"They seriously rehired a teacher they fired for trying to burn down the school?”
Look. I don’t need to tell you what happened. You know. We all know. And, sadly, much of what the world at large knows about Community is that it’s the weird little show where everyone’s always fighting and quitting or getting fired. It’s a show that should never have survived, that should rightly have been crushed by the twin corporate giants, Sony and NBC, who so clearly hate this strange little show that they can’t sell their affiliates or advertisers on, but that just won’t go away.
But—whatever. The off-screen drama is only important, for purposes of this review, for the ways that it affects what shows up on our screens, and what happens to characters that we have come to care about. In three seasons under creator Dan Harmon Community evolved into the most daring, consistently hilarious series on television. Without his obsessive guidance last season the series devolved, never finding the right balance between paying tribute to what Harmon had done and becoming its own creation. Gags and plots were recycled, references became more general, and three years of carefully planned character arcs went out the window.
Season Four gained a heart and comedic momentum in the back stretch, producing a handful of episodes that compare well to episodes from the Harmon-led third season, but it culminated in the worst episode that the series has ever produced—an unfocused, unfunny, and desperate attempt to recapture some of the Harmonian mojo. Now Season Four, for all of its fitful promise, is over, dismissed as the “gas leak year” in this new batch of episodes, and Community, for the third time in its five year history, has the obligation to start fresh.
The premiere episode makes a valiant attempt to deal with all of this awkwardness directly, stretching the meta nature of the show to its limit with Abed announcing that the study group must “repilot” to find where they fit in this new, unsettled version of Greendale. Following that terrible finale, Jeff made good on his promise to use the law to try to help people, a plan that, naturally, failed miserably. As his office is being repo’d, his old nemesis, Alan (Rob Corddry) arrives to tell him about his new client, Marvin Humphries, an engineer whose bridges have been collapsing—a fault he’s blaming on the poor education he received at (you guessed it) Greendale Community College. Alan tasks Jeff with getting hold of Humphries’s records, and Jeff slips on his evil lawyer persona and goes back to school.
Of course once he’s there, Dean Pelton assumes he’s there to save him from the fallout of the lawsuit. Pelton calls Abed, who calls the rest of the group, who have all fallen on hard times since graduation. Annie is now a pharmaceutical sales rep, meaning she’s responsible for creating more Little Annie Adderalls, Britta is dispensing free therapy (and belly shots) as a bartender, Abed has abandoned his filmmaking dream, and Shirley’s business has failed, along with her marriage.
Jeff, seeing dollar signs, tries to convince them that they too should blame Greendale for their situations, and convinces them to sign on to sue the school. As a story thread, it’s a weak one, designed to lead to better ones. It gets Jeff back in the school, where he begrudgingly accepts his Zach Braffian destiny: to become a teacher, as Braff did in Season Nine of Scrubs (you’ll have to take Abed’s word for it).
“Repilot”, as with any first episode of a season of Community, is weighed down by the needs of the plot, but it ultimately succeeds because the changes that are made feel true to the characters as we know them, and the move to turn Jeff into Mr. Winger feels, if not quite organic, at least believable. Not every moment works—the surprise cameo from Chevy Chase (as a holographic projection giving directions to the Pierce Hawthorne Museum of Gender Sensitivity and Sexual Potency) is labored—but overall the episode provides a comfortable downshift from the farcical chaos of last season’s finale. Which, as I may have already mentioned, was terrible.
The second episode of the night, “Introduction to Teaching”, feels more like an episode of Harmon’s Community. The A-story, with Jeff getting used to his new role as teacher, is perfect. For the first time in a very long time, we get to watch Jeff deal with a change in his life that doesn’t feel forced. Who exactly is Jeff Winger if he can’t leer at young girls and trade barbs with Leonard?
Soon he finds an unlikely ally in Buzz Hickey, a Criminology teacher played by Jonathan Banks, formerly Mike Ehrmentraut on Breaking Bad. Banks makes a welcome and surprisingly fluid addition to the cast. His gruffness is the antithesis of Pierce’s neediness, and should play well off of the vanity and underlying delicacy of Jeff Winger. Unlike John Goodman and Michael K. Williams in Season Three, Banks feels already like part of the Greendale world. Jeff teams up with Hickey to bully the students and blow off lesson planning, but Annie signs up for his class to keep him honest. After a season of Annie doing nothing—absolutely fucking nothing—but pining for Jeff, it’s refreshing to see her again trying to keep her friends on-course in their lives. Of course, she’s still Annie, so she has a meltdown once she learns that “minus” grades are a plot concocted by teachers to mess with students they don’t like. Before you know it, Greendale is rioting again (and as Dean Pelton points out, it would be “unrealistic” to expect riots at Greendale to stop altogether).
The B-Story is a classic bit of Community silliness, as Abed enrolls in a class dedicated to “one of pop culture’s greatest mysteries”—is Nicolas Cage a good actor or a bad one? Is he a good good actor like Robert Downey, Jr.? A bad bad actor like Jim Belushi? Or a bad good actor like Johnny Depp?
Cage is such a zen koan of a human being that he makes the perfect subject to send Abed into a tailspin, and what a tailspin it is, as Danny Pudi goes full, bellowing Ridiculous Cage, jumping on the table and screaming, “I’m a sexy cat!”. It’s pretty great, and a clear example of the differences between the Harmon seasons and the “zombie” season: tone. That’s a squishy word, but it boils down to a combination of writing, performance, and editing which defines how an episode of television feels to watch. With these episodes Community now feels exactly like it should.
It’s hard to judge, from these episodes alone, exactly what this season will be. To use a metaphor a little less messy than the one that got Harmon in such trouble this past summer, he’s like a kid who’s returned to his sandbox to find that someone else was playing with his toys, and got them all bent up and dirty. In these first episodes, he’s cleaned them off and got them in their proper order. Now the real fun begins.