If you revisit the first episode of “Community,” there’s surprisingly little indication of how amazingly strange the show would become, and certainly no clue that three seasons it would come to include a stop-motion holiday special, three epic installments based on paintball competitions and compulsively detailed odes to mockumentaries, “Glee,” flashback episodes and “My Dinner with Andre.”
In the pilot, Joel McHale’s Jeff is just an egotistical jerk who sets up a fake study group in an attempt to woo Gillian Jacobs’s Britta, who’s portrayed as a typical pretty voice-of-reason who promises to make our hero a better person in his pursuit of her. It’s more their show than an ensemble, its straightforward in style and noticably sitcommy in its premise and introduction of characters, despite a few nods to the fact that it might be more pop culture-aware than your average series — Abed (Danny Pudi) breaks into a fight the group is having with an impression of John Bender in “The Breakfast Club,” and Jeff, after an aside to a bewildered stranger, apologizes to her by saying “I was raised on TV, and I was conditioned to believe that every black woman over 50 is a cosmic mentor.”
“Digital Estate Planning,” the episode that kicked off last night’s three-part season finale, is so far from that jokey television self-referentialism and standard structure that it’s hard to imagine it’s part of the same show as that pilot, or that it was ever magically approved for network primetime. Shaped around the efforts of Pierce (Chevy Chase) to get control of the inheritance left him by his oppressive, racist father, the episode was set almost entirely inside a video game done in immaculate 8- and 16-bit style with gestures to “Super Mario Bros. 2,” “EarthBound” and others.
It was loaded with gameplay in-jokes like Annie (Alison Brie) accidentally murdering the blacksmith and misspellings like “savines” instead of “savings” in the text, a not uncommon occurrence in games of that era, especially imports. To label the show’s ventures like this gimmicky or indulgent is to overlook their obsessive eye for detail, one also shown off recently in the “Law & Order”-spoofing “Basic Lupine Urology.” “Community” doesn’t just make in-jokes or allow references to be their own end — the show is too careful and too familiar with the pop culture it’s citing for the word “reference” to even seem fair, when in this case what’s clearly going on is an homage.
I was thrilled to see “Community” get picked up for another season, even a short one, not just because it’s one of the most structurally daring comedies on television but because it uses its unabashedly geeky depth of pop knowledge as a way to showcase its characters, again and again. As a culture, we’re so soaked in television, film, gaming and music in general and specifically in nostalgia for what was happening in each of those mediums in our formative years that to allow allusions to those things to creep into a show’s storylines is only to offer a heightened look at how people actually communicate.
But it can also be isolating, and “Community” has been challenged as inaccessible before because of these tendencies — and looking at “Digital Estate Planning,” which includes a gag in which avatar Pierce accidentally starts digging himself into the ground in a panic about his controls, it’s hard not to agree a least a little. But the show aims to be more than just a series of referential excursions — if it demanded exclusive familiarity with everything it was referencing, the only audience member would be creator Dan Harmon.
“Community” has lasted because it’s as consistent with its own universe as it is with the different properties it references — it has built a world that is utterly bizarre but also thoroughly thought out and stable. It may make surreal excursions into the subculture of the Air Conditioning Repair Annex, an ongoing storyline brought into the forefront in the finale “Introduction to Finality,” which found Troy (Donald Glover) temporarily submitting to his destiny as the True Repairman and battling over A/C units in the Sun Chamber, but it develops these ideas as steadily as any more typical narrative development, planting seeds and coming up with a complete (if ridiculous) mythology.
The same is true of Evil Abed, a reference to the clever “Remedial Chaos Theory” earlier in the season, which presented different possible outcomes based on the roll of a die, including the “dark” timeline in which terrible things happen and Abed has taken to signalling his villainy with a goatee (itself a nod to the “Mirror, Mirror” episode of “Star Trek”). It was brought back not just as a callback but as a way to symbolize Abed’s psychological distress — like the other characters, he doesn’t feel complete with his best friend sequestered at the trade school.
Consistency of mythology can be looked at as a bad thing — it’s a show’s self-reflexive equivalent of a pop culture reference, one that presumes you’ve been watching faithfully all along. But it isn’t just a way to reward longtime viewers who can catch an in-joke, its a means of acknowledging serialized storytelling, that things progress and change and that a series and its characters have a history that’s played out on screen. A sitcom is in its very nature fairly static, but that doesn’t mean that it has to ignore its own past. And “Community” has miraculously managed to have a memory in a way that few on-screen comedies do, and that, in addition to its wonderful weirdness, is something to be saluted.