“The gas-leak year.” The phrase pops up a couple of times during the premiere of Community’s fifth season. The previous season – by far the worst of the series – saw show creator Dan Harmon fired. The thing is Dan Harmon was the mad genius that made Community the show it was. Without him, season four fell into a rut, recycling and imitating the kind of stories Dan Harmon did – without ever realizing it was Harmon’s precise grasp of the characters and character arcs that grounded the surface zaniness and made it worth watching. Now, for reasons seemingly completely unknown, Harmon is back. He doesn’t write of season four as if it was a dream, nor does he ignore it completely. Instead he sets this season a year after it, deliberately eliminating any ongoing plot threads from “the gas-leak year.”
Of the two episodes that aired on January 2nd, the latter felt more like a typical episode of Community. The first felt a lot like pilot; a lot of set-up, and character stuff, and not a lot of time for jokes. That’s not to say it wasn’t funny, it’s just that the second one – which had a ridiculous one-off class and Jeff (Joel McHale) settling into teaching – was funnier. The addition of Johnathan Banks (who played the character Mike Ehrmantraut on Breaking Bad) as a teacher on the show was a welcome one; he had some fairly funny lines and seems like he could fill a nice place on the show not dissimilar to Michael K Williams’s role in season three. The scenes between Johnathan Banks and Joel McHale were a blast, though I suspect we’ll be seeing less of Jeff as a teacher than I would like.
Dan Harmon has said that after season four (the season he’d initially planned on transitioning the group away from Greendale), he felt he needed to “ground” the show again. For him that meant getting them back to a typical, Greendale-centric feel. I suspect that’s where the “Save Greendale Committee” will come in; it gives Jeff the perfect excuse to sit around the table with his now re-enrolled group. The episode certainly felt like classic Harmon; Abed (Danny Pudi) trying to figure whether Nicholas Cage is a good or bad actor for class was pretty funny. The one thing that really felt missing for me was Britta; despite the attempts to settle the show back into the familiar, the hilarious Gillian Jacobs is given almost nothing to do.
Of course this will be the season of missing characters, so I’m sure Britta will be more heavily featured after Donald Glover leaves. Between his and Chevy Chase’s absences, the show is quickly going to lose its familiar feel. Chevy Chase may have been a jerk, but he frequently had some of the funniest lines on the show. So far it’s done a good job at, I guess, not making him feel missing. His one hologram cameo was, however, super weird. I suspect the references to the legal requirements of that hologram were a way of excusing that whole scene, perhaps it was contractually obliged? Course, one of the premiere’s funniest jokes was when Troy looks longingly at Pierce’s chair and says, “Doesn’t it feel wrong to do this without… Magnitude?” And that’s sorta of how I feel – Pierce had funny lines, but he’s very replaceable. Troy isn’t, and I’m nervous about how the show will cope with his departure.
That was another odd thing; the show doesn’t even remotely address the fact that all the background characters are still attending the school – Leonard, Fat Neil, Garrett, and Magnitude are all still attending the school. I really like these characters, so I don’t mind. It just feels strange that the show spends so much time excusing all the group’s returns and then just drops in the rest of the cast without explanation.
Overall, though these episodes felt like a triumphant return, Harmon wisely refrains from doing anything too crazy – though I was secretly hoping we’d see something as ballsy as the show’s “Finally be Fine” opener. But that wouldn’t have been the smart move. Dan Harmon is working damage control in these episodes. He’s carefully finding ways to reset the show, without retroactively altering season four. And it’s working. As a fan of the show, it finally feels like we’re back with the same characters from season one to three. Even at its best, the characters in season four felt false. Despite the fabulous cast and a few great writers, nothing ever felt right. And now it does. It’s a huge relief that Dan Harmon really was the magic ingredient the show was missing. While I thought it incredibly unlikely, I was worried he would return and nothing would improve. Right now it seems like it has. But this season will be an uphill battle. If there’s anyone who understands the mechanics of what makes this show work, it’s Dan Harmon, so hopefully he’ll revel in the challenge. Even if the show has peaked (for my money season two is the best season), I want Harmon to keep going. I still want to see six seasons and a movie.