The fourth season of Community debuts tonight on NBC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
To love a TV show is to know one of two things: Either it will eventually leave you, or you will eventually leave it. There’s no middle ground for the committed. Once you’re in, you’re in, and you’re going to be in until the thing is canceled or until you lose interest because you’ve either figured out all of the show’s tricks or it’s just not the same anymore. That show you loved more than anything? It will eventually feel sort of old and pointless to you after a while, and you’ll have moved on to some new thing that feels fresher but will inevitably disappoint you somewhere down the line. And so it goes. You’ll someday remember that show you loved with such intensity—it will probably be off the air by this point—and you’ll wonder idly why they don’t make ’em like that anymore. The answer is because you’re not who you were anymore, and you can’t fall for a show like that because you’re no longer the same person.
Which, whatever. Community’s new, and it’s probably not an underestimation to say that this show is that show, the show described above, for a few million people on this planet right now. After a longer than expected hiatus—the last episode of this show aired in May 2012—that came on top of another longer than expected hiatus, after cancellation threats and a shorter order than the previous three seasons, after a summer (and fall… and winter…) filled with an endless string of bad news and uncertainty, there’s been a natural sense of relief sweeping through those several million people, as the première date of February 7 held firm and the show’s return drew closer and closer. And with the way NBC’s spring has plunged directly into the toilet, it seems increasingly likely that this won’t be the end of Community, that there will be the long foretold six seasons and a movie.
But should there be?
The answer, based on just two episodes of the show’s fourth season, is a deeply qualified “maybe.” Let’s start at the center, with the stuff that matters: This is still an often hilarious, well-acted, well-directed, well-written show with one of the all-time great ensemble casts and background players who can rise to the occasion as needed. It’s a show that can come up with a one-liner that arrives out of nowhere and inspires guffaws—there’s a joke about MS Paint in tonight’s première that’s particularly inspired—and it’s a show that’s capable of ably aping many different styles and genres, with a stable of directors that goes through its paces as well as any directorial team on TV. If you enjoy Donald Glover and Danny Pudi singing, “Troy and Abed something SOMEthing,” well, this is still the only place on TV you’re going to get that particular gag.
Yet as it begins its fourth season, Community is also a show that’s displaying rampant signs of age. The running jokes that once seemed hilarious now feel beaten into the ground. The laughs are fewer and farther between. The characters, who once had some nuance to them, tread dangerously close to being one-note at times, and the show is more and more reliant on the kinds of hacky sitcom stories that it would have made fun of back in season one, via Abed, a character who makes fun of that kind of thing. Where once the show was a giant pop-culture wood chipper, taking in everything that had ever existed and spitting it out in interesting and new configurations, it’s now a show that essentially does big reference gags, hoping they’ll be funny enough. And that’s okay. A reference gag from time to time isn’t a bad thing, and the fact that NBC is selling the show almost entirely on the back of one tiny joke—in which the Dean announces a Hunger Games knockoff—that doesn’t dominate the episode as much as the advertising has given a somewhat false impression of what the show will be in its fourth year. But that impression is only slightly off.
There are things here that suggest a way forward for the show. Abed, the show’s bedrock, is still mostly used well, though he trends a little too much toward being used as an antagonist in both episodes sent out. (NBC, curiously, sent out the season’s third episode, one of Community’s weaker half-hours, along with the première, perhaps because the second episode is set at Halloween, and it didn’t want casual viewers turned off by a bunch of reviews mentioning a holiday that was months ago.) Britta, played by the great Gillian Jacobs, who gets ample opportunity to show off her physical comedy skills, continues to be the show’s weird, skewed heart, a person who cares too much to let go of things she probably should. And though Troy has perhaps been infantilized slightly too much—and this is a trend that stems all the way back to the latter portions of the show’s second season—Donald Glover is still an all-around comedy star who’s going to have a huge career coming out of this show. Joel McHale is also a solid lead for this series, and particularly in the first episode, he’s used very well. The première also comes with intriguing hints of melancholy—always a color the show wears well—about the future of these students and the future of Greendale Community College. Given time, the show could find itself again.
Yet even as the show has all of these weapons in its arsenal, it feels increasingly empty. It’s a show that knows what it used to be, a show that’s a bit too obsessed with its own history and repeating it until the repetition grows irritating and finally just exhausting. It’s a show that feels tired of being Community, in some ways, with all that word implies. This is a show that once made fun of sitcoms and chewed them up as so much grist for its mill. Now, it increasingly feels as if it’s just become another one of them. The gags are often just there to kill time—there’s a “Don’t ask” that gets answered with a “Don’t tell” in one of the episodes—and the pop culture stuff often seems to be there because it’s expected that Community would have gags like that. In short, this feels more and more like just another sitcom. A very handsomely produced, excellently acted sitcom, but still.
And it’s here that we have to get to something I’ve done my best to talk around so far, as I’ve hoped to treat this like just another episode of the show. Dan Harmon, the show’s creator and its chief creative voice for its first three seasons, is no longer with the show. There are shows that can survive the loss of a showrunner—Cougar Town is doing well for itself over on TBS, even though it’s under new leadership—but Community, a series that was driven by the passions and oddities of one man, was a series more like The West Wing or Gilmore Girls, a show that feels a little hollow without the voice that was animating it. For all I know, Harmon was the world’s biggest dick and impossible to work with, and for all I know, he’s the reason the show’s ratings kept trending lower and lower and lower. But he was also the reason Community was Community, and even though everybody involved wants to do their best, wants to preserve the spirit of what he built, it’s a little like a party after the host has gone. There’s fun to be had, and there are good times going on, but the person who was holding everything together just isn’t there anymore, and it increasingly seems like the only reason everyone’s around is because they always have been. New showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port are talented guys, who created one of my favorite one-season shows ever in Aliens In America, but they and the writing staff mostly try to replicate Dan Harmon’s Community, rather than trying something of their own. As with all attempts to replicate a show so associated with one point-of-view, it doesn’t work nearly as well as it should, though the memory of what was provides a few glimmers of recognition here and there.
There’s a popular misconception about Community, both in the media and among some of its fans. The idea goes that the reason the show is popular is because it does wild, crazy, loud things. It makes fun of genres and dissects pop culture as well as any show in television history, and it does so through an endlessly creative lens that finds both the emotional core of said genres and the tropes the show wishes to skewer. Put another way, the première spends a lot of time making fun of a particular television show type tonight, but it does so in a way where the gag basically boils down to, “This exists.” It’s not particularly nuanced, nor does it have anything to say that will challenge the audience. It’s an empty reference, for the sake of doing a genre-bending thing, because that’s what the series is known for. This is only enhanced in a later gag that does the same thing, only to a far greater degree, then in the third episode, which takes a minor joke that took on a life of its own and blows it far, far out of proportion to its humor value.
Community only works because it can do the wild, crazy stuff, sure, but also because it can play the more muted notes, can find the character beats and emotional interactions that are true to its vision of a world that can feel harsh and exclusionary but also wants nothing more than to pull everybody into a big hug. That vision of life fit Harmon—who can be best described as a misanthrope who loves the shit out of people—to a T. It doesn’t really fit the new show, which knows how to yell and scream and play like it’s having a good time, but doesn’t yet know how to whisper. There are plots here that want to be emotionally compelling, that want to be about these characters moving toward a better understanding of each other, but they play out under standard sitcom rules and guidelines. (In particular, an Annie plot in the third episode is execrable, and a storyline featuring a prominent guest character is… odd, to say the least.)
Maybe I’m wrong about all of this. Maybe what has changed isn’t the show, but me. Maybe I’ve reached the point where I’m on the verge of being done with this show. Maybe the love you have for the characters or premise or previous episodes and gags will carry you through these episodes, rough as they are. There are still flickers of the show that you—and I—loved in these two episodes, and there are enough flickers that I’m going to keep having hope for the season going forward. But they’re not enough to fill me with anything but disappointment at what I’ve seen. This is Community, yes, but it’s a version missing the most crucial element to keeping an audience that loves a TV show in love with that TV show: its soul.
- Welcome to season four of Community! While you were away, we posted over 150,000 comments and came up with a lovely recipe for duck a l’orange.
- The grade above applies only to the première, which is shaky but is roughly in a class with some of the shakier Harmon episodes. It takes a while, but it rights itself for an ending that more or less makes sense, after getting its, “Yay, Community!” bits out.
- I’ll try to hop in comments tonight to deal with the episode specifically. Or, if you have questions about it, you can ask Erik Adams and I about them at our Reddit Ask Me Anything tomorrow. I’d provide a link if I had one, but I don’t! Just know that it’s happening at 2 p.m. Eastern time, over at Reddit.