"I don't know why I was so worried about change. This year is going to be great!" That's what Dean Pelton said at the end of last night's characteristically layered episode of NBC's beleaguered (but still beloved) sitcom Community. Technically, Dean was speaking to Jeff, but more pointedly, to the show's cult of obsessively devoted fans — attempting to reassure us that even in its latest iteration, the Community we're watching is every bit as strong as the Community we left behind.
That reassurance is needed. The Verge's Robert Ingraham has an exhaustive breakdown of Community's behind-the-scenes drama over the past year, but here's a rundown in brief: Shortly after Community was renewed for a fourth season, Sony Pictures Television fired creator and showrunner Dan Harmon. In the months that followed, several of the series' most talented writers jumped ship, including Chris McKenna (who now writes for Fox's The Mindy Project), Megan Ganz (who now writes for ABC's Modern Family), and Dino Stamatopoulos (who also played fan-favorite supporting character Star-Burns). In November, star Chevy Chase — who had been openly critical of both Dan Harmon and Community itself for years — quit the show before the season had wrapped (though writers insist they've found an organic way to write his character, Pierce Hawthorne, out of the story). And in the midst of all that turmoil, Community's fourth season premiere was unceremoniously postponed from Oct. 19 to Feb. 7.
How could Community overcome its many off-screen problems and live up to the sky-high expectations of the show's skeptical fans? By openly acknowledging — and even embracing — the show's problems while charting an unsteady but hopeful course for its future.
Community's fourth season premiere writes many of the show's widely reported production problems directly into its story. The episode begins as Abed imagines a watered-down, laugh-tracked, three-camera sitcom version of Community that's basically an exaggerated version of what some speculated would happen to the show without Dan Harmon at the helm. The show tips a hat to the problems with Chevy Chase by recasting Fred Willard in his place even before Chase actually decided to leave the show.
But even as the premiere episode preaches the virtues of accepting change and moving forward, Community is working very, very hard to reassure fans that nothing at Greendale has changed. In addition to the show's regular cast, we're reintroduced within minutes to Leonard, Neil, and Annie's Boobs (to the uninitiated: that's the name of a monkey). And in an interview in October, Community's new showrunners, David Guarascio and Moses Port, promised fans that they would "continue the path that's been blazed in the first three years."
Some reviews have described an "emptiness" or a "zombification" of the show's fledgling fourth season, which I think is overcritical. As someone who has obsessively followed Community's tumultuous off-screen history, I had to force myself not to scrutinize the fourth season premiere like a Where's Waldo? book, searching for the bum notes that revealed that Community had devolved into a lesser version of itself.
Those bum notes are there if you look for them — but they were also there before. The irony of Guarascio and Port's fervent, repeated promises not to change Community is that not changing is a very un-Community idea. Unlike any other live-action sitcom on television, Community has the playfulness and elasticity of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, which opens doors that would be utterly unavailable to other series: A Claymation Christmas episode, a Ken Burns-style documentary about a massive pillow fight, an episode set almost entirely within a 16-bit video game.
Those experiments paid huge dividends — but not every similar narrative experiment has. That's what made Community such a darling of both critics and its media-savvy fans: When it failed, it failed by daring greatly, which meant that it was always easy to love — even after a string of episodes I didn't particularly like.
And as for the fourth season premiere: It's a mixture of good and bad, but it's all plenty promising. Abed's warped sitcom "happy place" is a perfect example of Community doing what Community does well; the subplots about Britta and Troy's wishing well and Shirley and Annie's senior prank are funny but forgettable; Pierce's attempt to come up with a good joke about Jeff's ball-gathering is a lazy retread of a joke the show already did earlier and better in an earlier season. If this wasn't the first episode in nearly a year, and if the show's off-screen problems hadn't been so widely reported, I suspect that fans would regard this episode as a solid outing for the series.
But the stakes are higher for die-hard fans, and the episode clearly addressed that. "We're going to keep changing in unexpected ways," says Jeff at the end of the episode, attempting to reassure both Abed and the fans — and I hope that's true. I also hope fans and critics aren't trying too hard to tear down the new Community, and that they give it time to find its footing. After all, they stuck around through much of the show's good but unremarkable first season — until a Goodfellas homage and a paintball war turned it into something much better and stranger — or the lower points of its second and third seasons, when the show sometimes collapsed under the weight of its own ambition.
It's been a long, troubled ride, but Community has been a scrappy series, and it's earned our patience — and our applause at graduation.
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