Review: Community 4×01 – “History 101”

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It’s February 7th, everybody. That should mean that it’s October 19th. But it isn’t.

October 19th is a state of mind, after all. We were all anticipating the arrival of October 19th along with the return of Community. A show called Community aired tonight. But it wasn’t Community. And October 19th never came.

The fourth season of a show that used to be the best comedy on television displayed a very inauspicious start. A disappointing one that confirms many of the fears about the show after Dan Harmon’s unceremonious firing. In short, they’re trying far, far too hard. This isn’t the Community we know because this isn’t a show that is assured of itself, that has no care for what people think of it, that is just simply itself regardless of how insane it is. This is a show that desperately wants to please a core audience that is so unflinchingly loyal to the show, that has loved it and followed it through nearly a year of bad news and constant delays. But in that desperation, they walked right out of a sure thing.

The episode comes on and I take a deep breath: is it going to be the same? Is it going to be good if it isn’t? It fades in, and Troy and Abed walk into a room, greeted with canned cheers as if of a live studio audience. They continue to deliver a really cheesy routine, complete with camera shots suggesting it is filmed in front of a live studio audience. Then Fred Willard steps in and proclaims himself as Pierce Hawthorne.

“It’s good to have you back, Community,” I say to myself. Then it continues. And it continues. And it continues. Throughout the entire episode.

That’s a problem. Dan Harmon knew how this show worked, and he did a good job at ensuring that things didn’t overstay their welcome. Nods at the sort of meta-show that encompassed the entire show and the behind-the-scenes dealings were there, but kept in the cold opens or the tags. Take, for example, the big opening musical number at the beginning of season 3. It acknowledged the fears that the show would cave to studio pressure and become more rote and mainstream, but in a way that dismissed those fears through fierce mockery and embracing the spirit of the show at the same time. But then the number ended, and we were treated to a very typical Community episode – backing up its assurance that the show will remain the same show we’ve all known and loved.

This episode did not do that. Instead it took that attempt to assure us “yeah it’s silly to suggest we’re going to turn into this sort of terrible, formulaic sitcom” and stretched it out to an entire episode. It spent its time not growing its characters (the show’s center and the most important aspect; strip away its abundant meta-humor and genre savvy dialogue, and you’ve still got a great show because of the characters) and instead trying desperately to win us over. But if it was the same show, it wouldn’t have to win us over.

Am I being overcritical? Yeah, a little bit. The show doesn’t have to be the same show, in all honesty. But it wants to be and tries so hard to be that I can’t really judge it based on what it actually is – because it tries and fails to be the show that I love, I can’t see it as anything but a lesser form of that show. Guarascio and Port had a chance to make a version of Community all their own. But instead, they opted to try and make Dan Harmon’s version of Community. And because of that, this episode, at least, failed.

There were some bright spots. As I mentioned, the cold open was inspired. Everything with Fred Willard as Pierce was hilarious. Greendale Babies, though an attempt to pander to the Community audience’s sensibilities, managed to get a few laughs out of me. But there were so many attempts that fell dead. Abed, a character whose mind I usually love, was remarkably empty this evening. There was none of his lovable charm or his unique and endearing way of dealing with anxiety – just a sort of strange shut down that served as an excuse to show more Abed TV and Greendale Babies (a concept that was ultimately done better in the Dreamatorium episode last season). The Britta and Troy romance felt disingenuous, despite feeling refreshingly genuine as it developed last season. Shirley was strangely out of character – not because she pranked the Dean along with Annie, but because she did it without hesitation and even masterminded the prank.

But the worst offenders, by my vote, are Jeff and Annie. Jeff was given a strange “New Jeff” makeover, by which I mean he was the exact same Jeff we have always seen on the show, but with any meaningful character development removed. They made a big deal about him helping people of his own volition, and then act surprised when there was a selfish motive behind it all. Do the writers think we’ve forgotten how Jeff operates? That’s been his MO for the entire show. There’s a moment at the end where he says “I hate New Jeff,” and then abandons the Hunger Deans (a parody, I guess? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Hunger Games other than the name and stylized banner. More soulless aping) to help Abed. So “New Jeff” would help his friends at his own expense? That’s New Jeff? NEW? We’ve already had that character development. That’s not New Jeff. That’s the same Jeff we’ve had since, at the very very latest, “Pillows and Blankets”, where he happily buys into Troy and Abed’s silliness with the friendship hats. Jeff has proven that he will go to great lengths to help his friends – he truly does love them. So for the show to treat this bit of “development” as something brand new is insulting and dishonest to the character.

Annie, while not nearly as bad, is given a plotline pretty similar to what she’s done before. She’s obsessed with keeping things the way they are, as she is afraid of change. While she doesn’t take active action to keep things this way in this episode, she has done it in the past – which makes he sudden unwillingness to take drastic measures (such as getting Senor Chang fired, as she did in the season 1 episode “English as a Second Language”) to keep the group from changing equally dishonest. What’s staying her hand? Why is this being treated as a new character path? It’s the same Annie story we’ve been getting. Give us something new!

I could excuse it if it were something that stood on its own. I could excuse it if it were just a sitcom with the same characters from Community but with a different writing style. But I cannot excuse a disappointing attempt to imitate the show that I loved, but falling far far short of the mark by misunderstanding what made Community, Community. Over the top references and meta-humor was only a small part of Community. Without the characters, it’s nothing.

Episode Grade: C-

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