"So this is it? A banner and some soda Troy forgot to bring?"
Pretty much anything would look good after last week's debacle, which is a good thing if "Advanced Introduction To Finality" turns out to be the show's series finale. It's a decent episode for the most part, but with (spoiler!) most of it being a figment of Jeff's imagination, it's a bit of a mixed bag as a FINALE - most of the last 21 minutes we might spend with these folks didn't happen? But if I had to guess, the writers had the option of doing one last great episode that would have critics saying how brilliant the show is and how everyone's a jerk for not watching it, or of doing one that those die hard fans, the ones who stage flash-mobs and wear felt goatees in protest, could call their own. And if that's true, they went with option B.
It's no surprise how it kicks off - Jeff has finished his history class (the confused timing of their classes and semesters is addressed by Pierce, who wonders why it was warm out when they just celebrated Christmas*) and is thus ready to graduate. Being a community college, there's no graduation ceremony - he just has to sign a form and he'll be on his way. But Jeff is noticeably reluctant to accept an offer to work at his old firm, and is seemingly stalling to even finish up the paperwork to officially graduate. He claims he's just worried about Abed not being able to accept the massive change, but Britta tries to relieve him by pointing out that her "therapizing" has really helped him and that he hasn't even brought up the darkest timeline in months (I guess we can just take her word for it; he brought it up LAST WEEK but again who knows how time works here anymore). This gives Jeff an idea to roll a die to see who has to bring the soda for their planned graduation party, and in a nice nod to the show's mostly strong continuity, it lands on a corner thanks to one of the grooves from when Jeff took an axe to the table all the way back in the S3 opener.
From here on the world goes into chaos - Abed knows something will go wrong and it does, as we cut to the Dean's office, where Evil Jeff (sans right arm) materializes in a manner much like the Terminators going back in time. Evil Annie soon follows, and after some misunderstandings and evil people pretending to be the good ones to cause friction, we learn it's all an attempt to keep "Lame" Jeff from turning his back on his law career and staying at Greendale. Luckily for our real heroes, Abed (who has been transported to the evil timeline) has an unlikely ally - Evil Abed, who has seemingly turned good and gives Abed the tool he will need to help return to his own timeline and stop the Evil versions from carrying out their plan. And that tool: you guessed it - a magic paintball gun that can send its victims back to their own timeline. By now, the rest of the Evil study group has crossed over as well, resulting in an all out war that, as Abed puts it, "finally makes paintball cool again".
Now, re-read that last paragraph. It's a bunch of baffling, sci-fi nonsense, right? I never shined on to the "Darkest Timeline" gag as much as some other fans - I love "Remedial Chaos Theory" but felt that anything involving felt goatees should have remained in that episode. It kind of worked in last season's finale because it was centered around Abed merely being weird, and if memory serves we never saw anyone talking to themselves outside of the dreamatorium. But here we have Evil Jeff fighting with real Jeff in the study room, and pretty much everyone (save Pierce; my guess is that Chevy wouldn't have been able to comprehend what was going on and was thus mostly left out of this stuff) facing off against themselves in paintball. Again, it's all a very elaborate dream/hallucination/whatever of Jeff, who is wrestling with his choice and constructing this scenario as a way to deal with it, and on that level it works, but I'd rather he just talked to everyone one on one to make up his mind. Britta and Pierce are not the only ones left on the sidelines; Donald Glover and Yvette Nicole Brown barely have any real role in the episode either, and despite being invited into the group last week, Jeff's still a dick to Chang, who then mysteriously disappears from the graduation ceremony.
Luckily, the "it was all a dream" reveal, while not surprising in the least, makes up for some shoddy plot points. At one point Evil Jeff insults real Annie (who hasn't yet caught on to the ruse), and she runs out of the study room... into the cafeteria, where real Jeff is eating. Rather than wonder how he possibly could have gotten there before her (not to mention ordering food and sitting down), she merely tells him she won't be going to his graduation because of what he just said. So while the reveal also comes with some questions (like, why would Jeff imagine a scenario involving scenes he wasn't present for that serve only to provide Abed with something to explain to him later), it's the lesser of two evils, and Abed even says "Don't bring logic into this", so I'll just go with it. They've earned that much over the years, and I had to remind myself that there wouldn't even BE a fourth season if not for the dedication of the fans that eat the darkest timeline stuff up, and so I guess it's forgivable that they would offer up a half hour that is a strictly fans-only affair.
And there's fan service aplenty. Neil, Vicki, Magnitude, Todd, Leonard, Quendra, and Garrett all appear in wordless cameos at the graduation, which is pretty much everyone that's left as far as the recurring students (Vaughn, Rich, Pavel, and some others have been absent all season) - there's even a wide shot of everyone save Chang and Pierce; the first time so many of them have been on-screen at once. The wipeboard behind Annie and Shirley mentions a "hiatus" in releasing the schedule, and even though he appeared in last week's, it's here we find out that Joe Lo Truglio's character is indeed the "Cash" to Jeff's "Tango", paying off a gag from Season 2. We even get a glimpse at the 5th timeline (the one where Pierce went to get the pizza) in the tag, complete with a joke that recalls the attempt to name a baby Chewbacca. None of this stuff is particularly funny to me, but its endearing in its own way, and in terms of it being a finale, it's not unheard of to bring out the in-jokes for one last hurrah - even Seinfeld did it. I just wish that the writers had remembered that Jeff wasn't the only character we loved and given everyone a nice sendoff just in case (though Britta's admittance of being the one that will miss Jeff the most was very sweet). Pierce decides to graduate as well but no one mentions it in the (very rushed**) epilogue at the study table, and despite focusing much of the previous few episodes on it, no one mentions (I assume?) Shirley's win in the race for valedictorian. CLOSURE, people!
But hopefully it's not the last of it. I can't say I'm excited about the lack of Chevy (one of the two reasons I started watching the show in the first place), but a few episodes near the end (not these two, but certainly the body swap, puppet, and Hawkins dance episodes) proved that the writers could still deliver top notch installments, and the recurring cast has grown enough to hopefully make up for his absence (and that assumes they don't just recast Pierce with another comic actor and get some use out of him that they couldn't have pulled off with Chevy). The weakest season of the show, for sure, but on the whole it wasn't as bad as I originally feared, and out of the 13 there were only three I didn't like (documentary, Christmas, and the origins). This one's amusing enough to qualify as a win (and again, I have a particular aversion to the darkest timeline material that is most certainly not shared by the majority of the fanbase), and ultimately its worst crime is that I want more. Here's hoping.
*They should have dubbed in someone saying he had been recuperating from his kidney transplant and merely missed a few months, but I'd rather just completely ignore last week's episode forever.
**Megan Ganz, who is credited with this episode, said nearly 6 minutes had to be cut for time constraints, so I'm guessing this would be one of the scenes that unfortunately had to be pared down. Parks, 30 Rock, and Office all got extended finales, but what may be the series finale of Community gets a half hour so they can throw on an Office repeat.
"So this is it? A banner and some soda Troy forgot to bring?"