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Community Recap, Season Four Premiere, “History 101”

By on February 9, 2013
Jim Rash as Dean Pelton and Joel McHale as Jeff Winger in the season premiere of Community (Image © NBC)

Jim Rash as Dean Pelton and Joel McHale as Jeff Winger in the season premiere of Community (Image © NBC)

The Community that returned to NBC last night is different than the Community we had last year. The details of the seismic shift behind the scenes of the cult favorite are much more well-known to the general public than anything about the show itself. Over a dramatic 48-hour period at the end of last season, series creator Dan Harmon was fired by Sony, which led to the in-solidarity resignations of Dino Stamatopoulos (of Starburns fame) and Chris McKenna. All of this after the producer teams of Joe and Anthony Russo and Neil Goldman and Eric Donovan had already left, leaving nobody from the original creative team working on the series.

Everybody involved in the kerfuffle deserves a portion of the blame. Sony for the dollar-and-cents decision to continue the series without Harmon, Harmon for being so damn difficult, Chevy Chase for continuing to be the man that Bill Murray punched in the face all those years ago, and NBC for justifying every acidic 30 Rock gag—and especially NBC for yanking the show from its schedule multiple times as their own replacement shows tanked (there was, as I recall, something about a monkey doctor).

But time has passed and everybody has moved on. Chris McKenna is off helping to make The Mindy Project one of the smartest new comedies on television; Dino recently revived his melancholy, brilliant Moral Orel for Adult Swim; The Russo brothers are making the next damn Captain America movie, and Dan Harmon is basking in the stew of hero-worship, Dungeons & Dragons, and bad freestyle rap that is his nusto/amazing podcast Harmontown.

That leaves only a few of last year’s writers, most notably Andy Bobrow and Megan Ganz, working on Community’s fourth season and, we can imagine, poor Ganz is left to lead the way for the Harmonites, drawing story circles on the board with the manic frenzy of Claire Danes on Homeland. Speaking of Ganz (who has actually also left the show since this season wrapped, moving on to Modern Family, where I hope she makes a ton of money), yesterday she shared the text conversation that led to the multiple-timeline masterpiece “Remedial Chaos Theory”.

Read her conversation with Harmon here (but come back!)

One writer doesn’t make a series, unless that writer is willing to put everything in their life on hold, get strung out on booze and Adderall, spend long hours in the editing bay, and rewrite every script in their own voice. That is what Harmon brought to the table, and no matter what season four will turn out to be, that’s what Community has lost.

The shift in tone is immediately transparent, as Troy and Abed walk into the study room accompanied by a laugh track. The conceit, that Abed is imagining a typically crappy sitcom to escape the impending changes as the study group graduates and moves on, is clever but played out. From the minute the laugh track starts we know what they’re up to, and each time we re-enter the fantasy world the canned laughter grates a bit more. But, kudos to the writers for framing two completely separate episodes with complete plots and character beats. That’s the sort of meta-intelligence we’ve come to expect from Community, and though Abed’s sitcom world falls flat that attention to detail is at least a sign that someone’s steering the damn ship.

But the fact that the episode fumbles the execution of its homage is troubling. Even the theme episodes that didn’t particularly work like, say, the astronaut episode, at least nailed their source references. To make the gimmick really stick they should have shot those scenes on video, to give the series the look of the multi-cam sitcoms it’s parodying. As it is, it’s a half-formed joke that never takes off.

The meta-narratives of the episode get a bit overwhelming, as everybody in the episode has their own sub-plot, meaning that the group is split apart for most of the episode. The split is a canny way to test out future couplings and storylines, which would be essential for the series to have a future after the Greendale Seven leave the campus at the end of the season, but if Troy and Britta fighting in a fountain, Annie and Shirley pouring popcorn in the Dean’s car, and Pierce struggling to make a testicle joke for the entire length of the episode are the best stories we’re going to get, then the complaints about this being a “zombie” season of Community are going to start to ring true.

The actors, geniuses that they all are, manage to pull some really funny moments out of these scenarios, but the script itself must have read like NBC’s desperate plea to advertisers, “Come back! We promise we can make this show boring!”

But context is important here. The first episodes of every season of Community have been weak and sometimes gimmicky—for instance, the Betty White appearance in the second-season premiere, fresh off her entrance into the cultural zeitgeist following her SNL gig. It’s also easy to forget that there was a chorus of fans screaming “jump the shark!” for the first few episodes of last season, before “Remedial Chaos Theory”. Does the show have another high point of that magnitude left? Let’s hope so, and that it gets here faster than you can say “Pop, Pop!”

Season 4, Episode 1
“History 101: B-