A Pierce-ing Change: How Chevy Chase’s Absence Affects The Narrative Of ‘Community’
Last week, the years-long drama between Chevy Chase and the creative minds of Community came to a head, when it was announced he was leaving the show with two episodes left to be filmed in the fourth season. At this point, it’s hardly an unexpected move – and with the affect on set morale and cast chemistry, probably a necessary one – but it raises a very important question about the overarching plot of the show: how can Community come to a conclusion without Pierce?
Community, for all its themed episodes and meta references, is really a show about growth and maturity. At the heart of this is Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), the de facto protagonist and the emotional core of the show. When we meet him in the pilot, he’s at his lowest point: banned from practicing law, he’s relegated to being a local community college student. He loses his job, his apartment, and his way of life, the material comforts that allowed him to wade in shallow emotional waters. Which eventually pits him against the biggest personal problem he’s been avoiding his entire adult life: the absence of his father, and how it defined him as a person.
In a man’s life (whether on film, or not), one of the most important moments in his life is the reconciliation with his father, a relationship that unquestionably becomes tarnished in a boy’s teenage years – or in the case of Jeff, a relationship he never gets to develop at all, thanks to an absent con-man father. From the pilot episode, the show’s made it pretty clear that Jeff’s daddy issues are what hold him back as a man, what keep him from finally accepting and loving himself for who he is. And in the continued absence of his father, Jeff took solace in the one place that made sense: the man in their group from the previous generation, Pierce Hawthorne.
Jeff and Pierce’s relationship – while not always explicitly shown – is the most important relationship on the show, hands down. Jeff’s impatience with Pierce, his off-handed insults… these are all by-products of him associating Pierce with his father. There’s a reason why Harmon put Winger and Hawthorne together in the second episode: establishing that dynamic was key to getting the show’s true narrative off the ground: the redemption of Jeff Winger, something that CANNOT be complete without clearing that final internal hurdle, and coming to peace with his hatred and rejection of his father.
This was a theme visited quite frequently in season two – most notably in “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”, where Pierce tries to make Jeff sweat by teasing him with the presence of his father. And even though it was placed on the back burner of season 3 (possibly due to the growing tension between Chase and Harmon, though I’m projecting here) it still held paramount importance to the plot. Although we may never know the intention, there were a lot of hints that Pierce was sliding down the slope of senility, possibly starting the clock towards his death (an event I could’ve seen happening this season, had Harmon remained in charge of the narrative).
It makes a lot of sense: the show seemed to be heading ever-so-slightly away from college, suggesting that the Greendale 7 might find themselves graduating at the end of season four (although I’d argue their graduation should be the series finale, regardless of how many seasons it continues). If that was the case, the Pierce/Jeff relationship could’ve become front and center on the show: a dying Pierce would represent a dying father in Jeff’s eyes, presenting itself as the perfect opportunity to reconcile the characters, closing the hole in Jeff’s heart and completing an important emotional landmark for an adult man. This, combined with their possible graduation, would finish the arc in more than a satisfying way.
The news of Jeff Winger’s father making an appearance this season disappointed me – but the news of Pierce leaving disappointed me even more. On some level, I have to wonder if Chevy Chase missed the point of his character entirely: after all, he robbed himself of the same cathartic moment. The tag of last season’s ‘Digital Estate Planning’ (the 8-bit video game episode) was supposed to feature a digitized Pierce playing catch with a digitized version of his father, a program Abed created specifically for Pierce. That scene was supposed to bring Pierce’s emotional journey with his own father full circle – but as many of us know, his ignorance and difficult nature robbed himself, the character, and the show of that important moment.
Without Pierce, Community is missing not only an integral part of its ensemble cast, but single-handedly, the most important entity to the journey of Jeff Winger (some could argue his absence will also have a negative effect on Shirley’s (Yvette Nicole Brown) character, where the majority of Pierce’s interactions stem from). It’s generally recognized this is probably Community’s last season, and Chase will only be absent from two episodes – not including the already-filmed season finale – so it’s possible we could see Jeff finally forgive his father through Pierce during the season (or face to face with his father, which would be a dire mistake by the writers). Without that moment, Jeff’s character arc will forever remain incomplete, robbing him – and us as an audience – of the show’s ultimate resolution, a disappointing conclusion to one of the best, most heartfelt comedies of our generation.
– Randy Dankievitch