NBC’s cult classic sitcom Community returned this past week after a shaky fourth season that failed to live up to fan expectations. Now that the show’s back and flaunting the return of its original producers and writers, we’ve gathered our own team of pop culture crazies (Madie Coe, Dominic Griffin, David Lebovitz, Sam Paxton & Dylan Roth) in the Deadshirt.net study room to discuss the two-part season premiere.
Dylan: I missed this show so much. Community is a show I go back and re-watch frequently, but the fourth season (which the new episodes have dubbed “The Gas Leak Year”) never inspired a single repeat viewing, and there were one or two episodes I really struggled just to sit through.
David: Last season featured the same Community setups we expected, but the biggest flaw was the execution. There may be no better example of this than the Halloween episode in Pierce’s mansion – it featured character development and had a good concept, but it was hard not to walk away feeling like something was missing. The Britta/Troy pairing was poorly executed beyond belief.
Sam: I actually went back to rewatch a couple Season 4 episodes after watching the premiere (and I deliberately picked episodes I remembered as particularly weak, no less), and I was struck by how regressed the characters felt. It felt like we were in Season 1 again, before it got good. Infantile, Jeff-obsessed Annie, Jesus-freak Shirley, and just dumb, dumb Troy. That’s my biggest gripe with Community-sans-Harmon: the writers knew how to write jokes that sounded like what Harmon would have written, but they forgot how to write characters the way he did, nuanced and organic.
Dom: While we can all agree on the intense level of fannish glee we experienced upon finding out Dan Harmon was going to take Community back over, I think it’s safe to see that burbling beneath that excitement was a sense of dread. What if Harmon can’t make it work? Who will we blame for our show being mediocre now, if not the interfering network and the inept showrunners they brought in to replace the show’s very creator?
Madie: “Repilot” and “Introduction to Teaching” definitely feel like a fresh start. I‘m one of those who has watched the show since its pilot season and been disappointed by the meta-gimmicks of the subsequent ones. Happy to report none of that here.
Sam: I disagree, I thought there was a fairly heavy dose of metatext in the episodes; maybe it wasn’t to the point where the entire episode was a spoof of something, but there were plenty of winks, nods, and callbacks. Abed’s “555 phone number” bit had me rolling, in particular.
Dylan: Looking back at some clutch early episodes of Community, I think the key to the heavy use of meta and referential humor in the show is that knowledge of the referenced events or material enhances the viewing experience but isn’t a prerequisite. For example, “English as a Second Language,” which introduces Troy The Magic Repairman story, makes heavy-handed jabs at Good Will Hunting, but it’s still funny if you’ve never seen the film.
Madie: Like Jonathan Banks (Mike Erhmantrout from Breaking Bad) as the Criminology teacher?
Dylan: Exactly – if you watch Breaking Bad, it’s that scary mercenary guy acting silly, but if you’ve never seen it, it’s still funny because his character comes with the scary guy/silly situation juxtaposition built right in. They did the same thing in season three with Michael K. Williams’ (The Wire) ex-con Biology teacher.
Madie: Could you imagine? “It’s one duck, his name is Jim, and publishers are interested!” And then he shoots up a bunch of Mexican cartel.
David: Indeed, I am hoping for a sly Breaking Bad reference, a la Professor Kane’s “a man’s gotta have a code” bit.
Dom: Jonathan Banks as Buzz Hickey is my new favorite character on television. He’s hilarious and he fills much the same role as Pierce but in a considerably less cloying way.
David: Perhaps the weirdest thing was hearing him laugh. MIKE DOESN’T LAUGH!
Dylan: Big changes are definitely in store for the cast. This was to be the first Chevy Chase-less season, although he did score a surprise cameo in “Repilot.”
Dom: Didn’t miss Pierce at all, though I was delighted by his cameo.
David: I want a Pierce hologram to introduce people to my alma mater.
Dylan: And Donald Glover (Troy) will be departing after just 3 more episodes. In classic Community form, there’s a joke about it right off the bat.
Dom: I thought the Troy “After all Scrubs has done for him?!” bit was a little cheap and obvious, but I still laughed at it.
Sam: Anyone else catch that not only was the ending voice-over actually Zach Braff, but it was almost verbatim from a Scrubs episode?
Dylan: I thought it was possible that they literally just ripped the voice-over from the Scrubs episode in question, but then this is the show that paid George Takei to bookend their Halloween special for literally no reason.
Madie: I don’t want to say goodbye to Troy, especially since he still seems to inhabit the “sidekick” role that Jeff calls him out on in “Repilot”. As much I love the tender friendship of Troy and Abed, I want him to find a direction before he graduates. But I look forward to more good things from Donald Glover. And no character who leaves a show ever truly dies these days.
Dom: It seems that much of Troy’s character arc in season three was completely ignored during the Gas Leak, and he seems to have regressed here as well. I just hope he’s written off well.
Dylan: Let’s get back to the concept that this first new episode is named for: Repiloting. This season definitely looks like it’s going to try to differentiate itself from previous years in story, while recapturing the good old days in tone. Jeff is a teacher now, the rest of the main cast has new goals and ambitions (except for Britta) and there’s an influx of new supporting players.
Madie: I like that “Repilot” starts darkly. It doesn’t make excuses. (It does have a robot battle. Cool.) However, I’m not sure it entirely resets the show. As quick-witted and outstanding as the writing is with Dan Harmon back on board, many of the jokes rely on “in” humor for existing fans of the show. It’s not going to grab new audiences and according to the ratings, failed to bring back those disappointed.
Dom: Harmon returning is obviously less of the network wanting the show brought back to its roots and more that they’re so much closer to the magical syndication episode count that they could get away with letting Annie’s Boobs run the show and it wouldn’t matter, so why not indulge in a little fan service for the nerd set?
Sam: Don’t forget that NBC, former comedy titan, lost two big shows last spring (The Office and 30 Rock). The new comedies launched in their void are universally bland – not even Michael J. Fox’s star power can help. With Parks & Rec as the only sure thing, it seems to me like they knew after the Community’s Season 4 backlash that they’d do well to hang on to the small but rabidly devoted fanbase they had cultivated by bringing back the one man who could possibly save it.
David: I’ve never seen a show pull off a full return after a comeback season. Example: Season 4 of Dexter was amazing after a good-but-not-elite third season, but went massively downhill afterwards.
Dom: Luckily, as evidenced by these first two episodes, things are back on track. Not since the fifth season of Buffy spin-off Angel has a show so cleverly given itself a new lease on life. They gave us what we expected (Jeff becoming a teacher) and presented it in an interesting light, getting more out of an obvious plot point than most shows manage to wring from their own premises.
David: I’m excited to see Jeff’s new dynamic with the Dean now that he is no longer a student. Will it turn into an aggressive/overly friendly dynamic like Robin and Patrice on HIMYM? Perhaps the Dean will still idolize Jeff but see him more as an equal faculty member than an hero? Maybe in a way comparable to Sheriff Truman’s relationship with Agent Cooper after Coop was deputized in Twin Peaks? (Speaking of, why hasn’t Community done a send-up of Twin Peaks yet? Maybe an appearance by Ray Wise as a professor? I’d watch it.) Could they continue to have the same relationship regardless of their actual position in school, like JD and Dr. Cox in Scrubs?
Madie: Anyone else notice that there were no Dean outfits? That’s actually a gimmick I like and miss.
Dylan: I’m okay with taking a breather from that. Season Four leaned on that pretty heavily.
Dom: I also cannot overstate how happy I was that they didn’t just shit on Season 4 the entire time, nobly acknowledging that many of the series’ lingering problems (needlessly self reflexive plotting and increasingly inconsistent characterization) were a product of the show in it’s original incarnation. “We can’t blame everything on the Gas Leak Year!” made my heart swell.
Dylan: The second episode of the hour-long premiere block, “Introduction To Teaching,” unburdened by the need to set up the new status quo, feels like a more typical episode of the show. I mean that in a good way – it’s definitely the funnier of the two installments. It’ll certainly be remembered as “The One Where Abed Goes Nicolas Cage Crazy.”
David: This episode made me think about Nicolas Cage in new ways. He may or may not be my new messiah. Nicolas Cage: Deadshirt.net Messiah.
Dylan: Let’s not go nuts.
Madie: The Nic Cage bit is what made “Introduction to Teaching” for me. I harbor an intense hatred for Nicolas Cage, but I think this might have explained why I shouldn’t kill him off in my own timeline.
Sam: I’m glad something could Chang your mind. Nic Cage is a treasure.
Dylan: A National Treasure?
Madie: The reason why it works so well is that Abed’s obsession doesn’t consume the episode, as it might have last season. Its humor doesn’t hinge on “being meta” but rather calling out Abed’s insanity and genius from a safe distance. I swear Danny Pudi might have actually become Nicolas Cage in that moment.
Dom: I think the entire Nic Cage thing is one of Abed’s best moments in the series. I like that these two episodes showed he has grown over the years, but is still a pop culture obsessive. Plots like these in the future will do him way more favors than any more Darkest Timeline shit or more sad Christmas episodes.
Dylan: This episode also gave some nice moments to the show’s most tragically underused character, Shirley, who in the right hands is always being revealed as a more complex person than even her friends know. Just a simple unexpected detail like “she has seen every Hellraiser movie” does her a great service.
Sam: I had a really good feeling the whole time I was watching, but I didn’t get the sense that they were absolutely nailing it until the tag on this episode. Abed and Troy hiding in disguise and accidentally eavesdropping on Professor Hickey’s really sad personal life is the perfect mix of funny and heartbreaking, the way only Community can do. Troy’s closeup single tear killed me.
Madie: The tags have always been one of the best parts of Community. Starting way back with “Troy and Abed in the Morning”.
Dylan: Well, I for one can’t wait to see where this (almost certainly final, for real this time) season of Community takes us. I’m all in on this, people. Don’t break my heart.
Sam: You think this is the last season? Sounds like you’re streets behind, Dylan.
Dylan: Stop trying to make that a thing.
David: May this year be a better experience than the final season of Scrubs.
Madie: I still believe in Community. I love it because it’s weird, surreal, and bitterly witty, but it still has a human (being) sweetness. The first two episodes are creatively strong and tell me my loyalty as a fan will not go unrewarded. I just hope that Harmon doesn’t play it safe and finds a way to surprise us in season five.
Dom: I think it was David Mamet who said that the conclusion of a drama should be both inevitable and surprising, and I can’t find a better way to describe the show’s new status quo. #sixseasonsandamovie
That’s about it for our Study Room Table discussion of the season premiere of Community! Let us know in the comments section or on our Facebook page if you’d like to see more pieces like this in the future.