This review contains spoilers.
5.1 Repilot & 5.2 Introduction To Teaching
Previously behind the scenes at Community: creator Dan Harmon and regular Chevy Chase fell out spectacularly, Harmon was fired, a shortened season four went out without him, Chase left before filming was finished, despite one or two decent episodes season four was critically panned, then to everyone’s complete shock an equally short season five without Chase was ordered, Dan Harmon was re-hired and there was much rejoicing, it was announced that Donald Glover would only appear in less than half the season, and everyone was sad again. Phew.
There is a general consensus that the rot set in for Community during the universally derided season four, but there’s a case to be made that the shark hove into view even during the Harmon-produced season three. Community made its name through spectacular concept episodes, mostly parodies of other genres, like Modern Warfare, Epidemiology and A Fistful of Paintballs. But as ever, too much of a good thing becomes simply too much. The show has never taken place in the world we actually live in (what sitcom does?) but as ex-Spanish teachers turned security guards took over Greendale, the Dean was kept in a basement for months and for a few brief minutes our heroes were actually convinced they’d hallucinated the entire school, reality started to slip further and further away. Season four took that to extremes – we’ll pass over Hunger Games re-enactments, Changnesia and bondage fun with the History professor as swiftly as this ‘re-Pilot’ does.
Harmon, back at the reins, has wisely decided to re-set the show by going to back to season one and working out what made us love it in the first place. And he’s decided to do it by almost literally re-enacting the pilot. When Jeff discovers that the Dean is as corrupt as Evil Alan the lawyer assumed, the notion that Greendale is a magical place that heals all ills is swiftly undercut, to be replaced by the status it held in early episodes as the last resort of those who’ve screwed up. And so, once again, Jeff creates a group that’s a lie to help himself out, Abed invites himself to it, and then Abed calls everyone else. Abed talks in seasons, actually uses the word ‘re-Pilot’, references Scrubs season nine, and points out that 555 numbers are fake. Meanwhile, the characters’ lives have re-set themselves too. Annie is once again involved with drugs, Britta is involved with alcohol, Abed has forgotten how to interact with people and most tellingly, Andre has left Shirley again.
(We’re not sure what’s going on with Troy. We’re assuming this will be addressed at some point before Glover leaves).
This is all such an obvious re-booting of the show by repeating the original pilot that it shouldn’t work. And yet… it does. Our heroes may have become a little stuck on repeat, but they’ve done so in a way that feels true to their characters and the show benefits from a return to its roots. They have also changed and moved on in some ways, even if they’ve gone backwards in others and everyone is really trying to get out of the cycle of misery they’ve fallen into. Most importantly, although Jeff’s attempt to be a good guy didn’t go so well, he still refers to the study group as the only people he cares about, even if he also wants to use them to further his career. He may be back at Greendale, but this is a very different Jeff to the cold man we met in season one. Ultimately, this is a show built on trying to make something out of failure, and returning to that central theme makes it feel like something we can care about again.
Of course, there’s a Pierce-shaped hole in the table during the first episode that feels surprisingly empty. We know of old that if Community can find something awkward and uncomfortable and hang a huge lampshade on it, it absolutely will do so, and it seemed that a reference to how things don’t feel the same without Magnitude (alongside Glover amiably playing along and loudly criticising Zach Braff for failing to appear in all of season nine of Scrubs) was the light being shone on this particular issue. We surprised ourselves with how pleased we were that it wasn’t. Pierce may not have been anyone’s favourite character, but he really did bring something to the show; we’re glad he got a proper goodbye.
The second episode continues the good work of the first. There were plenty of familiar faces to reassure us we were still at the same Greendale, but the story was once again rooted in character. It was also rooted in sitcom reality. In real reality, you can’t get a job teaching at a community college just because you happen to work in the field – as Jeff discovers when faced with a barrage of questions about the curriculum, the assessment, grading etc., there’s rather more to it than that and generally, teaching experience is required. But this is nothing other sitcoms haven’t done before (How I Met Your Mother is probably the most blatant recent offender; we’ll assume that Ross from Friends got teaching experience during his PhD). Considering this is Greendale, a college that has hired Chang as a teacher twice, this is nothing out of the ordinary. A riot is perhaps not the way most students would react to discovering corruption among the teaching staff (ironically, they’re much more likely to sue) but it is absolutely the way Greendale students would react. This isn’t reality, exactly, but it’s something recognisably related to it in a way that some of seasons three and four weren’t.
The parodies that Community became known for start to reappear in this second episode, but in a controlled, logical way. Abed, taking a class on Nicholas Cage from Kevin Corrigan’s very welcome returning drama professor Sean Garrity, starts taking on characteristics of Cage’s performances. It’s small, focused and vaguely sitcom-logical, carried mostly through Danny Pudi’s performance with just a little help from the set. This is the way to do parody without descending into madness.
This second episode also introduces a character who appears to be replacing Pierce, at least to the extent that he’s sitting in Pierce’s seat in the ‘Save Greendale’ committee that has replaced the study group now that Jeff’s a teacher. It’s a shame this had to be a new character in a way, as the role of embittered, corrupt teacher might have been so beautifully filled by John Oliver’s long-disappeared Professor Duncan, but Jonathan Banks’ Professor Hickey fits in well enough among Greendale’s perennially tragic cast. Since he only joins the Table Mark II in the last few minutes, we’ll have to wait and see how well he fits in with the rest of the group.
We’re sure there are spectacular parodies and concept episodes in Community’s (possibly short) future, but these two episodes tethered us back to reality by reminding us that at its heart, the series is about these characters that we’ve grown to love. Community will always be a show with its head in the clouds, but finally, thankfully, its feet seem to be back on the ground.
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