After the long wait between its fourth and fifth seasons, after Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna improbably returned, after a lengthy offseason in which it seemed like every other entertainment news cycle had some bit of news about the show (good or bad and usually involving guest casting), it’s a relief to remember that Community is just a fucking TV show. Sometimes, I’ll go back to my old reviews, the really overwrought ones, and laugh a bit at myself. “Jesus Christ,” I’ll say. “It’s just fucking Community.” I stand by those reviews, and I think the show possesses the depth of purpose and feeling that I’ve found in its best—and some of its worst—episodes, but none of that would matter if this weren’t a funny sitcom filled with characters I enjoy.
The problem with the fourth season was that it tried too hard to assure me I was having a good time—and in the process of doing so, it kept taking me out of the show. A good sitcom depends on trust and anticipation—on getting the audience excited about what’s coming and letting it know that it’s going to have fun. The fourth season of the show kept trying to insist that it was the same old show, full of the same old fun, and that meant that it never relaxed enough to just have a good time. It came off like a group of really good musicians hamstrung by trying to play cover versions of other people’s songs. This is all a really long, pointless way of saying that “Repilot” and “Introduction To Teaching” work because of blah, blah, blah pointless philosophical musings, but also because they don’t try too hard. Even in their worst moments, they just effortlessly are, and that’s a relief.
That’s the best explanation I have for why the show feels so much more organic and alive under Harmon’s command than it ever did under the previous regime. For as unexpected and odd as it is to have Harmon back in terms of TV history, very little of that makes its way to the screen—particularly in tonight’s second episode, which is just a solid episode of Community. (“Repilot” has some issues, but, then, it would, because it has to cover so much ground. It’s like an entire episode of laying pipe.) Yeah, there are some jokes about Harmon’s return and the impending departure of one other cast member. (If you’re somehow not spoiled on this, I will say no more, but I found it amusing.) But I found the level of meta-commentary on the behind-the-scenes situation at the show refreshingly minimal. Plenty of other critics have not found that to be the case, so your mileage may vary, but it seemed to me as if all of that was crammed into “Repilot,” so the rest of the season could breathe a little bit.
As alluded to above, “Repilot” is a bit ungainly. Some of that is just a structural necessity. The episode needs to get everybody back to Greendale and keep the college as the series’ central hub. There was a time when I half suspected the series would eventually shift its central location entirely to an apartment complex or something—but TV shows tend to gain in gravity as they go along, and it becomes harder and harder to ditch central elements of the series as they go along. (Let’s all meet back here for Archer in a couple of weeks!) For that reason, I’m glad the show contrived a reason to have Jeff and the study group end up back at Greendale, as preposterous as all of it is. (For one thing, where are the study group members even getting all this money to keep going to community college?) Sitcom season premieres are never going to be terribly graceful structures, and Community has always found itself undoing its previous season finales or reacting to offscreen news in those premieres. So “Repilot” is in a hole to begin with.
The episode also suffers from trying so hard to push its central conflict, which is all about Jeff struggling against his old life and self—the evil lawyer guy we met in the pilot—because he’s become too good of a person to truly commit to screwing people over in court. Leaving aside the fact that this is all based on an age-old lawyer stereotype and sets up a too-easy dichotomy for Jeff to bounce between (because, after all, the show often traffics in taking easy joke stereotypes and then deepening them), it’s a bit of a false conflict because, well, we know where this is heading. Hell, Abed even tells us where it’s heading, as he inevitably would. Add to that Rob Corddry’s character, who has never really worked as well as he might, and the whole thing feels a little more pat than the show usually goes in for. Again, that’s because this is a season premiere that has to do about 50 things at once, but it still means this is the weakest by far of the episodes NBC sent out to critics.
I do like some of the ideas the episode plays around with, though, particularly in the scene where Jeff tries to convince the study group to sue Greendale because of how their personalities were warped and destroyed by going to the school. Sitcoms generally turn their characters into cartoons because that’s what’s funniest, and this is a nice reminder of how far all of these characters—not just Jeff—have come from who they were in the pilot. Jeff paints it as a devolution, because he needs to, but it could just as easily be seen as growth and change. The show has always posited Greendale as a place where fucked-up people could come together and do great things. That’s always been its chief appeal to me, even beneath the meta-commentary and jokes about TV shows. The best scenes on the show—and in this episode—are the ones where all of the characters are seated around that table, and that’s both because those scenes are often very funny and because they provide the most opportunity to examine those very questions of self-improvement and healing. At the very least, “Repilot” reaffirms that as a central reason for the show’s existence. (And, indeed, that conceit was one of the things season four seemed to lose track of at times.)
That said, Greendale might be a good place to find oneself, but it’s probably not a very good institution of higher learning. As the Dean points out, it was named the second-best community college by GreendaleCommunityCollege.com, and everything we’ve seen about the place over the years—particularly the fact that the place keeps employing Chang—suggests it’s hell on earth for faculty as much as it is for students. “Introduction To Teaching” gets into that, and also suggests how the show’s premise has shifted just a bit, despite the show still taking place at Greendale. This is now going to be a show both about the students and the faculty of Greendale, and that means rejiggering how the characters relate to each other.
While I’m not crazy about the logistics used to get Jeff to the place where he’s a teacher, I do like the idea of him as an instructor at Greendale as it plays out in “Introduction To Teaching” quite a bit. For one thing, you’ve got Jonathan Banks turning up as Criminology professor Hickey, with whom Jeff shares an office. By the end of the episode, it becomes all the more clear why Banks is here: He’s going to take the place of Pierce at the study table for at least part of the season, and I’m impressed both with how well the show introduces the character and how quickly Banks integrates himself into the ensemble without trading in on what makes him such a great presence. Hickey’s a guy who got waylaid, then stuck at Greendale, like seemingly everybody else who attends or works at the school, and his easy cynicism about teaching clashes not with Jeff (who’s all about easy cynicism) but with Annie, who’s in his criminology class, then signs up for Jeff’s law course to keep her friend honest.
This is about as old-school and basic as Community gets nowadays. There are some meta-gags, and there are some moments that didn’t really work for me, but this is more or less a story about the gang hanging out on campus, and then somebody takes a wacky class. It’s that wacky class that provides most of the episode’s moments that don’t quite work, hinging on a class on the films of Nicolas Cage, taught by Professor Garrity, which drives Abed to insanity and/or a Nicolas Cage-aping breakdown in front of the class. The show had previously hung a lantern on the fact that Abed’s had a fair number of psychotic breaks over the years, but as great as Danny Pudi is, this whole thing felt awfully this—as did the conclusion, which involved Nicolas Cage being Jesus. (Okay, it actually involved how you can’t just easily classify people into one box or another. They’re complex—meaning that they may seem like an easily defined stereotype and then reveal hidden depths. But this feels like something everybody involved realized long ago.)
The A story—or should I say the A- story, ha ha!—was much better. Again, we return to the idea of Greendale as this unifying force—for both good and ill—that ties together all of these people in ways they don’t quite understand, and that goes for the staff as well as the students. And for someone who’s often found the character of Annie problematic after she was largely subsumed by her crush on Jeff, everything she did in this episode rang true to the character as initially established and as someone who had gone a little off-track there in subsequent seasons. The Annie who’s always pushing people to be better than their most base selves is a character I’ve missed a little bit, and Alison Brie is so great at playing that side of the character. Add to all of that a Chang who feels, for once, like he sort of belongs in the universe of the show again, and you have a recipe for an episode that had some rough patches but was mostly a strong continuation of everything set out in “Repilot.”
Mostly, though, I’m just happy to have the show back. No matter how much the story about Community in the media—okay, on some sites on the Internet—is going to be about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and whatever was said in a recent episode of Harmontown, the show is back to being an unforced delight, even when it’s wheezing a bit to get the season kicked off. Or, put another way, that scene where the characters are revealing, one at a time, how far they’ve fallen since leaving Greendale (Annie is working for a pharmaceutical company; Britta is a bartender; Shirley’s Sandwiches sank!) had the comic snap of the first two seasons of this show, with some of the bittersweet quality that increasingly leavened its third. Greendale is a place where people come together to heal themselves and get better, but everybody’s a fuck-up, and nobody stops being a fuck-up. That means Greendale isn’t a place that one emerges from fully formed. It means it’s a place that one stays at as long as one needs, until one feels well enough to face a crueler, less loving world.
Or, put yet another way, I heard that theme song, and I was back in. Community is back, everybody. We’ve got 12 weeks yet to have new episodes in our lives, and trust me, the fourth one is fucking amazing.
- Welcome back to the Community reviews, everybody. Sorry this first one was so terrible. Getting the rust out. We’ll be back in fighting trim next week (unless I have to take next week off for TCA reasons).
- The obligatory note on grades: Nobody should care as much about grades as all of you inevitably will. I’m going to be a bit harder on the show than I was last year, because I know all that Harmon and McKenna are capable of, so I’m grading it against a tougher standard, whereas last year, I was more or less treating it as a brand new show. On the other hand, this is a subtly different version of itself than it was, so I’ll cut it some slack. Finally, “Introduction To Teaching” probably deserves a B+, but there was no way I wasn’t giving it an A-.
- It was weirdly nice to see Chevy Chase pop up again as Pierce Hawthorne, even if his one scene felt as if it were shot in an undisclosed location deep beneath the earth. I also liked how the show briefly made it seem as if his hologram were some sort of ghost.
- Buzz Hickey likes to draw a cartoon duck named Jim, and publishers are interested. (That said, sometimes, the bill looks a little too pointy, like a beak.)
- God, VanDerWerff, just tell us what was funny!: Britta cries: “The whole world is watching!” during the riot over how minuses aren’t real, only to realize she doesn’t have any more data minutes on her phone. “The whole world will be watching on the first of next month!” (Okay, a lot of other stuff was funny, but I will use this feature for my single favorite joke every week.)
- Troy apparently has a Clive Owen-centric Tumblr. That sounds about right.
- Everybody knows Nicolas Cage’s best performance is in Adaptation.