Community and the Fear of Growing Up

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

When I finished watching Community a few years ago, I was struck with a feeling of loss so strong I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. It wasn’t the first time I was mourning a TV show or a book, coming back to the emptiness of reality, to a world in which the characters I loved didn’t exist, but Community to me always had this added sense of melancholy I didn’t fully understand. It was only a silly sitcom about a study group in a community college, with a profusion of pop culture references that were lost on me for the most part, so how could it make me so happy and so sad at the same time?

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Then I stumbled upon this quote in a review by Emily Todd VanDerWerff: “Greendale doesn’t exist; it can’t exist. But the show makes it feel like it’s just around the corner, and if we somehow finally made it there, we’d be among our people. We’d feel, just a bit, at home.” I now understood what made this show so comforting. Community is about finding a family among your friends, finding a home away from home, finding a place where you’re accepted and loved. It is no accident that one of the recurring songs heard throughout the show is called ‘Greendale is where I belong’ (composed by Ludwig Göransson), and that it is notably playing in the last episode when Jeff returns to the now-empty study room.

This episode shows Jeff struggling with his friends’ imminent departure from Greendale. Annie just got an internship for the FBI and Abed (a character defined by his aversion to change) announces he’s moving to LA. The thought of parting with them is unbearable to Jeff. It’s a great conclusion to his storyline, a testimony to his growth: six seasons ago, he started off as a vain, cynical, self-absorbed lawyer pretending he didn’t care about anything or anyone and secretly terrified of being past his prime. In that respect, he is Wendy from Peter Pan: at the news that she has to move out of the nursery she shares with her baby brothers, she invents an imaginary island of pirates and mermaids, a world in which childhood never ends – similar to Greendale with its chaotic, nonsensical adventures, paintball and pillow forts.

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However, every member of the study group ended up in Greendale because they had failed somewhere down the line. Community college was an opportunity for them to change into a better version of themselves – which they did. Now they must move on to bigger, better things so they can continue to grow. Once Jeff accepts this, his character development will be complete and there won’t be any more stories to tell. Then the pivotal moment of the episode: Jeff and Annie’s last talk, a brilliant piece of dialogue.

Annie represents everything Jeff isn’t: she’s young, caring, passionate, driven and idealistic. Community never shied away from addressing the age gap between them, especially in the first seasons when their difference in maturity is jarring. Annie has a ‘schoolgirl’ crush on him, whereas Jeff’s attraction towards her can be interpreted as a borderline creepy attempt to cling to his youth. In episode two of season three, she tells him: “I don’t want to grow up if it means losing what we have”, to which Jeff replies: “Well, tough, Annie. You have to grow up because the world needs more women like you.” Here, Jeff is the one teaching the inexperienced, bright-eyed Annie a lesson. This perfectly mirrors their conversation in the finale. “I want to be twenty-five and heading out into the world”, Jeff says. Annie then explains to him why he shouldn’t envy her: “There’s pressures on me you don’t have to live under. If you accept that… you’re older.” The roles are reversed: they have moved on from their unhealthy dynamic and Annie is now the one telling Jeff he has to grow up “and let the kid stuff go.”

“I let you go, Annie.” Wendy does end up leaving Neverland when she realises that Peter, because he will never grow up, will never change, as he cannot learn from his mistakes, and therefore will never be able to love her in a mature, adult way. Similarly, no matter how much Jeff wishes they could all stay in Greendale forever and keep going on fun adventures together, he understands that him and Annie are at different stages of life, and she needs to make her own way into the world before she can ever truly love him back.

The last episode of Community is not only an homage to TV, but also some of the show’s best writing.  It encapsulates the fear that comes with feeling that you’re growing old, the difficulty of letting go, and how bittersweet it all is. Sometimes, finishing a beloved TV show or book feels like leaving home; it feels like leaving childhood behind. But the best thing we can do is follow Annie’s advice. Accept that everything has to end, and let the kid stuff go.

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-Valentine Naude

Feature Image: @NetflixIsAJoke

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