episode of The Office?” accuses Dean before Abed finds a secret trap door that will lead the Committee back in time to the Greendale of decades past.
The line is the kind of jab we’ve come to expect from Community from time to meta-time, targeted at more conventional and higher rated TV sitcoms. It’s also a small bit of foreshadowing as to what is happening in this episode, which acts as a sort of mission statement for a saved Greendale.
Buzz, as always, has rope with him and the gang use it to descend into Lower Greendale just in time so that when the bigger and (presumably) drunker of the villainous school board bros busts down the door, all he finds is Hickey and Shirley having a tea party.
Coming back from the first commercial, Britta, Abed, Jeff, Annie and Dean are in the dark, possibly killer-robot filled corridors of Greendale Computery College, determined to leave no 70’s reference (pet rock) unturned.
Splitting up, Abed and Annie go one way as Jeff and Britta go the other and we get the meta-message that the season finale of a Dan Harmon show has to have. Annie is feeling betrayed by her re-engaged older friends and Abed consoles her by describing it in terms of a television metaphor. Jeff and Britta are trying to spin off into something safe (that would probably only last about six episodes), and its not going to work.
“It isn’t just their show,” consoles Abed. “It’s our show.”
Annie commences a kiss lean, and Abed rebuffs her with the reminder that he has a girlfriend now.
The party reconnects in another room with a jukebox that, when tasked with playing “Open The Door” by The Secret Doors, reveals – you guessed it – a secret door leading to the office of Russell Bochert. The old dean is still alive, living with his robot creation and artificial lover Raquel.
Abed immediately catches the first Dean of Greendale up on contemporary pop culture by ripping off some bandaids, informing him of Dennis Hopper’s death, that TV shows get no time for theme songs anymore, and of Woody Allen’s role in Antz. The last of these milestones causes the reclusive computer engineer to go mad with the rage of a man who has lost everything and Jeff accidentally knocks the old guy unconscious (“I lose track how big I’m getting.”)
Meanwhile, up above, Chang paces behind the school board goons as they interrogate Buzz and Shirley, trying to trivialize the craziness that their friends get into on a weekly basis. This leads to a very funny, ridiculous and unprecedented sequence in which Richie projects himself into Buzz’s mind in order to rob it of secrets.
This psychedelic mind trick gives him a false lead (but, as we find out in the show’s conclusion, he’s actually closer than you’d think), and a Subway sandwich artist finds the trap door anyway.
The school board and Chang find everyone else just after they have been given the millions of Gerald Ford era dollars (worth millions back in the 70’s), and they destroy Roquel with a fridge magnet shaped like a pickle.
Chang has a moment in the sun at this point, confessing that there is more to his betrayal than meets the eye. But when he discovers that he is infact not wearing a Mission: Impossible style mask he concedes, “I think I’m just mentally ill.”
Act two comes to a close with the Dean of the present and the Dean of the past, alone with Britta, Annie, Abed and Jeff sealed in an underground office with a dead computer and a limited supply of food and water, of which Annie relinquishes her share when Jeff and Britta reaffirm their delusions of spinning off. She would rather die than play live studio audience to live tapings of Better With My Worse Half, or Tying the Not.
It turns out that the emotional components of Raquel are still functional, as demonstrated by Russell Bochert who puts on a neuro-control helmet and rubs his nipples until the digital face of his robot flashes a smile.
This is a demonstration of Bochert’s original intent in starting Greendale: to allow people to access technology. This gives Jeff an idea, and as he looks for proof that this maniac has some sort of land rights that could be used as leverage against Subway’s acquisition, Britta shows the old dean a cat video on YouTube confirming that his worst fears have been avoided.
He was worried that if computers were running the place that the world would be run by emotionless egg heads on top and idiots with feelings on the bottom. But the idiots won with emoticons and lolcats.
Jeff finds the deed to Greendale and Russell reveals that a blast of human passion might give Raquel the capability of opening the secret door with her still functioning emotional core.
This being the perfect time for the show to manufacture an emotional climax to the episode, Jeff puts on the brain scanning headgear and looks each of his companions in the eyes. Each one gets a character appropriate inner monologue quote and Winger’s love for his friends opens the singing passageway.
The connection is touching, reaffirming that the stakes of Community are built on the real emotional connections these characters have with each other despite their crazy sitcom circumstances. This is an especially poignant message since this season saw two series regulars – Pierce and Troy – depart for good.
Something’s missing though, stifling the scene’s potential. Shirley isn’t here to be included, and to a lesser extent, neither is Hickey. For plot purposes it worked,and the message was delivered, but after all the Save Greendale Committee has been through this year, the emotional beat feels incomplete without the last remaining member of the Greendale Seven and the breakout new cast member of the show.
This allows everyone to get out just in time to scare Subway away with the introduction of Russell as the vice dean of Greendale effectively saving the school by virtue of the fact that the sandwich company doesn’t like conflict.
Starburns hits play on his Dave Matthews Band CD – the Greendale shorthand for victory – Jeff and Britta high-five their wedding fever away, Chang is trusted with depositing the school board’s duffel bag of money but buys diamond teeth instead and Abed assures Annie (and the rest of us) that everyone we love will be back next year.
“And that’s cannon,” says Abed, looking us all in they eye as we break out our “six seasons and a movie” t-shirts and type out our hashtags, praying that an asteroid doesn’t strike Earth and kill us all in the off-season.
And that’s season five. The finale did not exemplify the show at its best, unlike many of the previous twelve episodes which did. It had emotion and laughs, but the ridiculous factor was cranked up a little too far in the name of an allegory that might fall flat on those unfamiliar with Community’s network struggles.
Having the story revolve around the characters finding the man who created Greendale in order to scare away advertisers with promises that his inner thoughts will find their way onto the Internet, leaving the college declared unviable and back on the chopping block of the school board, is a clever and meticulously constructed parable about Dan Harmon’s return to Community, but boy-oh-boy is that some inside baseball.
That doesn’t really matter though, “Basic Sandwich” more than anything is a declaration of victory, and one that’s well earned.
That image in the final scene- a to-do star that says “Save Greendale” being stuck on the done board – elicits a feeling of rightness in the world. Season five of Community had many more ups (hot lava, the Ass Crack Bandit, the Fat Dog dance) than it had downs (the cartoon that happened in Jeff’s head), and despite having to deal with cast departures and a giant list of things to fix after the gas leak year, Dan Harmon did save Greendale.
Final Grade: Millions of Gerald Ford dollars to be spent on diamonds for the replacement of teeth.