If you’re enjoying watching Community for the first time, the anomaly of the fourth season might be a little bewildering. Where the rest of the show is witty, enjoyable and well-versed in pop culture without being obnoxious about it, season four is almost like an exaggeration of what came before, and yet if you can get through it, it becomes great again in season five.
For those of us more acclimatised to the volatile behind-the-scenes situation on the NBC show, you might remember that there was a season there where series creator and showrunner Dan Harmon was fired, only to be re-hired the following year in an unprecedented turnaround by the network.
With Harmon reinstated, season four looks even more like a blip. In universe, the whole season is referred to as “the gas leak year,” but in retrospect, is it totally indefensible as anything other than that? Did showrunners David Gurascio and Moses Port really do such a horrible job?
Harmon clearly didn’t have a very positive outlook when he finally watched the season himself, and the ensuing rant on his Harmontown podcast was extensively transcribed and quoted out of context in the online press. He has since apologized for the outburst, saying that it probably sounded very “un-Community” to the fans who had continued to support the show through to its fifth season. Still, there was one observation that rings true when you watch season four.
Harmon told his audience: “It’s very much like an impression. And an unflattering one. [NBC] replaced us with two guys who didn’t know what they were getting into […] and then I think they tried their best.”
We’re not going to rake over everything Harmon said, given how he’s since been clearer on the matter- you can listen to his original comments on his podcast (episode 60) or read his apology and clarifying remarks on his blog if you want more background. Frankly, it would be juicier if Harmon were to record commentaries on the season for a more balanced critique, but that seems pretty unlikely.
But to the immense credit of the interim showrunners, they did try, with the returning cast ensemble in their favor. As the study group’s fourth year at Greendale begins, Jeff is seeking a History credit from the cynical Professor Cornwallis (played by new regular Malcolm McDowell) so that he can graduate at the end of the semester, rather than the end of the year.
He also meets the father who abandoned him, a development that was teed up in the season three finale and shows how the showrunners tended to tug on any loose threads from the previous era. To that end, Britta and Troy are now dating, resulting in a relationship that feels like it fizzles out fairly quickly, even though it’s protracted over most of the run and then abruptly ended.
According to Harmon, “Inspector Spacetime fan convention” was one of the ideas left on the whiteboard when he was fired, and sure enough, the third episode of Gurascio and Port’s run, Conventions Of Space And Time, goes to an Inspector Spacetime convention and adds to the breadth of the in-show trivia about Abed’s favorite Doctor Who parody, without actually deepening it.
This is not an uncommon problem. Counter to the meticulous plotting and structure of the first three seasons, season four spins lots of plates in the air, but doesn’t really follow through on any of its minor arcs. The most unsatisfying of these was “Changnesia,” which came dangerously close to finally ruining Ken Jeong’s character for good.
Greendale’s insane Spanish teacher-cum-student-cum-security fascist was last seen trying to blow up the school and colluded with a rival college for revenge. The way Gurascio and Port choose to gloss over that comes in Advanced Documentary Filmmaking, in which we discover that he’s calling himself Kevin and he’s suffering from a type of amnesia that doesn’t stop you making forced puns.
This happens in episode 6 of the 13-episode run, and is only fleetingly mentioned thereafter before an anti-climactic resolution in the penultimate episode. Chang was quite undefined as a character before then, sliding into mania from his initial personality as a sadistic Spanish teacher, but his “Kevin” phase was his most annoying, and the most typical sign of the season’s lackadaisical structure.
It’s hardly a relentlessly dreadful run and it’s obviously affected by the quality of what came before and the fact that fans will have gone into it with the expectation of hating the new regime after the way Harmon was treated by NBC. Although we’re going to look at the good parts, it also has all of the weakest episodes the series has ever produced, in quick succession.
The ninth episode, Intro To Felt Surrogacy, has almost no redeeming features. If the season is an unflattering impression of Dan Harmon, then this ninth episode is the worst of it. It rehashes much of season two’s Christmas episode Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, in which two-bit psychologist Professor Duncan helped Abed and the group express themselves in adorable stop-motion form, but has none of that episode’s wit or charm.
Standing in for Duncan, (if I were John Oliver and I read this one, I’d have said I was washing my hair all week) the Dean brings a bunch of puppets to help coax the study group out of an intensely awkward silence. After crashing a hot air balloon in the woods, (don’t ask) the group apparently ate some psychedelic berries dished out by a transient mountain man, (really, don’t ask) and revealed secrets that make it impossible to talk to one another.
These aren’t just throwaway incidents, mind you- apparently, Jeff courted a single mother and got close to her son only to abandon them, Shirley drove off in pursuit of someone she thought was her husband and left her kids in a grocery store overnight, and most offensively of all, Annie gave the pervy Cornwallis a foot rub in return for the answers to a test. All of this apparently happened off-screen, within the timeline covered by this season.
In a season with no follow-through, of course these big, utterly false character beats are simply never mentioned again. If we can just make one episode into a gas leak-induced nightmare, this would be the one – even if season six somehow falls below the standard we expect, it’s hard to imagine a point when Intro to Felt Surrogacy won’t be the worst episode of Community ever produced.
Some might take the holistic approach and blame the new-old regime’s season five for the lack of follow-through on what season four did. Harmon started back with a very soft reboot in the form of Repilot, which waves Changnesia away in a single line and begins a proper send-off for the departing Chevy Chase with a holographic cameo.
But Harmon did acknowledge and continue with the stuff that was good, even if it was just one character. The episode Herstory Of Dance is indubitably one of the highlights of the run, with Britta’s plans to hold a feminist dance in celebration of singer Sophie B. Hawkins (she meant activist Susan B. Anthony) in protest to another campus dance leading Abed to do the sitcom trope of dating two girls on the same night, changing his clothes and getting confused between them.
In the process, he gets close to genre-savvy coat check girl Rachel, perfectly played by Brie Larson, and the episode ends with the two of them agreeing to go on a real date sometime. Larson returned in guest spots through season five, now as Abed’s girlfriend.
Speaking of callbacks, Gurascio and Port also pulled off a decent sequel to one of the highlights of the previous season, Foosball And Nocturnal Vigilantism, by bringing back the antagonistic German students. In Alternative History Of The German Invasion, Cornwallis tries to teach the class that history is written by the winners, leading the Germans to take over the study room and attempt to restore their own supremacy over Jeff and co.
The episode is a take-off of Hogan’s Heroes, (which the Germans have seen, but call Hogan’s Villains) and even if the tone is in the same slightly off-kilter register as the episodes around it, the hare-brained scheming and mildly jingoistic parody makes it one of the better callbacks of the run.
In terms of tone, it’s telling that Oscar-winning writer Jim Rash, who also plays the Dean, turned in the only script (other than Herstory Of Dance) that could as easily have fit into one of the other four Harmon-led seasons. Basic Human Anatomy is a body-swap episode, wherein Abed and Troy wish to have each other’s life for just one day while both holding a Freaky Friday DVD, and decide to continue the bit for the following day.
This means a return for Danny Pudi and Donald Glover’s pitch-perfect impressions of one another, but Rash also gives himself an opportunity to play Joel McHale for a while when he fulfils the Dean’s deepest wish of “having Jeffrey inside of me.” It’s also a channel for Troy to work through his emotions concerning Britta, and as if the writing had been up to this standard all season, their break up would have been even more affecting.
Another notable point in season four is the penultimate episode Heroic Origins, which goes back to the beginning of the group’s respective stories and suggests that each of them, for better or for worse, was responsible for someone else enrolling in Greendale. It takes a certain amount of retconning, but it largely draws lines between what we already know about their backstories.
It’s in this regard that you can tell that Gurascio, Port and their writing staff are all aware of what the show is, but over the course of the whole season, you realise that while they could probably write an impeccable series bible or spec script, you wouldn’t necessarily want them to run the show all the time. Case in point – the preceding finale episode Advanced Introduction To Finality, is a hot mess of callbacks to the darkest timeline and paintball stuff, again lacking the nuance of earlier adventures.
The real stewards of this season are the cast. Even Chevy Chase, who slagged off the show during and after his time on it, is on form for the parts of the season where he actually shows up. The core group continued on to season five (at least for part of it) and when they say it overtly at the end of Heroic Origins, there’s something very reassuring about the notion that this cast playing these characters were “meant to be together.”
A year later, season five came back to great reviews and fan acclaim with Harmon reinstated. However, it limped on through low audience figures (it was scheduled opposite The Big Bang Theory, which has always been the broader of the two geek sitcoms) for one more season before NBC finally pulled the plug.
But the Community mantra of “six seasons and a movie” has powered it to a sixth season online, with Yahoo! Screen releasing new episodes from March 17th. Although we’re looking forward to it, this next run may have a harder job than season four, with new characters to introduce and only four of the original study group cast members (McHale, Pudi, Gillian Jacobs and Alison Brie) staying on for the whole season.
And unless there’s going to be a seventh season, Harmon’s sixth at the helm, there’s simply no excluding this run from that “six seasons and a movie” mantra. For all its faults, season four still has that tremendous ensemble cast, occasional glimpses of brilliance and only the occasional puppet-y pothole of doom.