Because reviewing any early Season 4 episode of Community requires one to spend at least a few sentences describing their feelings on the show post-Harmon, let me just get this out there: Yes, it’s a real, big bummer that Community creator Dan Harmon is no longer employed as the showrunner of the NBC sitcom. And yes, the show is going to miss him and might not ever remotely reach the insane, yet moving heights we saw in Seasons 2 and 3 (but mostly Season 2; no shots fired, but Season 3 was kind of a mess). But you know what? I love these characters and I love these actors and I can imagine a world where they make a good version of the show happen, so I’m just going to let this play out. It might all suck (though it’s hard to imagine anything being worse than Troy and Britta in the fountain again because oh my spirits was that dreadful), but it might not.
And this week’s episode, scripted by fan favorite and Team Harmon holdover/survivor Megan Ganz (who did just leave the show but only after Season 4 was complete), suggests exactly that. Community still has some life left, especially when it concentrates on the characters’ fundamental fears and hang-ups instead of shouting and half-baked meta-baiting. “Paranormal Parentage” wasn’t as innovative as the show's last two Halloween episodes, but it was mostly on a par with the Season 1’s “Introduction to Statistics.” Though it was fairly simple, it was effective, and led the way for the show moving forward. Meaning, the new showrunners don’t have any business trying to match Harmon’s creativity, but something they can do is go easy on the gimmicks and tell warm, maybe slightly softened stories about who these characters are as they approach graduation. And even though this is all happening by accident, moving back toward a Season 1 vibe feels like the perfect way to wrap up their time at Greendale. It sort of mirrors college in that way: You start slow, go HAM for a couple of years, and then (hopefully) realize it’s time grow up.
“Paranormal Parentage” moved a few characters toward big realizations, even if some of the beats were slightly repetitive. The haunted Hawthorne mansion setup provided a few random gags that worked (the sex room; the scene that's appeared in several show promos with Abed making reference to how Community "used to be about a community college”), but it mostly served to tell a nice little story about Jeff and Pierce’s respective daddy issues. While at the end of last season, Pierce kinda-sorta moved past his problems and Jeff mustered up the courage to Google his con-man father (and apparently Jeff referring to him as a terrible con-man was accurate, if he was easy to find on Google), those momentous events only temporarily solved their problems.
Without his father—or Troy, for that matter—hanging around, Pierce’s mansion has gone to hell and he kind of has, too. He set up the haunted house gambit solely to bring the study group to his home, and even when Jeff called him on it before the performance even began, the group got suckered in. It was kind of like the sadder, kinder version of the bequeathing Pierce performed in “Introduction to Documentary Filmmmaking,” and I think it served this version of the character better. The group has moved past its real hatred for Pierce; now they just feel bad for him. It’s not vitriolic pity, they’re just sad.
But it turns out Pierce isn’t the only sad-sack in his family. As the end of the episode revealed, Giancarlo Esposito’s Gilbert, Pierce’s half-brother, has been even more aimless since learning that he'd been left in charge of the Hawthorne estate when Daddy Cornelius died. He has no one to serve, nothing to really worry about—except himself, and that’s what makes him sad. He and Pierce have nothing in common other than that they’re alone, but for one middle-aged dweeb and one racist senior citizen, that’s probably enough to start a real bond. I know Pierce is easy to hate (and Chevy Chase is really easy to hate, but it’s nice to have the show ask us to feel something other than disgust or pure pity for the character. All Pierce ever wanted is a friend. Maybe Gilbert can be that friend. Chevy’s pretty good at making the character just sympathetic enough, and that was on display in this episode.
The strongest part of "Paranormal Parentage," however, involved Jeff and his daddy issues. Yet again, Britta’s terrible armchair psychology worked its backwards magic, pushing Jeff to talk about how all he ever wanted to do was move on from his dad and getting him to acknowledge that he'd found his father’s phone number online and had been carrying it around, even in his Halloween costume. Joel McHale nicely mixed Jeff’s resistance to Britta’s unprofessional and unsolicited advice with his vulnerability once he realized (for like the hundredth time) that he didn’t want to end up like Pierce, angry and alone.
Though we didn't get a big pronouncement about it, this was a major development for Jeff. He’s been outwardly in denial about his father for years, but acknowledging his search to someone else—and if you want to read something important into the fact that Britta knows first, go ahead—signals that New Jeff is actually a real thing. He’s still a selfish prick, but he knows he doesn’t always have to keep the guard up with the study group. He still didn’t tell everyone about having his father’s number, nor did he say anything about the boxing gloves belonging to his father, but this is still Jeff Winger, after all.
And now he’s made that phone call. Choosing Greendale in last season’s finale helped Jeff accept himself and his circumstances; reconnecting with his father, in any fashion, will only help him further. The journey toward Not Pierce is on.
“Paranormal Parentage” didn't light the world on fire, but it was a stabilizing, promising episode for this new season of Community. Though I’ve heard some questionable things about next week’s Inspector Spacetime-centric episode (pro tip: Don’t workshop ideas at Comic-Con, writers), I think this one served up a good model for the show from here on out. These are likable characters who we all have rooting interest in. Getting them to graduation, ready for the world, is a worthwhile story to tell, and one that doesn’t need all the pop-culture riffs or yelling. More like this, please.
– To further the “Season 1 redux” point, it’s worth noting that this episode focused almost entirely on Jeff, Pierce, and Britta. Oh, and Troy is just not in a good place right now. The writers are struggling to: 1.) Find traction between him and Britta, and 2.) Remember that he’s not a full-blown imbecile. We're getting girly sneeze Troy. Don’t do that anymore, show. Donald Glover’s still doin’ work though; his line delivery in the moment Troy broke the remote was great.
– Shirley’s judgment of Britta seemed somewhat out of place, but also not. She acted that way in “Remedial Chaos Theory” as well, and I understand her desire to protect Troy.
– No Chang and very little Dean this week, which makes sense, but was a little disappointing. The show has the tendency to introduce these big Chang stories early on and then just completely lose the thread. I'm hoping that doesn’t happen again.
– Whose costume was your favorite?
– Annie and Jeff are certainly in a different place now, aren’t they? They’re texting about matching Halloween costumes? Shipper hearts be a-flutterin’ this Valentine’s Day.