COMMUNITY: “Repilot” / “Introduction to Teaching”

COMMUNITY is back! And not just, like, back on TV, but back-back.

Greendale Community College, the second-highest-rated school on greendalecommunitycollege.com!

–The Dean

How is this show still on the air?  No, seriously? It debuted in 2009 to modest ratings, and — despite by the end of the season establishing itself as a unique comic voice — saw those numbers dwindle down to a speck. As a result, showrunner Dan Harmon made the comedy even more off-beat and esoteric. Critics loved it, and it had a very vocal cult following, but it was on the brink of cancellation every year of its existence. Ultimately, Harmon’s micromanaging and prickly, unapologetic style got him fired by NBC, but the show (tantalizingly close to the magic 100 episode mark needed for syndication) itself survived.

Brought over from fellow cult fave Happy Endings, Moses Port & David Guarascio had a thankless task in front of them, and while they attempted to recreate Harmon’s specific brand of mad genius, Season 4 was largely a dull, zombie-like, often-unfunny affair. There were a couple of passable episodes (the puppets come to mind), but the series quite literally became a distorted shell of its former self. Which made it all the more shocking when, this past summer, NBC made the unprecedented decision to bring Harmon (along with his top lieutenant, Chris McKenna) back to the show. Never before has a show’s creator flamed out so publicly and been able to later return to his brainchild.

Now, we’re just one more season and a movie away from fulfilling that ubiquitous hashtag, but what of the show’s current state? Harmon’s return isn’t the only seismic shift behind the scenes: Chevy Chase had his own long-brewing, acrimonious split, and Donald Glover is only giving us five episodes before leaving to spend time on his music (a potentially devastating loss). The big question: will all the behind-the-curtain upheaval be worth it? Well…if these first two episodes are any indication, this could be Community’s best year yet.

It’s a good thing these first two episodes were aired back-to-back, because together they make an excellent (re)introduction for the show. A year after Jeff’s graduation, his newly-legal law practice has gone underwater. As his furniture (and drinks) disappear, he gets paid a visit from his old partner, Alan (Rob Corddry), who has the scent of a big fish: a terribly-designed bridge has collapsed, and a Greendale alum is responsible. Jeff agrees to go get the alum’s records from the school in order to mount a defense, but — after an unsolicited hug from a panicky Dean — he finds them shredded. So he comes up with a new plan, a ruse to get his old study group to turn on Greendale, by showing them how they’re worse off now than before they ever came.

“Repilot” is extremely clever for both setting the new direction of the show and commenting on the lost-in-the-wilderness season 4, or what the characters are now calling “the gas leak year.” Chang returns (his “Changnesia” swiftly brushed aside) as a teacher once more, and Abed is ready with the callbacks and his usual meta shenanigans; this week’s running gag is a comparison to Scrubs season 9, which was that show’s attempt to reset itself just before running out of track. But I have a feeling this one will be more successful, because the dialogue is as sparkling as ever (Britta: “That’s like me blaming owls for how much I suck at analogies”), and the characters are more than just re-shuffled — they’re re-grounded. Dan Harmon is undoing all the damage, turning these “mixed-up cartoons” back into…well, human beings.

Jeff, after one more epiphany (thanks to a hologram of surprise guest star Chevy Chase, who apparently didn’t hate the show that much), ends up agreeing to help defend Greendale instead of the hapless (and unseen) architect, but all the Dean has to offer is a job — so meet the new Professor of Law! The problem is, as the second half-hour shows, Jeff has no idea what he’s doing, and doesn’t care to learn. Preferring to let his class teach each other while he sits back a la Jack Black in School of Rock, Jeff is back to (like in Season 1) just scraping by until he can get out of his responsibilities for good. (“I can’t just pretend I’m teaching, I’m not Mythbusters!“) Sure, he can’t make fun of Leonard or leer at pretty coeds anymore, but he gets a faculty lounge away from the Dean!

What’s more, he makes a new friend — 15-year Greendale veteran and Criminology professor Buzz Hickey, played delightfully by Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad, obviously; long live Mike!) Hickey is an aspiring cartoonist (his ducks need some work) and grade terrorist, torturing insufferable know-it-alls like Annie by giving out A-minuses when legitimate A’s are due. When Annie finds this out, she and Britta foment a rebellion, leading to a massively bizzare and funny sequence that — for the first time in a long time — fits right in with any other moment of the previous Harmon era. But Hickey’s cynicism appeals directly to Jeff’s nature, and it takes the course of the episode for the men to break down each others’ walls to find the broken dreamers underneath.

Meanwhile, Abed enrolls in Professor Garrity’s (a.k.a. Professor Professorson!) course “Nicholas Cage: Good or Bad?”, and as only Abed can do, must dive deep into the rabbit hole to discover the unknowable answer. The result of watching 70 Nicholas Cage films in a few days, while stringing notecards together across his apartment like Carrie Mathison off her meds? Abed’s mind breaks completely, culminating in a comedic tour-de-force from Danny Pudi, whose rambling, nonsensical, incredibly long Cage riff is a true thing of beauty. I was applauding it on my couch. That’s when I knew for sure that this show was back.

With Annie’s inadvertent help, Jeff actually discovers a latent enjoyment for teaching, and the hour ends with the foundation of an actual “Save Greendale Student/Teacher Organization,” with Hickey even sitting in Pierce’s old seat. To the show’s credit, it manages to treat this both as plausible, exciting character development and a nudging self-reference, presenting the Chase-Banks swap as a simple one-for-one when it is clearly so much more. It’s common knowledge that Harmon never wanted Chase, anyway (the studio did) — how much different would the series have been if he had cast someone like Banks from the very beginning?

Whether because or in spite of Harmon’s forced sabbatical, Community is showing that it’s not yet out of ideas. Will the ratings reflect it? Who knows? (It’s unlikely.) The important thing is that as a vibrant, creative, wacky, loveable enterprise, it’s done the impossible and raised itself from the dead. No more qualifications, no more settling, no more negotiating with ourselves to enjoy a hollow zombie show. In fact, to believe the advance reviews coming out of other corners of the internet, we should be in for quite a treat.

Extra Thoughts:

  • Seriously, how good is Jonathan Banks? He’s shown comedic chops before (and even played Ben’s dad on Parks and Rec last year), but he takes what could be very broad and abrasive character and makes him immediately lovable. He’ll be recurring often, and I couldn’t be more excited.
  • The patented bizarre Harmon tags have returned, with the Troy-as-armchair sight gag a particular weird delight, even with the melancholy tone that closing beat ultimately took.
  • Abed made Jeff’s mortifyingly dorky commercial? Of course he did. Of course, if it were up to Abed, he’d have never even put Jeff’s unoriginal “555” number on the screen.
  • The first episode was full of moments that came full circle with the original versions of these characters. I loved Annie breaking down after reflexively going into her drug sales pitch.
  • “You found my Clive Owen tumblog.”

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