Look, I didn't want to start this discussion of Community's return talking about Dan Harmon either, but what we have here is an unavoidable Dan Harmon-sized elephant that, uhhh, isn't in the room anymore. If you're a die-hard Community fan, it had to be on your mind. It was impossible not to think, "WWDHD?" while watching the ironically titled "History 101," because his demented genius and stubbornness was integral to the show that in the past gave us alternate timelines, a My Dinner With Andre spoof, and a clip show featuring never-before-seen clips. And maybe it's because I knew he was gone that "History 101" felt like someone else's Community, and not the one I had adored so much the previous three years.
That's not to say the episode was terrible, because it wasn't. In fact, there were a few signs that the show can still be as good as it's ever been. But now I know how that kid felt when he came home from summer camp to a dog that looked an awful lot like his best friend but wasn't because an 18-wheeler flattened old Fido and
NBC the kid's parents figured they could fool him with a new pup that looked the same. The old gang was all here—Jeff, Britta, Annie, Troy, Abed, Shirley, Chang, Dean, Fat Neil, Vicki (ugh! Vicki! She is THE worst of the worst!), and Pierce—but the Community we saw tonight was more of a competent facsimile than the magic-making sitcom that was so streets ahead.
New showrunners Moses Port and David Guarascio currently have one of the most unenviable jobs in Tinseltown, but they're clearly fans of the show and wanted to give us a premiere that walked, talked, and meta'd like the Community we once knew. In a single episode, they parodied a movie, included an animated sequence, and cleverly addressed the uncomfortable situation regarding the regime change. On paper, that's a Community explosion, but in practice, it made for one heck of a busy episode that hit the marks it thought we wanted to see it hit rather than coming out swinging on its own. Port and Guarascio need to make their version of Community rather than the one they think will please fans, and they're more than capable. They're behind one of my favorite sitcoms of all time, the delightfully wacky and touching (and underwatched) CW comedy Aliens in America, which shares some traits with Community. Seriously, go download it (it's not on DVD), because it's great.
But, yeah, consider, for example, Abed's multi-camera comedy Community fantasy land. It was an instant nod to the upheaval behind the scenes, a recognition of how Community might be if NBC had its way completely with the show. It was also a really funny joke and something the old Community would have done. But it never really made it to that next level (beyond the incepting Community Babies) Harmon was always living on. In Harmon's Community, Abed might've gotten stuck in a nightmare scenario with the real world affecting Abed's fantasy world and vice versa and the whole thing would play out like a sly spoof of Die Hard. It would be some mind-blowing shit and we'd talk about it for weeks. Tonight, it felt more like a sketch within the show that had good intentions but never really paid off.
But for every thing that didn't work in "History 101" there were also things that did. Just as the multi-camera gag was flailing, the hilarious fake-show ads (American Sword Cooks and Blonde/Blind) sprung up. Real-world Pierce was wasted figuring out a joke about balls, but Fred Willard as alterna-Pierce was amazing on like twenty levels. There were small splashes of the old Community here and there, which gives me hope for future episodes, but "History 101" never cannonballed into the deep end.
It's impossible to single out what made the Harmon-era Community such a revolutionary sitcom, and that's part of what made it such an unpredictable treat each week. That's also what's going to make it hard to define what's missing in the post-Harmon era, other than Dan Harmon. I hate myself for looking at "History 101" under a microscope and wish I could jump headfirst off a rock to give myself Changnesia so that I never knew Dan Harmon left. Maybe then I wouldn't be so aware that something was missing. Seeing a show I love so dearly without the creative force behind it is foreign territory to me, and I'll admit that I'm confused and don't know what to think.
But let's not hang ourselves yet, we've only seen ONE episode of Season 4 so far. And it's the episode we're going to scrutinize the most. Plus, we can't forget that even with Harmon on board, the show was prone to duds. I didn't want to jump ahead and watch the second episode that was sent to critics (the Inspector Spacetime convention episode, which is scheduled to air on February 21) because I wanted to be on the same level as you guys when writing this up, but critics I trust are saying it's more of the same hollowed-out Community. Not that it'll deter me from watching, though, because even a disappointing episode of Community is better than most sitcoms.
As a fan of Port and Guarascio's previous work, I still think they can pull this off. But they're going to have to do it on their own terms and not try to retrace Harmon's bootprints. This was the hardest of the episodes to handle, now let's see what they can do once the pressure off.
– I wrote down the lyrics of the theme song to Abed's Happy Community College Show:
This is my show, it's about me,
And all my friends on Abed TV
My happy place, nothing but fun,
Nothing but laughs and smiles and then we rerun
For those times when life's too hard to face,
I'll find some happy in my happy place
Abed's Happy Community College Show is filmed before a live audience inside of my head.
– The biggest deansappointment in the episode was how Dean Pelton was treated. He was just a dress-up doll with a crush on Jeff. That's definitely part of his character, but he became one of my favorite characters over the last season and a half for many other reasons.
– Britta and Troy at the wishing fountain was a low point, possibly for the series and not just the episode. Annie and Shirley prankin' just sorta happened. And the big Hunger Games parody felt underused. Or overused. I'm confused!
– Again, fake shows: AWESOME. Fred Willard: AWESOME. Changnesia: GOING TO BE AWESOME.
– Don't forget, it wasn't just Harmon who left. Writers/producers/directors/actors Chris McKenna, Neil Goldman, Garrett Donovan, Dino Stamatopoulos, and Anthony and Joe Russo also departed. This is going to be an interesting season, guys. Hold me.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom