Like a great many other Community fans, I persevered through the lacklustre Dan Harmon-less season four, happy to spend any time I could get with the Greendale gang, even if they did feel like rather soulless facsimiles of the wacky, insane and ultimately loveable people I had grown to love over three wildly imaginative seasons.
I should be thankful I reasoned that I have them with me at all since there was a very real possibility at the end of season 3 that NBC would pull the plug, consigning Community to that sorry club of brilliant, innovative shows that failed to find a wide enough mainstream audience and were punished for their ratings transgressions.
That NBC kept it around for a fourth season under the tutelage of replacement showrunners Moses Port and David Guarascio, who were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t, was a miracle granted but as I watched episode after episode, I couldn’t help wondering if it – GASP! – might have been better if Community had shuffled off this mortal televisual coil.
I began increasingly to agree with the sentiment expressed in a hitfix article by well regarded television critic Alan Sepinwall:
“Other than a “Freaky Friday” riff penned by co-star (and Oscar-winning screenwriter) Jim Rash, and perhaps the one where the study group was transformed into singing puppets, the episodes were forgettable, and a few so bad they made one wish the show had been canceled rather than kept around in zombie form.”
So the news that Community was not only getting a wholly unexpected fifth season, and with the show’s idiosyncratic creator Dan Harmon back in charge was like all my stop motion Christmases come at once and I readied myself for the return of the show I loved, paintball gun in hand, fully expecting the show to be exactly as it was at the end of season three.
But that overlooked one salient fact.
There was an intervening season in between numbers three and five, and unless Dan Harmon planned to go all Bobby Ewing from Dallas on Community and pretend that season four had taken place while Jeff Whinger (Joel McHale) has been in the shower – an appealing prospect especially for the Dean (Jim Rash) – he had to take it into account, fundamentally altering the show as he allowed for the graduation of Jeff and the others, Chang’s weird takeover of the school and sundry other big and small details.
Harmon couldn’t understandably just pick up where he left off and season five would be an entirely different creature than it would have been had Harmon’s creative reign continued unabated through season four.
And so it is that we arrive at the first two episodes of season five, “Repilot”, replete with clever meta references to the much-maligned Scrubs season nine and Troy’s (Dan Glover) upcoming departure from the group, and “Introduction to Teaching” in which Jeff has to decide if he is a Greendale teacher or simply marking time till he can next escape the college he both embraces and detests in seemingly equal measure.
Both episodes contained far more of the old Community than did season four in its entirety with fan-pleasing returns to Annie’s (Alison Brie) fastidiousness, Abed’s (Danny Pudi) obsession with pop culture as an all-encompassing metaphor for life, the Dean’s obsession with Jeff, Britta’s (Gillian Jacobs) well-meaning self-delusion, Shirley’s (Yvette Nicole Brown) religious piety (and love of Hellraiser), a touching moment here or there (especially between Shirley and Abed) and of course, a riot.
What would a season of Community be like without a riot, in this case one for “slightly higher grades”, a hilariously lightweight reason to rally against the established order if ever there was one.
Much of it was vintage Community, a real sense that Dan Harmon was back among the Greendale Human Beings and all was well with the world.
But let’s be honest, as the self-referential, knowing title of the first episode acknowledged, Harmon is essentially re-launching the show, and with Jeff now a teacher, Chevy Chase’s Pierce Hawthorne gone baby gone (although he does appear in holographic form at one point) and the gang having to re-enrol in the school all over again, it isn’t exactly the same show we farewelled at the end of season three.
And that is going to take some adjusting I think.
Granted Harmon did a customarily fine job of re-setting the narrative clock, and bringing everyone back around the study room table – although it is now the table “Mark 2” after a characteristically over-zealous desire to break with the past turned the first one into ashes – and essentially to the same people they were more or less back at the start of season one, but it still felt a little off, not quite the show I knew.
But that’s not such a bad thing as Kevin McFarland beautifully underlines in a post on boing boing:
“… like the initial batch of episodes that opened Community back in the first season, they show promise. Jeff’s “Winger Speech” at the end of the second episode fails because he’s now a teacher, and that plays into Harmon’s overall goal of the show to depict the difficulties of perpetual transition. These characters are still in the same crazy location, with the same crazy people, yearning for personal growth and change in a welcoming and nurturing environment. And that desire for self-improvement is still as admirable as it is hilarious when ridiculously contrived scenarios borrowed from established entertainment genres sidetrack that progress.”
It is darker, the dynamic by necessity is different since Jeff and his one time study partners are now on different sides of the fence – although cleverly all on the Save Greendale committee, giving everyone a good reason to meet around the study table once more – and there are some new faces, most notably Jonathan Banks as the Criminology professor Buzz Hickey who harbours an unspoken desire to draw cartoon ducks.
No, this is not the Community we once knew, and that is unsettling even if I intellectually know it can’t possibly be, but enough of it remains to show real promise and I am cautiously optimistic about what lies ahead.
We may yet get to the much-hyped and fabled #sixseasonsandamovie.