8
Feb
2013
Community: Season 4, Episode 1
History 101
Jordan
Season Four of Community begins in an impossible position. The show is beloved by its cult audience in large part because of the voice of its creator, Dan Harmon. When thinking of Community in terms of voice, the show is analogous to things like The West Wing, Gilmore Girls or Buffy The Vampire Slayer--a show with a unique voice developed by one mind, and to a certain extent dependent on that mind. So when Harmon was fired from his brainchild last year, it struck a serious blow to the show, and its future was uncertain. David Guarascio and Moses Port were put in the difficult position of stepping in and taking control of a show its creator never wanted to leave, making them especially vulnerable to potential fan criticism. Then NBC pulled the show from its fall premiere slate and pushed it to mid-season. Inevitably, this allowed expectations to increase and worries to percolate, making their debut even more difficult to pull off. What I'm trying to illustrate here is that these guys had a tough job to begin with, and circumstances have made it a lot tougher.

I enter into season four of Community a show that has been my favorite comedy on television at its heights, with incredibly muted expectations. I loved Harmon's voice, and I loved the way he managed to tell deeply personal, emotionally dark stories in a hilarious and heartfelt way. Harmon is a cynic with a heart of gold, a guy who kind of hates the world, but also truly loves it, and that vibe is what made Community great. At its center was Jeff, a misanthrope just looking for a reason to love the world again--in other words, Dan Harmon. He was given that chance by an awkward introvert with an obsessive pop culture knowledge, a boy constantly ostracized from society but longing to be part of it in ways he had trouble articulating--in other words Harmon. I could extend the metaphor, but the point has been made: this was a deeply personal show, and it is losing that element going forward. I wanted to review this season both because I hope that fact doesn't doom the show, and because I think that, at worst, this season will be interesting from an authorial perspective. So I enter into this as someone sympathetic to the plight of the new showrunners, but deeply skeptical of what they will accomplish. Basically, I'm watching this like I did the fifth season of The West Wing (the show's first without Sorkin and undeniably its weakest): knowing something I love is gone from the show, but respecting the cast and remaining crew, and loving the characters and the world enough, that I know I'll stick around for a while and hope the ship gets righted. The West Wing was never as good once Sorkin left, but it did get better over time, and its seventh season was worth watching, even if it was never great television. I hope that I'll be able to say the same of Community eventually, even though I kind of doubt it.

So now, to "History 101," a deeply flawed episode of the show that has me worried about it going forward (though I'm not jumping to conclusions; its unsurprising that Port and Guarascio stumbled out of the gate a bit). The show is everything I expected it might be without Harmon: broader, more reliant on pop culture gags for their own sake rather than to serve a deeper thematic purpose, and somewhat emptier as a result. There is a running gag throughout the episode in which Abed imagines his life as a three-camera sitcom, laugh track included, and while this is a fine idea for a joke, it becomes problematic because everything outside the gag feels more of a piece with it than the writers could possibly have intended. If the jokes are as broad and one-dimensional in the "real world" of the show as in Abed's sitcom parody, the parody loses its bite and, even worse, the general broadness of the episode has attention called to it throughout.

There is plenty here that shows the new showrunners watched Community before, and probably that they even loved the show. Some running gags appear, and some of them even land (Jim Rash is a comedic God who will make anything work, for example). But mostly, this feels like a wolf in sheep's clothing: a different beast wearing the skin of a show I love. Sometimes it wears it more convincingly than others, but at tonight's lowpoints, the snout is all too clear.

The main plot of the episode has Jeff competing in "The Hunger Deans," a variety of contests to determine who gets to take the class A History of Ice Cream. Jeff needs one history credit to graduate early, and he wants the group to take the class with him. This "New Jeff" plot line would work better if we hadn't seen Jeff effectively turn over a new leaf multiple times before, especially in last season's excellent finale. At this point everyone should know Jeff has become less selfish, and his redemption arc is hurt as a result. Also causing problems is the fact that this plot line lacks the dramatic stakes it seems to think it has. In theory, Jeff competing to win 7 of the contests so the group can stay together should have serious, even foundational weight to it. No matter how often the story gets told, an episode about a threat to the group's integrity, done well, should always hit fans of the show close to home. But because we never see Jeff struggle at all, because we are never given even a hint he might fail, this plot amounts to a series of scenes where we see Jeff do slightly wacky things to grab a red ball. There are chuckles here, sure, but nothing I really feel like I'm supposed to care about.

Britta and Troy are dating now, a development which would have made me ecstatic under normal circumstances, but which doesn't do a whole lot for me here, at least not yet. When Abed is dealing with his stressors (we'll get to them in a moment), Britta agrees to accompany Troy on he and Abed's first day of school tradition of making wishes in a fountain. Britta unsurprisingly Brittas it, and the two end up wrestling in the fountain in a montage that strains for hilarity, but is certainly worth some laughs. Gillian Jacobs is an incredibly capable physical comedian, and Donald Glover is an adept improviser, so the scene works, even when on paper it feels pretty flat. Of all of the plot lines tonight, this felt like it came the closest to being a version of Community that, while different and far from incredible, would definitely be watchable. If the new team took lessons from this first outing going forward, I hope they were the lessons of this subplot, even though it still never blew me away.

Meanwhile, Annie and Shirley decided to prank the Dean in a plotline that I feel like we have seen before in slightly different formulations. Neither really gets any laughlines tonight (excepting Brie's shockingly accurate Dean impression), but I think this worked conceptually, even if it failed in execution. I enjoy Shirley's mischievous side immensely, and when she lets the darkness out, she is often hilarious. Here, though, this was mostly an excuse for Annie to toy with switching her major, a plot line that hopefully will have significance in future episodes but was mostly just hinted at here.

Finally, there was the Abed story. Abed is the character who is probably most closely associated with Harmon, and thus in a lot of ways is Community's heart. Writing the character made Harmon confront his own tendencies, and to discover that he himself is on the autism spectrum, but more than that, Abed seemed to often serve as the voice of the show's creator, dealing with issues of artistic integrity, worries about not fitting in with people's expectations, and general social unease in ways that felt deeply personal and immensely well realized. Most of that is absent tonight, which is odd, seeing as Abed's plotline is basically a cover version of "Virtual Systems Analysis," the episode that took place inside the Dreamatorium. Abed doesn't want to deal with the idea that this is the group's senior year, and so Britta tells him to retreat into himself, to find his "happy place" and go there. A larger laugh should have been wrung from what terrible advice this is to give Abed, but that's mostly a quibble. The big problem here is that Abed's fantasy never really coheres as anything beyond a string of jokes about sitcom punchlines and a Muppet Babies riff that feels forced more than funny. What should have given the episode its emotional core instead became a hollow exercise in genre-riffing from a show that at its heights mined various tropes for thematic and emotional resonance.

And that's what really scares me about new Community in a way that may not bother most fans of the show. We have talked before on the Review to Be Named podcast about how many fans seem to like this show because of all the pop culture references embedded in it, and while I love a reference as much as the next nerd, that's never really been what made me love Community. What I loved about this show was the emotional veracity it was able to maintain within a sitcom setting. I loved the way it was telling a long, complex story about how people struggle to evolve but truly try to be better, and that it did so while riffing on Spaghetti Westerns and My Dinner with Andre was a perk to me only when it used the thematic underpinnings of those works to get at something larger about its characters. If the new version of Community is a pop culture gag machine, that can work (Port and Guarascio worked on Happy Endings for a time, and that show is an excellent example of the ability to mine pop culture gags for great humorous effect without needing any resonance), but it won't be the Community I fell in love with. Maybe that's ok. Maybe that was inevitable. But I can't help but feel a little sad, watching "History 101."

I wish Port and Guarascio the best. I'll be watching season four of this show regardless, and we'll talk a lot in the coming weeks about what Community looks like now, and how successful I think the new version of the show is. I'm not writing anything off on the basis of one episode, and even if I were, "History 101" is hardly bad television. The fountain set-piece worked well enough, the tango scene was funny, and this is a show with one of the best comedic ensembles of the modern era. Even if its bad Community the chances are slim that this season will be bad television. Give Gillian Jacobs some physical comedy, give Donald Glover room to find the funny, give Jim Rash a silly costume and pretty much any joke, and these people will make it work. At worst, I will be watching a mediocre show starring some of my favorite comedic actors currently on television. And I look forward to that, and hope that this show will eventually transcend those expectation. But I want to take a moment to mourn the loss of Harmon, and with him, the loss of Community's soul. This is a fine show. It may even become a very good one (or possibly even a great one). But its a different show, and that makes me a bit sad, a bit nostalgic, and a bit disappointed. With that out of the way, though, let's settle in for a season of television that will be interesting at worst. Let's sit back, relax, and watch a show full of people we love, that will give us a chance to discuss a lot of interesting things about authorship, acting, joke structure, pop culture gags, and all sorts of nerdiness. Let's rejoice in the fact that even if this isn't Community we fans still have our community. And let's make this season count for something.

Grade: C+

Notes:

-"I started out with the babbling brook, but then I layered in elements from our world. I'm sure fans of the babbling brook will complain, but I felt it was limiting." This could easily be a thesis statement for the new creators, and there's a version of this review in my head centered around this quote.

-"Last year, Troy wished we got Bin Laden and the Dorito Taco." "Yeah, but Obama got credit for both."

-"They overbooked it, so its first come, first serve now." "Just like real ice cream."

-"As you know, our student records are stored on a Microsoft Paint file, which I was assured would be future proof. Meanwhile, our extended warranty is not being honored by the restaurant that used to be Circuit City."

-"Jeffrey, is that blood on your shirt?" "Oh no, its cool. Its Leonard's."

-"Why does this feel good?" If this is the version of the show we are stuck with now, at least have more Gillian Jacobs and Donald Glover fighting in fountains, please.

-"Huh! The fountain works!"

-Jim Rash continues to be the best. He was perfect in the tango scene.

-The Greendale Babies joke should have worked for me so much better than it did.

-"When they were incepting, I got their balls!"

-"You smell like the floor of a movie theater!" "Yeah, but not for the usual reasons."
Tags: Community
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