13 February 2014

Thoughts on Community Season 5, Episodes 1-6

Community Season 5 promotional image by NBC

Against all odds, the quirky NBC sitcom Community was renewed for a 13-episode fifth season after being on the verge of cancellation since the end of its second season run. Even more remarkably, series creator and head writer for seasons 1-3 Dan Harmon was brought back to helm the latest season after being fired before season 4. I was cautiously optimistic that season 5 of Community could be great again after its last abysmal outing, even though I wasn't entirely on board with the creative choices Harmon made in season 3.

Just prior to the fifth season premiere, NBC released two trailers. The first excited me, because it reminded me in tone of the show's first season, which remains my favorite:

The second terrified me, because it seemed to highlight all of the things that I didn't like about seasons 3 and 4 (Warning: this trailer contains crude jokes):

So, I wondered, which version of Community were we going to get this time? The witty, offbeat, but still heartfelt incarnation of season 1 that was grounded in reality, or the bizarre and occasionally off-putting incarnation of seasons 3-4 that could have taken place almost entirely in Troy and Abed's Dreamatorium?

It seems to me that season 5 of Community veers much more towards the latter, at least in its first half. Granted, episodes 1-2 do take pains to reestablish some of the reality that the later seasons of Community have more or less ignored. In the premiere, Repiloting, Jeff returns to his alma mater Greendale Community College embittered by the fact that he was unable to reestablish his legal career after graduating. He reconnects with the core characters we've grown to know and love, but shows them just how far they've strayed from the hopes, dreams, and strengths that they had coming into Greendale. A particularly good example of this is when Jeff says to Britta, "When we met you were an eclectic anarchist. How did you become the group's airhead?" We even get to see the Dean actually trying to administrate the school instead of parading around in ridiculous costumes and stalking Jeff, which is what his character was pretty much reduced to in seasons 3 and 4.

Episode 2, Introduction to Teaching, continues the "repiloting" begun in the season premiere by establishing Jeff as a teacher, pulling Chang back to the brink of craziness where he balanced so effectively in season 1, and showing a drive and a spark in Annie that had been dulled in seasons 3 and 4. This episode also establishes the student-teacher "Save Greendale" alliance, which I thought would be a great device to keep the characters at Greendale for the season and and serve as an excellent way to "save" the show itself from some of its recent missteps.

But by the next episode, both the "Save Greendale" committee and Jeff's new career are essentially dropped. The "Save Greendale" plot returns in episode 6, but we have yet to see Jeff in a classroom or grading assignments again in the first half of the season. Instead, we get a string of the high-concept episodes that have become Community's trademark, but to me these felt oddly paced and lacking in interest. Episode 3, Basic Intergluteal Numismatics, had some nice interaction with Jeff and Annie and addressed the odd limbo status of their relationship with a directness that we've never seen before, but otherwise it felt a lot like a rehash of season 3's "Basic Lupine Urology" with much cruder jokes. Even the return of one of my favorite characters from seasons 1-2, psychology professor Ian Duncan, was weirdly disappointing since he was so underused.

Episode 4, Cooperative Polygraphy deliberately hearkens back to season 2's "Cooperative Calligraphy," both being so-called "bottle episodes" that place all the characters in one room for the entirety of the episode. Again, it felt like a rehash, it relied fairly heavily on crude humor, and contained what I consider to be one of Britta's worst moments of stupidity just when I was hoping that the writers would drop the airhead routine. Episode 5, Geothermal Escapism, is not a sequel to anything in particular but combines elements from the paintball installments of seasons 1 and 2 and the blanket fort saga of season 3. But while those earlier episodes contained a lot of really specific and subtle touches that brilliantly evoked the genres to which they paid homage, "Geothermal Escapism" seemed rushed and jumbled to me. The characters felt the least real to me that they've ever been, which is why I didn't feel all that sad when Troy exited the series on a sailboat with LeVar Burton at the end of the episode.

Analysis of Cork-Based Networking, the final episode to air before the month-long Olympics hiatus we're in the midst of, at last brought back the "Save Greendale" committee: Annie and Pierce-replacement Professor Buzz Hickey attempt to get a bulletin board rehung while Jeff, Professor Duncan, Shirley, and Chang organize a school dance. This episode felt sort of half-baked to me, especially in the bear vs. "fat dog" dance plot--what was that about, really?--and the seemingly random appearance of Nathan Fillion. I did enjoy the two Labyrinth jokes, though.

I've read in interviews with Dan Harmon that recent seasons of Community are planned by choosing slots for all of the high-concept episodes and then penciling-in "normal episodes". While the high-concept episodes of "Contemporary American Poultry" and "Modern Warfare" in season 1 earned the show critical acclaim, I think it's a mistake to brush off all those "normal episodes" as unimportant filler. The reason that the high-concept episodes of season 1 worked so well is because we got to know the characters as people in all of those "normal episodes." We cared about the characters because they were multidimensional and relatable, and not just handfuls of traits that are used as joke fodder. When they were thrust into those melodramatic roleplaying situations, they usually wound up revealing more about themselves and learning something about their relationships, which made these installments more satisfying to watch.

In short, I think it will take some thoughtfully-written "normal episodes" to restore some dimensionality to the characters and their setting, and thus help me to care what happens to them again. Here's hoping we get a few in the second half of season 5 of Community when it returns in two weeks.

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