When the troubled fourth season of Community drew to a close last May, our final recap took the form of a question: should this show continue? It wasn’t that year four had been a total washout; if there were only a couple of great episodes (and there were), there were also only a handful of all-out terrible ones. Most were just mediocre, missing the punchy pace and daft weirdness of those under creator and original show-runner Dan Harmon. My wish, in that send-off, was that a fifth season of Community might approach, say, seventh-season West Wing—a show crippled by the departure of its defining voice, yet repurposing itself into something viable. That was my best hope. It didn’t even occur to me that they might bring Dan Harmon back. But they did. And thank God.
The question of how, exactly, to restart the show is addressed in the first of last night’s two episodes, “Repilot,” penned by Harmon and MVP Chris McKenna (who wrote “Remedial Chaos Theory”), and hats off to the duo for dealing with it head-on, instead of just taking season four as mulligan via a Dallas-style “It was all a dream” reveal (with Abed’s Dreamatorium standing in for Bobby Ewing’s shower, presumably). There are jabs, to be sure, at season four, most notably Annie’s reference to “that gas leak last year” (“Don’t blame it all on a gas leak year”) and Jeff’s none-too-subtle commentary on their evolution from “real people” to “mixed-up cartoons.”
But what’s great about “Repilot”—and what’s great about the best of Community, really—is that it’s never just about the meta-joke or pop culture reference, which was the primary problem with season four. First of all, Harmon and McKenna aren’t letting themselves off the hook with that “mixed-up cartoons” line (it was an evolution that was already in motion), which makes it less mean-spirited. But more importantly, they’re not just enjoying a self-referential bit; the evolution of these characters has always been the show’s motor, and is thus essential for it to continue in this new direction.
The indefinable something that was simply missing in most of season four is easy to attach to Harmon’s absence, and to further the too-simplistic worship of the show-runner in modern television; had his departure gone unnoticed, perhaps the decline in quality would have been ignored as well. But from the opening moments of this season, it’s painfully clear that the show has returned to form—there’s a zip to the writing, a spring in the playing, a rat-tat-tat pace that gives an extra spark to Jeff’s button line in the cold open (“That was all. That was it”) or Britta’s objection that “That’s like me blaming owls for how much I suck at analogies.”
“Repilot” has so many good lines and throwaway gags—the study room’s closure for sentimental reasons “and asbestos reasons”; the file for “Herpes, Drinking Fountains”; the college’s #2 ranking on its own website; the bit about 555 phone numbers; Chevy Chase’s unexpected and perfect cameo; “I don’t believe in evil, but this school clearly got a finger up its butt as a child”—that it begs for an immediate rewatch, a feeling this fan didn’t get from the best episodes of year four. But it also gets at the humanity and emotion of these characters, and in none of the cloying, plodding manner of, say, last year’s Thanksgiving episode. There’s a scene in “Repilot” that does everything this show’s ever done well: when the characters are catching up and the gags are flying fast, and then Shirley quietly confesses that Andre left again. The scene turns serious on a dime, because we actually care about Shirley—and then they turn it back, with a quick, genuine laugh at how he even took the DVR (“166 episodes of Bones just gone”). A scene like that, or the sad signing of Jeff’s class action suit (Troy: “If Jeff didn’t change, then Jeff is right”) signifies exactly what makes Community special. It’s a funny, oddball, downright surreal world, but there’s a sweetness to it, and they love everyone who inhabits it.
The evening’s second episode, “Introduction to Teaching,” doesn’t have as much on its mind, and I frankly didn’t laugh quite as much (though “Repilot” may have wrung all of them out of me). But it’s a solid, successful episode, indicating the show is getting back down to business now that the formalities have been attended to. It’s got a couple of genuinely terrific set pieces, Abed’s all-in Nicolas Cage impression (“I’m a cay-ut! I’m a sexy cat!”) and the “SLIGHTLY HIGHER GRADES!” riot chief among them. Jonathan Banks is a welcome addition to the cast (“The trick is, you gota show the other baboons you’ve got a bigger, redder ass”), in what will apparently be a major role, and bully for that. And such little touches as Dean Pelton’s French-subtitled Excel song and Mr. Hickey’s duck cartooning (“It’s one duck, his name is Jim, and publishers are interested!”) confirm that the show is fine with being just plain weird again, which is also good news.
But most importantly, Community has rearranged itself into something at least modestly new, and seems capable of taking us to some unexpected places in the process. This viewer’s biggest complaint about season four was how it seemed that every episode had to end with the Jeff Winger Inspirational Monologue™; in these two episodes, Jeff first stops himself from giving one (“No monologue for you—give me your tie!”), and is booed and pelted with food after giving another. In other words, we’re not going to rely on the same old tricks and the same old devices. Much like its characters, Community is a show that is learning from its mistakes.