Friday, January 3, 2014

Some Thoughts on the Return of "Community"

Spoilers for the first two Community episodes of the season after the jump:

So, Community is back. But is it actually back, in the less literal sense of the term? If you know me, you probably know I'm a major defender of the show's admittedly wildly uneven fourth season. I mean, I'd happily visit Lacuna, Inc. to have my memories of "Advanced Introduction to Finality" scrubbed from my brain forever (damn you, Eternal Sunshine, for being fictional), but several of the season's episodes nearly made my list of the best episodes of 2013. So no, I've never bought into the whole "zombie Community" idea bandied about like an indisputable fact both throughout that season and in the many months between its conclusion and the start of season five: which finds creator and showrunner Dan Harmon returning to the show amidst much fan fanfare and the skepticism of a handful of people (or maybe it's just me, I don't know) who question the application of auteur theory to network television. (Heck, I question it in many other instances as well.) All that said, I've been anticipating season five as much as anyone, simply because I love Community. I never stopped loving Community, even after the aforementioned Finale That Shall Remain Nameless.

And for the most part, the first two hours of the Dan Harmon 2.0 era provide numerous examples of the things I love about the show. "Repilot" is by far the stronger of the two episodes, despite the fact that it has just a ton of heavy lifting to do in terms of bringing everyone back to Greendale (the title is well-chosen, though its task of course isn't quite as arduous as that of a true pilot). If it starts a little slow—though I've quite enjoyed his previous appearances, the return of Alan did nothing for me, and Jeff beating him with his own tie is a moment that I thought fell utterly flat—all is well once the group is all together in their (now asbestos-free!) study room. Or I should say, all is well for us viewers. Not so much for the characters, whose lives have gone completely to hell since they left Greendale. In any case, the resulting scene is both incredibly dark and incredibly funny, as each character discusses their bleak current life situation, while Jeff plots to use them to sue the school. Among the many gems here: Britta's bizarre analogy about owls and Troy confusing the word "sabbatical" with "sabbath".

Jeff doesn't sue, of course. Instead, by the end of the episode, everything has gone back to a slightly altered status quo, with one major change: Jeff as a teacher of law, his brief sojourn back towards his old amoral self having given way (with the help of his friends' prodding) to a desire to try to improve Greendale. It's a tremendous idea, and one that has a whole lot of potential in regards to the character's ongoing march from selfishness towards selflessness. And it's already started to pay comic dividends as well, as evidenced by "Introduction to Teaching", in which Jeff inadvertently discovers that he may actually like teaching.

The Jeff material is easily the best aspect of what is otherwise a relatively weak second installment, mainly because it introduces us to Jonathan Banks's Buzz Hickey. In short, he seems like exactly who Mike from Breaking Bad would be like had he been a professor rather than a hired killer (and liked to draw cartoons of ducks). And it's every bit as funny as it sounds. It's only been one episode, but the grizzled tough-guy persona that Banks has perfected seems like it will be brilliant fit for Community. With John Oliver set to appear in most of the upcoming episodes as well, one can only hope that we'll get at least a few encounters between Professors Duncan and Hickey. In the meantime, his attempts at mentoring his junior colleague Mr. Winger in the ways of teaching at Greendale provide most of the comedic highlights of "Introduction to Teaching". (Though the funniest moment belongs to Joel McHale and his epically silent and stone-faced response to the Dean walking in and dressing him up in glasses, a pipe, and a cap.)

Nothing else in the episode comes close to that level, though. Judging by people I've been talking to on Twitter, the B storyline involving Abed taking a class on Nicholas Cage worked for many people, but to me it's an example of the show rehashing earlier, better storylines involving the character and his pop-culture obsessions, with mostly unimpressive results. This isn't a problem only Community faces; it happens to all long-running sitcoms from time to time (see the B and C stories from Parks and Rec's "The Pawnee-Eagleton Tip off Classic" for a great recent example). I doubt it will become a pattern, so I'm not too worried about it. But I saw a lot of this in "Introduction to Teaching", and not just in the Abed story. Season four was often criticized—not unjustly in many instances—for trying too hard to imitate things that worked in the previous three seasons. Season five seems to be doing something similar in the early going. In an effort to reassure fans that the "Community they know" is back, the writers have thrown in a lot of familiar scenarios and bits ("pop-pop", student riots, "shut up, Leonard", the Dean's general weirdness) simply for their own sake. It mostly didn't work when they did it in season four. And it doesn't work any better in season five, just because Dan Harmon's back.

That said, overall this is a strong start to the new season. In answer to that opening question: no, I don't think Community is back, because as far as I'm concerned it never left. I didn't like the first two season five episodes any more than I enjoyed solid season four episodes such as "Paranormal Parentage" or "Intro to Felt Surrogacy", and liked them less than "Herstory of Dance" and "Basic Human Anatomy". But I laughed plenty (especially at the premiere), and love the arcs that have been set up for both Jeff and perhaps for Greendale itself. I would be disappointed if some of the other characters don't get more of a chance to shine over the next few weeks—there wasn't nearly enough Britta in either episode, for one thing—but that's not something I'm especially worried about. Community's best years may well be behind it, but I have no reason to doubt they're still going to knock at least a few episodes out of the park, now that the new season's foundation has been set. We'll find out soon enough.

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