Hi everyone! I hated Season 4 of Community! Like, really, really disliked it. And it was a special kind of hate, the type that's reserved for things that used to be great and then devolved into something awful and cheap. Season 4 was the series' Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a low point that nearly tarnished everything that came before it and hid in a metaphorical fridge. Episodes about Inspector Spacetime conventions, puppet episodes, Annie and Britta in Oktoberfest outfits—actually, scratch that last one—and absurd alternate timelines were nothing more than feeble attempts to recreate the imaginative universe that drew us to the show in the first place. Maybe you liked it, maybe you simply tolerated it, but I had to literally strap myself to the couch and throw away the remote control in order to finish Season 4. And I choked it down despite the awful taste. (I seem to remember liking "Herstory of Dance," though, so at least there's that.)
But still, I couldn't wait for Season 5. Why? Well, the reason made an appearance early in the Season 5 premiere, "Repilot." And I can pinpoint the exact moment:
Yep, Dan Harmon (and the very under-appreciated Chris McKenna) has returned to sail his rickety ship after taking a year off due to forced unemployment, and the results so far are tremendous. Both episodes that comprised the Season 5 premiere were better than anything that came out of Season 4, and they resurrected the delicate and charming voice that placed Community's first three seasons in that difficult-to-reach space between believable sentimentality and subversive drug trip.
Season 5 could've emerged from the rubble of Season 4 in a few different ways. There was more than one mention of a "Season 4 was all a dream" scenario, which would have been tactless and stupid. But given Harmon's behavior in the past, it wasn't out of the question. Thankfully, he instead approached Season 5 as a count-your-blessings new start rather than an egotistical "I told you so!" regripping of the reins, and Community returned to simpler times.
Season 4's overuse of Community trademarks like empty callbacks and exclusionary inside jokes (and let's face it: though the show has come to be known for those, they've become awfully stale due to repetition) gave way to a stripping-down of the characters to their most basic selves. Annie was the enthusiastic do-gooder, Britta was falsely inflated by an errant sense of self-importance (and not romantically entangled with Troy, PHEW!), Shirley was broken by a damaged personal life and feeling like she was outside the group, Troy was a lovable airhead and a goldmine of one-liners, Abed was still living on his own planet, and Jeff was struggling to balance being a shark-toothed gutter lawyer and an actual human being. Community is once again in the hands of someone who knows what makes the show work—the earnestness of the characters being a gateway to the absurd details. That's all a very boring way of saying that "Repilot" and "Introduction to Teaching" recaptured the magic that made the series the best network comedy of the decade, at least in the eyes of this oaf.
"Repilot" lived up to its title: It was a do-over that acknowledged the existence of Season 4 (Changnesia was faked! Jeff DID graduate! etc.) while also forgetting about it and clearing the table so the series could start anew. The episode was 30 minutes of re-acclimating viewers to the Community of old by performing open-heart surgery on the show and letting us witness what drives its pulse: caring about these characters. A less mature Harmon may have included a few cracks about senior year being like seeing your girlfriend get gang-banged, but this was no time for name-calling, this was a time to move forward. And moving forward would require an explanation of how Jeff might return to Greendale after graduating in the Season 4 finale. The answer (after a plot to gather the study group together to sue the school failed)? Make Jeff a teacher at Greendale!
That was largely covered in "Introduction to Teaching," the better of tonight's two episodes (and probably more indicative of how Season 5 will go down), as "Repilot" was more concerned with making us feel comfortable again than with being a nonstop laugh parade. Recasting Jeff as a teacher opened up the whole new world of Greendale faculty for the show to explore, and I already love it. Community's teachers have always been silly goons standing at the front of the classroom, rather than parts of the students' lives, but now they're an entirely new clique that we have a way into. And they're also lazy drunks. Making Chang a teacher again was long overdue, and Jonathan Banks' debut as Professor Buzz Hickey was even better than I could have imagined. "Go get your earring, you piece of human garbage." I could watch the way Hickey treated Leonard for days and probably will.
And instead of establishing a substantial divide between the teachers and students with the teachers wielding all the power, "Introduction to Teaching" quickly incited a very funny riot over the evil practice of grading "minuses," to illustrate that the students will always be a threat to the teachers because the former outnumbers the latter. And Jeff's newfound love of teaching and his desire to make Greendale a better place (I like this Jeff) cut the teachers down just enough to make them equals to the rest of the campus oddballs. "The teachers here are teachers here because they did something wrong, same as the students," Jeff said to squash the conflict before receiving a spaghetti shower from the angry mob. And he's right. Greendale is full of people who suck, and Season 5 will focus on Jeff leading the Student-Teacher Save Greendale Committee to bring Greendale to greatness. This will be fun.
The second half of the episode was Community back in full stride as Abed took a course called "Nicholas Cage: Good or Bad?" Excuse me, but how do I go back in time and skip attending a way-too-expensive liberal arts college to go to Greendale instead? Abed's Nic Cage blowup in front of class was hilarious, and for Abed's exercise in analyzing the enigmatic and polarizing actor to yield a look at both himself and the people around him was smart, witty, and poignant. Exactly how I remember Community.
We're all going to be a little over-excited about this successful return of Community, and that's great. But this is the part where I have to remind you that "Repilot" and "Introduction to Teaching" were merely "good" episodes of Community, and that Season 5 could very well get even better. Either way, "good" Community is still a whole lot better than every other network comedy, so I'm going to ride the wave of elation, remove those pesky minuses, and give these episodes an A. It's good to have you back, old friend.
– Troy: "Do you guys feel weird about doing this without [motions to Pierce's chair] Magnitude?"
– For all of Troy's awesome zingers, he wasn't much more than a guy who delivers zingers in these first two episodes. I guess I don't have a problem with that, but we'll need a bit more from him before his permanent exit in Episode 5.
– HAHA Annie's Witness Intimidation Project! I almost peed myself.
– Why do I feel like I was the only person who was REALLY excited about the brief return of Pierce? I don't care about his off-camera antics, I love Chevy Chase and always will.
– Did I miss Vicky? Was she involved in the riot? She's TERRIBLE!
– Speaking of Pierce, is he essentially being replaced by Buzz? Will Buzz be at the table during the show's study room scenes?
– WHOA I loved the end tag of the second episode. That was some terrifying shit right there, and it tops the Pranks Gone Wrong list. Listening to a creepy professor sort out his issues on the phone while disguised as furniture and a tree? So dark and so funny.
– Am I being a pessimist if I think the ratings for Community will still be entirely disappointing?
What'd you think of the Season 5 premiere?