Community’s fifth season has, thus far, spent much of its time taking care of old business. First order of said business was jump-starting the show in light of Dan Harmon’s return as show-runner; we had to tie up the loose ends, explain the speed-bumps of the “gas leak year,” and most importantly, establish that the show could be great again. Once that was done, there was the matter of departures: first a proper send-off for the already-absent Chevy Chase, and then last week’s epic farewell to Donald Glover. Now that all of that is out of the way, this week’s episode, “Analysis of Cork-Based Networking,” merely has the job of being a good, solid episode of Community—and our first real look at what that show will be from here on out.
The juice of the narrative comes from the Save Greendale committee—and not a moment too soon, as that device was trotted out early and sorta forgotten about. An early meeting of the committee sets up our plotlines: Annie and Hickey’s attempt to replace a cafeteria bulletin board, Troy and Britta’s battle over spoilers on Game of Thrones Bloodlines of Conquest, and the decoration of the cafeteria for the midterm dance.
The Annie/Hickey storyline gets the most screen time, and it’s a juicy one. The process of bulletin board upkeep turns into a giant round-robin of red tape and favor-trading, enacted by an entertaining crew of guest stars (including the wonderful Kumail Nanjiani, Whedon fave Nathan Fillion, T2’s Robert Patrick, and Paget Brewster, who will always be Friends’ Kathy to me). But the key to keeping a character-based show like Community going strong is to both find new characters and mine new conflicts, and the Hickey/Annie storyline here is a textbook example of how to do that well. First his cynicism and her idealism are contrasted humorously; then she descends into the muck of dirty deals (“You might wanna start talkin’ turkey, Waldron, because the Macy’s parade is almost over and grandma’s gettin’ drunk”); and finally, after a perfect little Roxy Music “More Than This” montage, Hickey becomes the do-gooder go-getter. Neat.
Also, Alison Brie should just get an Emmy now, for both the heartfelt speech about bulletin boards and her Oldman-style “EVERRRRYTHING!” That was a nice little pop-culture shout-out, and while I know that’s just kind of Community’s thing, that doesn’t mean we should appreciate Dean Pelton’s “Man, this guy’s Sorkin-y” any less, or Hickey’s “Welcome to the labyrinth, kid, only there ain’t no puppets or bisexual rock stars down here,” a line topped only by Pelton’s perfect callback, “Certainly not the magic kind with puppets and macho rock stars.”
But all of that is a mere run-up to the real news of “Analysis of Cork-Based Networking,” and no, I’m not talking about this buried news-ticker bombshell at the bottom of Hickey’s screen:
I’m talking about the long-awaited return of the great Brie Larson as Rachel, Abed’s soul-mate, previously seen in the one fourth-season episode I still think about occasionally, “Herstory of Dance.” Her reappearance is subtly tipped early in the episode, when Abed’s connection to a deaf student is punctured by Britta’s “Are you gonna have another intense burst of compatibility with a girl we never see again?”; that disappearance is explained away, somewhat, by Abed’s admission that his lack of follow-through was during “the year of the gas leak, but I won’t use that an excuse.” As the pair leaves happily together (“I started this coat check without permission anyway”), one can only hope—again—that we’ll be seeing plenty more of Ms. Larson.
What we have, then, is a sturdy little episode, free of gimmicks or parody, just Community being Community, and doing it well. There has been some (legitimate) cause for concern in the run-up to Donald Glover’s departure—far more than with Chase, who’d been a distraction for a while—that the delicate chemistry of the ensemble would be thrown off by his exit. (Similar worries have been circulating for a while about the loss of Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe from Community’s Thursday night neighbor, Parks and Recreation.) But if this charming episode proves one thing, it’s that Community is, yes, going to be just fine.