Watching last night’s two-part season premiere of Community was like greeting an old friend who just returned from a long trip around the world. He’s a little different than you remember, and he hasn’t quite readjusted to the rhythms of his old life, but he’s happy to be back and he’ll readjust soon enough.
Of course, Community didn’t go abroad last season – it went adrift. After Sony unceremoniously dumped the show’s idiosyncratic creator and showrunner Dan Harmon, replacing a singular voice with two journeymen Moses Port and David Guarascio, Community turned into an awkward hybrid of generic two-dimensional sitcom and desperate Community imitator. Aside from the dreadful premiere and finale, the show rarely fell above or below average, with a few episodes landing reasonably well but without the soaring heights of the show at its peak. Sony’s attempt to broaden the show’s audience failed – the show’s audience wasn’t ever going to expand no matter how many changes were imposed, and the loyal fans were unsatisfied with the subpar performance of the show in its unlikely fourth season. In a desperate attempt to win back the show’s jaded audience, Sony rehired Harmon in an apparent first for network television, hoping to stretch the show to syndication without alienating its core fanbase.
Somewhat against the odds, the approach seems to have worked, at least creatively. Last night’s episodes weren’t among the show’s strongest, but they managed to smooth over the inconsistencies of season four while regaining the show’s trademark mix of uproarious laughs and unexpectedly potent dramatic stakes. “Repilot,” the first of the night’s episodes, got off to a creaky start as the newly graduated Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) returned to Greendale with intentions to sue and ended up reuniting with the old study group, all of whom realized their time at the lackluster community college hadn’t given them the satisfaction they’d hoped for. Even as the plot mechanics grew tiresome, signs of life perked up almost immediately. Troy, Annie, Abed and Shirley felt less like the cartoons of season four and more like the human beings (or Human Beings) of the first three seasons. Chang’s brief appearance enhanced the show rather than threatening to swallow it whole. The characters’ long-term arcs regained their emotional weight, with the study group banding together to achieve the dreams they’d forgotten to realize during their first four years at the school.
Oh, and the show made me laugh! It rarely did that in season four. I knew Community had returned when I heard this line from the lovable Britta: “That’s like me blaming owls for how much I suck at analogies.” A great joke, signaling the show’s return to form.
The second episode, “Introduction to Teaching,” was an improvement over the narratively cumbersome premiere. Improvements over last season: Jeff and Annie’s relationship is deeper than romantic hijinks and misunderstandings. The story culminates in a victory for the community (ding!) of Greendale in addition to Jeff and his friends. Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad, as grizzled veteran teacher Buzz Hickey, is gamely filling the hole vacated by Chevy Chase’s Pierce Hawthorne.
And again, really funny. Abed’s Nicolas Cage impression alone killed, not to mention the return of Magnitude, Dean Pelton’s uncomfortably lengthy induction ceremony set to “Pomp and Circumstance,” and Buzz’s struggles with cartooning. If the show never reaches the heights of “Cooperative Calligraphy,” “Remedial Chaos Theory” or “Mixology Certification,” no one will fault it: five seasons is a long time to keep a show at the peak of its creative capacities. (Don’t get your hopes down, though: I hear this season’s fourth episode, airing in two weeks, is a stunner.) Nonetheless, it’s nice to be reminded that business decisions don’t always kill creativity.