A season finale is more than a conclusion. It is the culmination of an entire season of television—an opportunity to look back at how far a show and its characters have come. When I think of shows that have come a long way this season, NBC’s Community tops the list.  Why? I think the show speaks pretty cleverly for itself, but if you require additional evidence, I have that, too. First, it has brought Chevy Chase back to current pop culture from his self-imposed exile in the top 10 most formulaic cult comedies ever made. The fact that most of these movies are widely popular and purposely designed with a high slapstick quotient doesn’t necessarily make us like them more. (Don’t hate me. I never said I liked them less, either.) Second, Community has managed to make community college look like the cool choice. A whole generation of hard-core, Ivy League-bound academic overachievers watching Community is now disillusioned about the college search and experience. 

The gang from Greendale Community College has come a long way since their first clash of personalities (read: near-brawl) in the study room. In that moment, Jeff (Joel McHale) stepped into his role as group leader and, raising his voice to be heard above the melee, stated that the life experiences of each group member—Annie (Alison Brie), the troubled perfectionist, Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), the religious single mom, Pierce (Chevy Chase), the filter-less borderline misanthrope, Troy (Donald Glover), the struggling former star athlete, Abed (Danny Pudi), the socially awkward film geek, and Britta (Gillian Jacobs), the extremely opinionated and attractive woman—were worthy of the group’s respect. Everyone listened, some smiled and nodded in agreement when Jeff declared their group not a study group but a community, but right then the difference between the two was only semantics. It was a nice idea as long as they didn’t have to do anything differently.

For his part, Jeff just wanted to hook up with Britta. We saw the hook-up coming a light-year away and we’re willing to bet no one thought it wouldn’t happen until episode 23: “Modern Warfare.” Still, something else about this episode caught my attention. Clearly, the group that had once only studied together had slowly morphed into a true community. During campus-wide paintball wars, the members of the Spanish study group functioned as a unit, sacrificing themselves one by one so one of their own could claim the prize of priority registration. When Jeff won, he gave his prize to Shirley, who as a single mom had the most to gain from being able to guarantee her class schedule. Everyone was surprised since Jeff claims to do everything for his own benefit and appears least attached to the group. In particular, Britta said to Jeff after this turn of events, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” Jeff answered: “I didn’t either.” There have been quite a few moments this season in the journey from study group to community that we couldn’t see coming in that first battle around the study room tables.

Community’s characters have evolved into true community because of their willingness to defend each other in a variety of situations. Early on, Jeff represented Britta at an academic hearing after Britta cheated. Later, members of the group backed up Abed when his father visited and was less than pleased with Abed’s choice to pursue a career in film. Britta helped Jeff prove himself to his skeptical girlfriend using a message left on Britta’s phone by a very drunk Jeff. During the holidays, Jeff and the gang again found themselves in the midst of confrontation. Out of respect for Shirley’s personal and religious beliefs, Jeff actually tried to avoid the fight, but that just got him beat up to the point that Shirley told Jeff to fight back, Christmas or not. Then the whole group went on the attack with Jeff, even Shirley. (Look out! Under that devout, sweetness-and-light exterior, Mama Bear is ready for battle.)

Finally, Community has evolved this season as its characters transitioned from a hodgepodge of misfits to a circle of friends. It’s been a long journey from the first day in the study room to Annie’s how-long-will-participants-stay-in-the-room psychology experiment, which Abed ruined, because he stayed exactly as Annie asked because she said they were friends. The journey continued through an awkward, tender moment between Jeff and Pierce in which Jeff declared, “If you have friends, you have family.” Perhaps the ultimate in Community’s journey of friendship was when this made family seized the chicken finger to become a mafia family.

At some stage of the journey or another, almost every member of the group has either opted out or been pushed away for a time, but the missing group member has always been missed and has always come back. The members of the group have learned that, as unlikely as it seems, each of them needs all the others. Who cares if we found in the penultimate episode of the season that, in nine months of studying Spanish as a group, Community’s gang has learned next to nothing about Spanish or studying? Not to mention that in the end, what Community’s characters have learned about living in community with each other is far more important and more entertaining—enough to make me want to tune in tonight for the season finale and maybe enough to keep me wondering about next season’s journey all summer. Anthropology, anyone?