Guys! You guys! Community is back!
“Duh-doy,” I hear some imaginary reader of this article saying. “The season premiere was way back on January 2nd, we’re like halfway through the season already. Where have you been?”
Where I’ve been is watching Community, you weirdly combative figment-slash-strawman I created. And I’m happy to report that heading into the Winter Olympics-induced hiatus, Community has once again returned to the pinnacle of modern episodic sitcom television.
After three seasons garnering a devoted cult following and racking up numerous critical accolades, creator Dan Harmon was unceremoniously ousted from his position as show-runner leading into the fourth season. Despite the best efforts of the cast and the writer’s room, Season Four spent thirteen episodes hobbling between “pale shadow of its former self” and “urinating on the legacy of a once proud television program." By the end it was so reviled that it even made Rolling Stones’ Worst Shows of 2013 list. Then, in one of the odder mea culpas in television history, Harmon was brought back as show-runner for Season 5. Longtime series fans like me were cautiously hopeful, but memories of Changnesia and Abed’s attempt to start a frat had us fearful that Community was beyond saving.
So it with great pleasure that, as a longtime fan of the show, I can say without fear of reproach that Community has returned.
So what is this mysterious thaumaturgy that it seems only Dan Harmon is capable of harnessing? Well, when Harmon appeared at San Diego Comicon last summer, he promised that his first few episodes would be completely character driven, which was something the show desperately needed. The Gas Leak Year (as Abed so helpfully refers to Season Four in the season premiere, “Repilot”) reduced everyone to cartoons, two-dimensional caricatures of the group that we’d come to know in such complexity: Abed makes movie references. Annie’s super determined. Troy is dumb. It was overly simplistic, and despite one or two solid moments (Jeff’s confrontation with his father was the highlight of the season, mostly because Joel McHale fucking nailed it), a complete disservice to both the characters themselves and the fans. Again, I have to say it wasn't malicious – everyone involved in the show was absolutely trying to make the best Community they could. But it’s an interesting failure at best, and nearly unwatchable at its worst.
Five episodes into the new season, we’ve already seen Harmon’s rehabilitation at work. Abed isn’t just a movie nut – he’s got issues, and occasionally does something that is unequivocally outside the ethical norm that must be dealt with. Jeff loves the group like a family, but he’s still a shark, and he loves the influence he has over them as well. Troy Barnes is not dumb – he’s goofy as hell and gullible, sure, but a lot of the silliness he displays stems from his friendship with Abed, and what the freedom of that friendship has allowed him to become. (There’s a whole other post in there about how Troy is the most complex character in Community; I may go into that another time. A Troy in Memorium, as it were.
The first couple of episodes are very much resuscitation – they echo the shape and feel of the first season’s pilot, re-establishing the cast, the stakes, and the tone of the series. Episode three returns to the show’s celebrated penchant for parody, this time taking on the sub-genre of serial killer procedurals like SE7EN and ZODIAC. But it was the one-two punch of episodes four and five that once again captured the magic the fans missed so dearly. “Cooperative Polygraphy” has a title that hints at one of the most celebrated episodes of the series, and a format that plays to the show’s strengths (unfortunately for Abed, Community is at its strongest when it’s a bottle episode). To go into any real detail would by necessity hit spoiler territory, and with the episode so recently aired I’m loath to bring up specifics. But I say with confidence that the jokes, the gags, and (using that word once again) the characters are dead on target. And then, just one episode later, Community did something unexpected. Community made me cry.
“Geothermal Escapism” is Troy’s last episode - Donald Glover’s got his own show in development, not to mention touring as Childish Gambino. His farewell may be the best single episode of the series. It takes a cue from the infamous paintball episodes, but from a completely fresh angle instead of rehashing old glories. The dialogue is crisper than we’ve heard since “Critical Film Studies”, the direction is probably the strongest I’ve seen in a television sitcom (if it doesn't get an Emmy nod, the system is rigged), and new character Professor Buzz Hickey got some of the biggest laughs of the episode. It struck a perfect balance of raucous humor and genuine, heartwarming emotion throughout, never getting overly soppy or so funny it undercuts the sentiment. In short, it is a near perfect twenty-two minutes of television, and it elegantly captures the power and precision of Community at its best.
So what might the future hold? Can Community stand the loss of a second cast member (Chevy Chase exited the show last season) if the gain is the show’s creator gets to finish what he started? I don’t know. But for the first time in over a year, I’m not worried. Community is back. And everything is streets ahead.