Hi, all. This is Alex Gladwin of The Tuesday Zone. I’m writing this article for Rooster Illusion’s Rooster Recap series, wherein various RI writers recap the most recent episode of some currently running television show. My focus is Community, NBC’s sitcom that, against all odds, is still on TV.
Community has been going through some tough times over the past year. The show-runner, Dan Harmon, was unexpectedly fired at the end of season three, so the show’s return for a fourth season was a shock. Then, the fourth season was, well, pretty rough. It felt like Community fan fiction, spare a good episode or two, and the potential for a fifth season was grim. Quite honestly, even though I’m a big fan of the show, the fourth season made me wish it’d been cancelled at the end of the third, when it was only slightly on the decline but still solid. Then, against all odds, Dan Harmon was re-hired to run a fifth season, and here we are.
Dan Harmon’s return brings with it some challenges. First of all, the ensemble cast plays students who have now graduated. Second, most of the characters lost a lot of their depth last season, admittedly in no small part because Harmon himself veered toward lazy characterization here and there in the third season—I am looking straight at you, Britta (Gillian Jacobs)—so reworking them into interesting, complex characters could fall on its face if it were to lack a smooth transition.
Harmon doesn’t completely sidestep these issues, but tackles them head on by starting the new season as if it were a new show. Community‘s fourth season was marked by lazy, autopilot storytelling. The ingenuity was lacking, more so than it had ever been. “Repilot” goes in the opposite direction, giving Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) a brand new character arc. The first episode of the entire series saw Jeff as a sleazy lawyer forced to go to a community college to legitimize his Bachelor’s degree. Over the course of the next four years, he learned to be a decent human being. Between the fourth and fifth season, though, he has failed as a lawyer because he tried to help people rather than make big bucks through immoral lawsuits.
Now, he’s jaded, and has the opportunity to ruin Greendale by suing it, prompted by a case suggested by Alan (Rob Corddry). A student received an Engineering degree from Greendale and built a bridge that collapsed, and now wants to sue the community college for providing him with a degree he absolutely did not earn.
Alan’s return made me nervous, as purposeless callbacks to old plots and characters is part of what made season four feel so cheap. But Harmon lets us know instantly that he’s still got a talent for making a series with natural, unforced story-lines and characters. Alan’s characterization is intact—he’s a spineless lawyer who is interested in furthering his own career at the expense of anyone—but he furthers the plot and provides an interesting moral dilemma for Jeff. Should Jeff sue Greendale, the place that changed him, since it apparently changed him for the worse? Alan isn’t superfluous; he’s necessary, and even essential to Jeff’s new character arc.
So, Jeff is going to infiltrate Greendale. Harmon has brought the man back to the school, and with justification. But what about the others? Well, the group is a band of lovable misfits who found their place at Greendale, so when they hear that Jeff is back—under the false guise of saving it from the impending lawsuit—they naturally rush to help him. Again, the driving factor in bringing the cast back together works, making the show not feel like it’s trying to crawl along on past successes, but instead ready to do something new.
From here, we learn what everyone has been up to: Annie (Alison Brie) peddles pills for a drug company, namely ones like those that ruined her life in high school; Troy (Donald Glover) hopes Abed (Danny Pudi) will get rich; Abed programs apps, since the only job he could get in the film industry was making a commercial for Jeff’s failed practice; Britta is a bartender, unable to find work in Psychology; and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is alone, since her business failed and her husband left with the kids. Everyone has fallen on hard times, and so this reunion provides them with a family that they all desperately need. Everyone has a story and motivation, which they haven’t for a while.
My favorite part of this reunion is Harmon’s not-so-subtle jabs at what was a problem not only in season four but in episodes before his departure. Britta has become the “group airhead,” despite being a well-meaning and passionate—albeit slightly ignorant and inept—person when we met her in season one. Troy’s character is defined exclusively in relation to Abed, which might be delightful to watch but takes away from both characters’ interesting points. The characters have changed, not in the way someone should over four years at college, but into simplified caricatures that serve cheap jokes for cheap laughs. With the meta-fictional dialogue that has been a major part of the series since the start, Harmon has told us directly that he’s willing to recognize his mistakes, and fix them with a hopefully artistic touch.
Jeff, rekindling his love for manipulation, convinces everyone to sue Greendale for its failure to serve them as students. The Dean’s sketchy behavior in the case of the Engineering student—including shredding transcripts and records—enrages Jeff, as he went to bat for Greendale as a school full of good people. Jeff tells the Dean that his job is to make Greendale a place people can be proud to attend. Realizing that suing the school is not the right thing to do—thanks to a hologram of Pierce (Chevy Chase), calling back to the days where Pierce, despite saying terrible things, had well-intentioned, human moments—Jeff strikes a deal with the Dean (Jim Rash) to save himself from his bankruptcy and the school from its incompetence by becoming a teacher. The rest of the group decides not to sue the school, but instead to re-enroll and get their lives back on track.
Thus, Harmon has gotten everyone back at Greendale, and started a new story that will allow him to return to mainstays of the series and do something new, all the while providing us with unique characters and human stories. “Repilot” reboots the series more effectively than I thought possible, and the exciting potential of both a Community of days gone by and a road untraveled means that fans that have stuck with the show—and maybe even people that have never watched it before—can enjoy a sitcom that made its way by making us laugh and care.
“Introduction to Teaching”
So, Mr. Harmon has given the show new life. What now, though? Well, Jeff is a teacher, which provides the most opportunity for growth. Immediately we see Jeff trying and failing to teach, followed by his walking down the halls flirting with a student and bickering with Leonard—you know, his typical schtick. But now that he’s a teacher, these actions are inappropriate, and he’s immediately called out on it. This sharply displays that, while some of the old humor might be here, the situational changes for the characters won’t be shrugged off. Jeff is out of his element.
Cue new cast member Jonathan Banks as teacher Buzz Hickey. He has a gruff persona, which fans of Breaking Bad will recognize. But Banks immediately shows that Buzz is not going to be a rehash of his character in Breaking Bad, and has a keen sense of comedic timing to go with his rugged character type. He shows Jeff the ropes of being a teacher. The Greendale faculty is given more focus than usual in this episode, with Drama professor Sean Garrity (Kevin Corrigan) showing up again, along with Chang (Ken Jeong) in a thankfully limited capacity. The opportunity for new characters is utilized, and also allows Jeff to maintain his socialite, playboy status with a new group of people.
The others, meanwhile, have enrolled in a course that asks the question, “Nicholas Cage: good or bad?” This is familiar cultural territory for most people who browse the internet or discuss movies with friends, and Abed is, unsurprisingly, intrigued. The professor, Garrity, warns Abed to tread lightly in regard to Cage films, and Abed gets lost in his own brain trying to determine whether Cage is wonderful or terrible. This might be a debate that has long lost its cultural relevance, but whatever.
During this madness, Annie has infiltrated Jeff’s law course and lets him know just how inept he is at teaching. She attempts to humiliate him in his own class, but in arguing she sparks Jeff’s strengths so that he can teach them to the class. While this works splendidly, Jeff learns that his new friend Buzz has given Annie an “A-” in order to infuriate her and make her leave Jeff alone. This whole plot line sets up a power dynamic between Jeff and Buzz, allowing the former to solidify his place as a teacher who can handle himself and the latter to respect the group. Buzz has a solid arc over this episode and develops even in the ten or so minutes he’s on screen, which makes me excited to see how his character plays out over the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, Abed’s obsession with answering the Nicholas Cage question has escalated. He returns to the class room looking batshit crazy, and goes on a monologue in which he employs most of the Cage cliches. Honestly, I think this bit is overdone and unfunny, only saved by the reactions of Troy, Shirley, and Sean Garrity. The humor is too bombastic and obvious, but having two solid episodes back to back make it a small negative mark on an overall strong duo of stories. Shirley’s chat with Abed after about how Cage’s skill is in his mystery also gives a nice ending to the plot line, so it’s not a complete failure.
Fortunately, the episode ends with a great moment: the Dean looks in on the study group, melancholily, while a woman sings his thoughts in French. It’s a wryly funny scene, simultaneously absurd, comical, and a little sad. That interesting mix of emotions is a strong point of the series, and I’m glad to see it employed successfully. I also think the end tag, in which Troy and Abed accidentally trap themselves in a room with Buzz as he makes some depressing phone calls, has this strain of humor, and gets the most earned laugh of the episode. The character-driven, bizarrely humorous Community might be back, and I’m excited. These episodes aren’t uproariously hilarious, but they are interesting stories and strong entries into a show that is hopefully back on track.
I’ll see you all next week, hopefully, in a discussion of the fifth season’s third episode. Let me know how you felt about these episodes—or my recap—in the comments.