At the start of the most recent episode of "Community," all seems strangely quiet and happy for once at the crisis-ridden, surreal bin for the dysfunctional that is Greendale Community College. This freaks out Abed, the pop culture savant who serves as the show's meta narrator, like a twisted TV version of the Stage Manager from "Our Town."
"There's always a story!" Abed cries as he falls to his knees in the school's oddly quiet hallway, the past site of a massive blanket fort, paintball wars and a zombie attack. "Everything is a story!"
For Abed, his very being is predicated on frequent misadventures he can process in TV or movie terms. For fans of "Community," Abed's existential crisis marks a sign that we could be nearing the end of the story.
"Community" caps its fifth season on NBC Thursday as the characters wage a fight to save Greendale – and, perhaps, the show. It's a familiar position for a program a devoted, but modest fan base tunes into knowing every season finale could be the series finale.
"Community" debuted in 2009 with a mission to turn – or bounce, as in the episode featuring a hidden trampoline with a Prozac-like effect – TV storytelling upside down, constantly buffeting sitcom conventions.
The show survived lackluster ratings, cast departures (Chevy Chase and Donald Glover) and hiatuses to close in on the creative team's goal of "six seasons and a movie" – a message seen on a white board during the Season 4 finale.
The current season has proved even more self-referential, beginning with a debut episode called, “Repilot,” a nod to the characters’ post-graduation return to Greendale to rescue the school. It also might have been a nod to “Community” creator Dan Harmon’s return, after being ousted for a season, to save the show following an unfairly maligned fourth season.
Season 5 has yielded some vintage bizarrely entertaining episodes, including an epic Dungeons & Dragons game that revived the program's recurring theme of fathers clashing with sons. Harmon showed up in a recent installment animated in the style of the old “G.I. Joe” cartoon, featuring Abed as a character called “Fourth Wall.”
There’s nothing subtle about the name – or the plot that takes us to what could be the series’ final episode Thursday. Greendale, finally in good shape, gets taken over by the Subway sandwich chain, and is rechristened “Subway University” – offering product placement (and a cameo by Subway pitchman Jared Fogle) while mocking product placement.
Even worse, it looks like Greendale/Subway might be sold to developers. But there’s hope: Dean Pelton found a treasure map behind a portrait in his office that could save the day.
So Abed has a new story to dive into – but it might be his last. As we await what could be the final timeline for “Community,” check out a preview below:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.