“Community” is somehow back for a fifth season, and with Dan Harmon restored as showrunner after his year away. I reviewed the start of the season in general on Monday, and I have specific thoughts on tonight’s two episodes coming up just as soon as I blame owls for how much I suck at analogies…
I’m glad NBC wound up airing these two episodes together. In sum, they lay out the major changes and directions for this improbable new season, while also offering a varied selection of tones. “Re-Pilot” is dark and introspective and has to deal with a lot of leftover business from the Port/Guarascio season, including Jeff’s graduation and, in real life, Chevy Chase’s exit from the series.(*) “Introduction to Teaching” is much lighter, and feels more like a typical episode of “Community,” if such an animal exists, even as it does some excellent character work with Jeff and Annie that, wonder of wonders, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with her crush on him (or vice versa). The first episode does most of the dirty work, while the latter gets to enjoy the rewards of that labor, but together they leave a strong sense of what “Community” is about in the Harmon 2.0 era and why a show about a guy trying to get his bachelor’s degree is continuing after he has secured one. (As have, it turns out, all of his friends.)
(*) As you may recall, part of the deal Chevy cut to leave the show early was that he had to return to do voiceover work for the puppet episode. I’m assuming his obligations ended with season 4, which made Pierce’s brief return in holographic form – giving Jeff the inspiration to stay at Greendale, and explaining why Pierce will no longer been seen on campus – a very pleasant surprise. Like the puppet voiceover, it was something he could do without having to interact with the rest of the cast. Still, given how public and ugly his feud with Harmon was, I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall during the discussions to have him do this cameo.
Both episodes are instructive in the ways in which the Port/Guarascio season, however well-intentioned, went awry. “Re-Pilot” is filled with callbacks (“I see your value now”) and meta humor (Troy objecting to Zach Braff’s minimal presence in the final season of “Scrubs,” just as Donald Glover will be leaving after episode 5), but the episode uses neither style of joke for its own sake. That Abed is reciting Jeff’s dialogue from the pilot, and comparing their current situation to “Scrubs Med”(**) isn’t (just) about Harmon and Chris McKenna being clever and self-referential. It’s a commentary on where the remaining members of the study group find themselves at this point, at the enormous ways in which they have changed for good (Jeff has empathy) and for ill (Britta went from anarchist to airhead), but also at the ways in which they haven’t changed at all. Each of them wound up at Greendale because, as Jeff notes in a quintessential Winger speech near the end of the second episode, something went terribly wrong in their lives, and they needed this place to fix it. They didn’t achieve their dreams, but they found each other and can work together to try and achieve the rest. There’s substance behind the humor, and a reminder of who these characters were and are, and that makes it all feel richer, and funnier.
(**) A season of that show I grew to like quite a lot, actually, once Braff (who contributed a new J.D. voiceover for the end of “Re-Pilot”) left, since the writers had unfortunately reverted J.D. back to his annoying late-era NBC persona.
By the end of the two episodes, we have a new status quo that doesn’t feel like a reinvention of the show, but rather a way to extend the things that worked while not simply repeating what happened before. Jeff’s a teacher. The study group is now the committee to save Greendale. Pierce has been replaced by Buzz Hickey (more on him in a minute). After trying and failing with lots of new roles for Chang, he’s back to the one that worked best: obnoxious, wildly unqualified teacher, as well as a character whom the writers are comfortable enough to use for only a single joke in an episode if that’s all they need (like “Re-Pilot”) or who can be more prominent if it’s called for (like being part of the teachers’ in-crowd in “Introduction to Teaching”).
It feels like a sturdy new structure, and one that’s used well throughout “Introduction to Teaching,” as Jeff grapples with the advantages and disadvantages of being faculty rather than a student. He can’t leer at co-eds anymore, but he now has a room he can go to where Craig Pelton isn’t allowed to follow. Leonard gets to insult him with impunity, but he has Buzz to in turn attack Leonard. He hates the idea of being a teacher but turns out to be accidentally very good at it (even if he’s teaching a very Jeff Winger perspective on the law). His conflict with Annie is terrific because it’s about their deep philosophical differences and not because of a sexual spark between them that the show has long since extinguished. The tension between students and teachers at the school has only been vaguely explored in the past, but the riot that erupts plays out well and gives a lot of the minor characters amusing things to do. It even makes Magnitude’s catch phrase (here delivered in a righteously furious tone) funny again!
And Jonathan Banks is really a treat as Buzz. I’ve seen the guy do sitcoms enough times in the past that his skill here isn’t a surprise, but he’s still been given an excellent character to play. Like his recent appearance on “Parks and Rec” as Ben’s dad, it’s a riff on his tough guy reputation from “Breaking Bad” and elsewhere, but there’s also a specificity to Buzz – his secret cartooning ambition, for instance, and his shame at not being able to draw duck bills well – that makes him feel like more than just Mike Ehrmantraut airlifted from New Mexico to Colorado. He also broadly fills Pierce’s major functions on the show – older guy who doesn’t get along with the rest of the study group, plus a would-be mentor to a reluctant Jeff – without being in any way a duplicate character.
I was still feeling tentative about the new season after finishing “Re-Pilot,” just because of how much work it had to do to turn “Community” back into “Community.” But “Introduction to Teaching” felt effortless, and fun, and better than I could have hoped for at this early stage. Whenever Harmon busts out another crazy high-concept episode, it’ll take place on a much stronger foundation than the show has had in a while.
Some other thoughts:
* Jeff Winger is named after John Winger, Bill Murray’s character from “Stripes,” and Harmon has generally modeled the character after Murray’s default screen persona from that era: the wiseguy slacker with an unexpected gift for bringing out the best in others through goofy but wise motivational speeches. His cafeteria speech in “Introduction to Teaching” is perhaps the most Murray-esque one Joel McHale’s ever been given, as it really evokes the “We’re mutts” monologue from the film that gave Jeff his last name.
* Kevin Corrigan returns as Professor Garrity (aka Professor Professorson), last seen in season 2’s “Competitive Wine Tasting,” which he referenced here in discussing how Abed’s “Who’s the Boss” obsession destroyed poor Stephen Tobolowsky. Here, he sets Abed down the dark and scary path of studying the works of Nicolas Cage, which allows Danny Pudi to bust out a hilarious Cage impression, as Abed simply can’t keep his inner Cage from getting out (“I’m a cat! I’m a sexy cat!”).
* About a year has passed since the end of season 4, and the entire study group (save Pierce, I would assume) has graduated, which makes sense. Jeff just graduated early due to the shortness of season 4 and his desire to get back to the law.
* Andre leaving Shirley and taking the boys with him is really sad, but her story has often been sadder than everyone else’s, and this at least eliminates future questions of why Shirley is spending so much time with these people when she could be at home spending time with her kids and/or husband.
* “My thoughts are French.”
What did everybody else think?