Why I’m watching… Community
by Thom Yee
What a long, strange trip it’s been on our way to five seasons (in what, by now, will pretty much have to be at least six seasons and a movie). Community is my second favourite show of all time, and, despite my reservations about its more recent outings, I’m genuinely excited about the show’s potential going forward. Sure, Chevy Chase’s Pierce is long gone and Donald Glover’s Troy is not long for this timeline, but Dan Harmon’s back, and that’s absolutely everything I need to believe that we’ll get a show at least worth watching again, if not outright worshipping (again).
This time around, Jeff’s back as a teacher, the gang’s back because Jeff’s back, the magic’s back because Dan Harmon’s back, the show will re-find its footing after a lost season barely passed, and we’ll finally return to the fetishistic post-meta modernity we all love to watch get shoved up its own ass.
I was once a staunch supporter of Community. Without a hint of irony, hesitation, or sobriety, I held the show up as my standard for what the modern situation comedy should be and everything it could be. Oh how long ago 2010-11 and the show’s second season now feels. Season three was a step sideways (and possibly a small step down), but still strong overall. But then season four reared its head after the high-profile firing of series creator and showrunner Dan Harmon, and the show, to be fair and on balance, jumped straight off the rails, lost its mind, and pretended to have Changnesia.
To get the elephant out of the room right away… we’re back. The clever writing, the storytelling sensibilities, the relationships, the characters acting right and saying the right things… it’s all here.
Without getting too far into the premise of our premiere episode, “Repilot” effectively resets everything, not just to before our lost season (now officially referrred to as the “gas-leak year”), but to the series’ very beginnings. In forming a new start for the series, Harmon and company fearlessly stomp all over a year that most fans hated before attacking many of the show’s underpinnings that had formed even during his previous tenure. In a manner of minutes, Harmon manages to drag Jeff back from the altruistic do-gooder he had become at the end of season four to the fundamentally selfish (but not all bad) lawyer we know he is at heart before trashing everything the Greendale [now] Six have become. As Jeff puts it, “Britta, when we met, you were an eclectic anarchist. How did you become the group’s airhead? Shirley, you’ve gone from an independent divorcee striking out on her own to a bankrupt fry cook hoping for a call from her husband. Troy, your entire identity has been consumed by your relationship with another man. And what happened to Annie, the unstoppable go-getter? This was a four-year process… we went in one end as real people and out the other end as mixed up cartoons.” And that’s an indictment that cuts to the core of the series (and, to a large extent, most other sitcoms that manage to last this long).
There’s an inherent strength in confronting the truth of everything Community has become, gas-leak year or not, and it restores the integrity of the show before letting it really take an original direction (even as the show acknowledges other similar reboots like Scrubs‘ season nine). By the end, we find that while Jeff hasn’t changed that much since the series beginning, he did still learn his lesson after four years as a Greendale student. He’s still fundamentally self-serving, and the classic Winger monologue that ushers the Six’s return back to Greendale is more than a little forced, but at least it’s a forced truth that we want to believe.
Community “Repilot” final score: 9
Items of Note:
-I guess maybe I wasn’t paying attention before, but it now seems pretty clear Rob Corddry’s Alan (“Sundance”) is at least mildly homosexually attracted to Jeff (“Tango”… they worked with different partners).
-The school’s only award is from winning the debate from season one.
-“Herpes, comma, waterfountains?”
-Britta: “This school clearly got a finger up its butt as a child.”
-Troy (in a clear reference to Chevy Chase quitting the show): “Do you guys feel weird doing this without… Magnitude?”
5×02: “Introduction to Teaching”
Finding a way to stretch the show into more than four years without changing the setting or introducing younger castmates was always seen as a challenge Community would have to face eventually, but the truth is “only about 41 per cent of American undergrads graduate in four years” (this according to an article I found on the Internet because my college education has taught me that finding a single source is good enough and besides that the instructors never check anyway). Regardless, the reason our heroes were so easily returned to Greendale after graduating is that none of them have found work or contentment in their intended fields. While this is partly a byproduct of their education at Greendale, and mostly a dismissal of the fractured lessons they learned in their fourth “gas-leak year”, it’s also, on some level, an acknowledgement of the realities of any non-Ivy League college in America. For many of us, college can be the best years of our lives because they represent the only time we think, right or wrong, that we’re working towards becoming the person we want to become. For many of us, they’re the only time people will tell us that we’re doing the right thing. For many of us, it’s these blissful years — years that we’re fully aware of but choosing to ignore how hard it can be to get a good job and become all we can be — where we ever allow ourselves to feel any real hope for the future. For many of us, it’s no wonder that the Greendale Six almost jumped at the opportunity to go back to school. Because for many of us, even after graduating, we don’t feel that different or better about ourselves or the work world we’ve spent four (or more) years avoiding.
To the many of you who feel the same way, I’d just like to say… watching Community isn’t going to help you find that job. Oh, and… you are alone.
Annie’s back to get into forensic science (her actual dream), Abed’s back because his film degree hasn’t taught him how to work with other people (?), Troy’s back because he needs to figure out who he is (??), Shirley’s back to learn to run a business to her own standards (and not Greendale’s…???), and Britta’s back to become a real psychologist (quadruple question marks!). And Jeff’s back because he’s taken a teaching position as an introductory law professor, whereupon we’re introduced to Buzz Hickey, criminology professor and, basically, our old, bald guy stand-in in Pierce’s absence (only probably less directly racist and more directly hard to be around).
A lot’s changed in the series in terms of details, but what’s astonishing is how quickly the writers get the tone of the series right. As we watch Jeff get lectured by Annie (this time Annie’s a student in Jeff’s class, still teaching him what it means to actually try in school, student or professor), Abed attend a two-day course on Nicolas Cage, Britta and Troy occupy the background because this isn’t their week to star, and Shirley teach us the real lesson while reminding us that she’s a more well-rounded character than we often give her credit for (rather than just the religious one), it all works right from the start.
The story beats of this episode, as our heroes position themselves into their new roles, may not make for the most compelling episode of the overall show, but they are necessary and they fit seamlessly in a way that last year’s show runners were never able to find.
Community “Introduction to Teaching” final score: 8.5
Items of Note:
-Jeff reveals to Annie that every A minus is actually an A, but the professor just doesn’t like you. Sounds about right (though in my case I’m more curious whether A’s are really A pluses).
-“Slightly higher grades! Slightly higher grades!” the riotous crowd chanted.
-“We just went through an entire week of meatball lunches without even blinking!”
-It’s weird that we needed an explanation for why everyone in the Greendale Six would return, but all the familiar background students (Fat Neil, Magnitude, Leonard, Garrett) are also still there.
-Now that we’ve met much of the faculty, I really hope we get to see Professor Duncan or Professor Whitman again.
-Now that I think about it, I’m glad Community’s still on Thursdays. Anything else just wouldn’t quite feel right.