Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Unlikely Return of "Community"

We are six episodes into the fifth season of low rated but still chugging "Community," which is now on hiatus for the duration of the Sochi Winter Olympics, so I'm taking the opportunity to take stock of how things are going. Yes, showrunner Dan Harmon is back at the helm, and yes, it feels like the show is on track again, not only correcting for the muddle of the Harmon-less fourth season, but also taking a few steps back from the occasional overcomplications of the third season as well. There have been other changes to the status quo that have been handled well so far, but it remains to be seen if the show can sustain them in the long run.

First and foremost, it's clear that this is not going to be the same show going forward that the fans have grown to love. Jeff Winger graduated at the end of last season, so the premiere was dedicated to getting him and the rest of the gang back to Greendale. Jeff is now installed as a teacher, and the study group is now a "Save Greendale" teacher-student committee whose members eventually include Professor Duncan and the reinstated Chang. There's also a new face in the cast, criminology professor Buzz Hickey, played by "Breaking Bad" vet Jonathan Banks, the replacement for the not-so-dearly departed Pierce, who bowed out last year. Banks has been pretty good so far, though considerably less prone to absurdity than Pierce.

However, the biggest change to the show's dynamics is that Donald Glover left after the first five episodes of the season, and the character of Troy Barnes was written out - but not without a big, crazy sendoff proportionate to his contributions to "Community." How will the rest of the group, and especially Abed move on from this? We've only had one post-Troy episode so far, but it was a decent one that gave Abed a lot to do, so hope springs eternal. My guess is that the writers will let Abed come out of his autism spectrum informed pop-culture shell a little more and put the bouts of mental instability behind him for good. As entertaining as his afflictions were, they ended up taking "Community" to some odd places I'm not sure it should have gone.

Other characters are also being adjusted. After a string of nutty subplots, Chang is a teacher again, but still the low man on the social totem pole. Jeff is very much a work in progress, adjusting to his role as a new teacher and licking his wounds from another round of recent failures. With their romantic entanglements either resolved or shelved, Britta is back to being the well-meaning meddler and Annie is once again the idealistic overachiever. There's a big emphasis on grounding storylines back in community college life, which I'm very happy about. While it was nice to see the characters outside of Greendale, the school is really the heart of the show, and the characters work best within it.

Individual episodes have had their ups and downs as usual. The premiere was mostly about setting up the rest of the season, and I found the two "normal" episodes so-so, about on par with similar ones from the first season. However the two more conceptual installments, "Cooperative Polygraphy" and "Geothermal Escapism," dealing with Troy's departure, are "Community" at their best. These are episodes that you couldn't have had without Dan Harmon. It's one thing to have everyone at Greendale playing a giant game of "The Floor is Lava," but it's another to use it to turn the school into a surreal post-apocalyptic "Mad Max" version of itself, and also simultaneously have it double as a metaphor for Abed's fears of letting go at the same time.

Best of all, I like that I don't know where the show is going from here. The most damaging of the dangling plot threads left over from seasons past have all been cleared away. Jeff's four-year deadline is gone, and he's essentially starting over from scratch. The rest of the gang hasn't committed to any new recurring storylines yet, though I suspect we'll be seeing some soon. Harmon and company could go anywhere they want, and with ratings holding steady they have the time to get there. Six seasons and a movie is looking like a real possibility since the rest of NBC's Thursday schedule has tanked so badly.

I'm sorry to see Troy gone and I'm not totally onboard with Hickey yet, but the future of "Community" looks pretty good right now. There aren't many television shows that have managed to pull out of a nosedive like this, and the fact that "Community" managed it so well is very heartening. I'm glad I decided to stick with the show through its bumpiest stretch and look forward to even better to come.

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