TV Review: COMMUNITY S4E01, History 101 (Or, Dan Harmon Has Left The Building, And Yes There Is A Void, But All Is Not Lost)
Now why is it so important to make a fuss about Dan Harmon's departure from the show? Why does it matter who produces a show or not, I mean this isn't an art-house movie, is it? Well I assume I am preaching to choir here, but for those that don't know Harmon or Community all too well, Harmon's was a show that was most certainly the closest thing to an auteur-driven television program out there. As incredible as the ensemble cast is, as amazing as the stable of writers, directors and producers are, Harmon was, despite his curmudgeonly persona, the one distinct voice that drove Community to often bizarrely great heights.
What remains at the start of season 4 is promising, but it also feels like stepping inside your room after it's been stripped of everything that made it your room. That incredible ensemble cast is there, stellar chemistry intact. And look there's writer Megan Ganz now in a producing role and what's this? The episode is written by Andy Bobrow, the man behind such classic episodes as Mixology Certification and Geography of Global Conflict.
The men and women behind Community are some of the sharpest tools in the TV shed and they know fans have been worried about what a Harmonless Community would look like. To address this the most obvious running gag/plot point in last night's episode was the schlocky sitcom that takes place in Abed's head, complete with laugh track. The Abed TV network show is a safe, tried-and-true version of life at Greendale Community College. So tried-and-true that its central plot is about the dean making the study group repeat the last three years based on a flub with their records. Outside of Abed's mind, the study group's 4th year starts off with the deceleration that they're gonna be different. When the dean overbooks a History of Ice Cream class, Jeff vows to win all seven balls in the Dean's take on the Hunger Games (called The Hunger Deans, obviously), not just so that he can take the one history credit he needs to graduate a semester early, but because he truly wants to take one last class with his friends. Annie and Shirley get in on some senior prank action by popping popcorn in the dean's car, as well as moving everything on his desk except the stapler (to make it look like someone moved just the stapler). Meanwhile Britta and Troy are going places romantically, because now the longing looks of last season have turned into hand holding. When Abed opts out of his and Troy's annual wish-making at the fountain, Britta joins Troy, which ends in the episodes best physical gag (due props to the perpetually wonderful Gillian Jacobs as well as Donald Glover's line delivery of "This feels oddly good" as Jacobs strangles him). And then you have Pierce watching Jeff play the Hunger Deans, desperately trying to come up with a joke that involves balls, and Abed sitting beside him, seemingly passive the whole episode, tragically caught in the "happy place" of his mind.
The episode's pacing is more relaxed than a lot of the dense comedy that was taking place on the back end of the third season. The study group's exploits feel largely inconsequential, the major dilemma of the episode falling on Abed's mind TV and the hardcore fans' concerns of what the show could be, or what it now is. Though Abed sits apart from much of the episode's action, he almost plays an antagonistic role in presenting a safe, familiar Greendale compared to the actual one that is changing around him. As it has been so many times in the past, his fears are our fears, and that's the rub... by acknowledging that the show cannot be the same, there's something very desperate about it trying to cling to its old self. Much of it is done in "wink-wink" fashion, but it feels a little too hackneyed at times, perhaps a little too one-note. Now thank god the episode is not a full-on parody of the Harmon years, but it gets dangerously close, nearly forgetting the more nuanced moments the show has always managed to find amidst its pop culture heavy antics. If anything the show now feels a little more like those uncharacteristically goofy DVD covers that the previous seasons had been given: Wacky, with a couple more catch-phrases, and a little more broad comedy.
Then again, we're one episode into the season ... just one ... though with only 12 more to go for this (perhaps truly final) season can Community find a balance between the old and the new? My gut says "maybe." And after so much drama behind the scenes, and after so many possible cancellations, that "maybe" feels good enough. For now.
And now it is time for some random thoughts, or bits that didn't fit into the main review:
-In Abed's version of the show, Pierce is played by comedy legend Fred Willard, who was Dan Harmon's original choice for Pierce before NBC insisted on Chevy Chase. For this alone I hope we see more from the Abed TV Network.
-The Hipster glasses gag went off better than expected.
-The one appearance by Chang is at the end of the episode, where he approaches a postal worker, wet and naked, holding a note that says "Hello my name is Kevin, I suffer from Changnesia." Oh. Lord. I'm not sure how I feel about this one.
-The joke about Microsoft Paint was pure gold.
- the "Blonde/Blind" pop-up gag on Abed TV was nicely done.