Dan Harmon is back, and so is the soul of Community! (season 5, eps. 1-2 recap)

“Repilot” and “Introduction To Teaching”

I’m at a loss on how to properly describe something like the fifth season of Community. It shouldn’t exist. It makes no sense that it exists, especially with original creator Dan Harmon, a singularly gifted showrunner who is at the same time cursed to be a hellish guy to work with despite frighteningly astute comedic instincts.

When Chuck Klosterman reviewed Guns N’ Roses’ mythic Chinese Democracy, he said that writing about the long-in-progress album was “not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn.” That’s how I feel about the episodes NBC sent out to critics for this fifth season. And not just about the fact that I have now seen three new episodes with my eyes—but the fact that Dan Harmon’s epic odyssey of getting fired by NBC following the show’s third season, then taking his podcast Harmontown on a barnstorming national tour while a listless fourth season aired, has ended in his miraculous and unprecedented return to the helm. Community is an improbably beautiful, lovable cockroach—like Wall-E’s little friend on Earth—that just refuses to die. And we’re better for it, because having Dan Harmon back means Community has regained its soul.

“Repilot” is about the best episode title to open this new, functioning version of the real Community. And in that regard it’s decidedly out of the ordinary, with only the reconstituted ninth season of Scrubs (subtitled Interns, and unfairly maligned in the eyes of this Scrubs apologist) as a recent parallel. Set a year after the fourth season, Jeff Winger is now a failed independent lawyer, whose tacky television commercial painting him as a robot-fighting superhero aiming to help people didn’t bring in enough business. So he takes up an offer from his old sleazy lawyer nemesis played by Rob Corddry and goes to investigate the case of a failed bridge architect who “graduated” from Greendale, and is now planning on suing the school to collect damages from a diploma mill. (His “thesis” project was a Lego bridge that collapses under no pressure.)

Dean Pelton is overwhelmed by the scandal, and assumes Jeff has come in to act as a hero and save Greendale. That means Jeff is once again caught between the negative influences of his past, aiming to make money off Greendale and embrace his locked-away monstrous tendencies, and the progress he made thanks to his group of friends while attending school. The Dean calls Abed—who of course deliberately harkens back to his dialogue from when he first met Jeff in the pilot—and just like that, everyone else shows up in the study room, now closed and used for storage due to sentimental (and asbestos) reasons. The structure isn’t much different than the way Jeff drew each of his classmates out of their shell in the pilot, only to set them against each other and step back. This time, he’s trying to get them to realize they want to sue the school.

So the gang is back together—minus Pierce, which we’ll get to in a minute—and then Community brings everyone up to speed. Annie is a pharmaceutical rep (perhaps an unintentional nod at Heather Locklear’s guest arc on Scrubs), Britta is a bartender, Shirley foolishly invested in expanding her sandwich chain, Abed is a computer programmer, and Troy, well, he doesn’t really need that much backstory. Community is now a show so fiercely up its own ass that it rewards viewers who have mercilessly picked it apart over the past few years and followed every winding news blurb about the behind-the-scenes tensions between Harmon, the network, Chevy Chase, and everyone else. The news that Donald Glover will only appear in five episodes this season hit the fan base hard—a confusing career move if he focuses on music, not as much if he has his own FX series—but one of the best lines in the episode deals directly with his impending departure.

Harmon has been a master at negotiating the stories behind the scenes of his show and incorporating how television tropes function into the fabric of his stories. In addition to broaching the Glover news, the premiere engages with Chevy Chase’s absence in an oblique and satisfying way while kicking the bigger issue down the road a bit to a future episode that is the best among the three I’ve seen. It’s heavily meta, which will throw off anyone foolishly trying to drop in on the show for the first time with the start of a fifth season, but still immensely rewarding, like seeing an old friend for the first time after a long absence.

In making his eventually fruitless case for signing onto a lawsuit, Jeff says, “We went into Greendale as real people and came out as psychotic cartoons.” That’s a marked revision of the slightly sketched characters from the pilot, but there are shades of the initial characterizations from that first half-hour still in the show. And it’s also a credit to how the world of Greendale built out to include a myriad of characters to make it a kind of live-action Springfield. Abed and Troy are best friends, but Abed is still a media trope-spouting machine. Britta has evolved from Jeff’s rebellious love interest into a bit of a ditz (“That’s like me blaming owls for how much I suck at analogies.”), but she’s still emotionally independent and hilarious.

Harmon said in an interview with IGN that there’s “a goal to sort of strip down the characters and remember who they really were. King of forget all the in-jokes and labyrinthine details and just know these people.” That’s a modest objective of reconstruction, and one that probably places this season on the level of the first back in 2009, when the focus was on the characters and not the increasingly ridiculous (and rewarding) genre homages that spun out from the conspiracy theory episode (“Conspiracy Theories And Interior Design”) or the bottle episode (“Cooperative Calligraphy”) or the Law & Order episode (“Basic Lupine Urology”).

With that reintroduction accomplished—and it’s difficult to discount just how surprising it is that Harmon captured lukewarm lightning in a bottle in what is very plainly a new pilot—the second episode establishes what will be the show’s new rhythm: alternating between the student concerns and Jeff finding his way as a teacher. Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks appears as criminology professor (and aspiring picture book author) Buzz Hickey, sharing an office with Jeff. Through his growing professional friendship with Hickey, Jeff becomes comfortable as a teacher separate from the students, but it takes some comedic intervention from Annie’s meticulous form of caring—she audits his class to make sure he’s living up to his potential—to get Jeff to actually realize he has the experience and knowledge to do his job. Oh yeah, and then there’s a full-scale riot over “slightly higher grades” that includes Fat Neil, Magnitude, Garrett, and a host of other minor recurring characters. Because what is Greendale without riots?

There’s also a subplot about Troy, Shirley, Britta, and Abed taking a class on Nicolas Cage—taught by the outstanding Kevin Corrigan as Drama Professor Sean Garrity. Abed spins out of control evaluating whether Cage is good or bad, and amid a lot of hyper-aware analysis about media criticism (Britta’s comment in class: “I think our opinions about pop culture are fed to us by machines designed to criminalize human autonomy.”), he starts to become Cage. But then it’s punctuated with a rare moment of kinship between Shirley and Abed, which harkens all the way back to “Myths And Messianic Peoples,” yet another instance where Harmon found a way to create a small kind of emotional resonance by shuffling the character pairings.

These aren’t standout classics that rank with the best madcap peaks Harmon and company achieved in the second and third seasons. But like the initial batch of episodes that opened Community back in the first season, they show promise. Jeff’s “Winger Speech” at the end of the second episode fails because he’s now a teacher, and that plays into Harmon’s overall goal of the show to depict the difficulties of perpetual transition. These characters are still in the same crazy location, with the same crazy people, yearning for personal growth and change in a welcoming and nurturing environment. And that desire for self-improvement is still as admirable as it is hilarious when ridiculously contrived scenarios borrowed from established entertainment genres sidetrack that progress.

The “six seasons and a movie” battle cry that Abed screams in second season standout “Paradigms Of Human Memory” was a brilliant throwaway line about short-lived NBC series The Cape, but has been adopted as the ultimate underdog goal for the fan base. With Harmon returning to guide Community back to its rightful tragicomic wavelength, that hopeless goal will no doubt return in earnest once again.

Extra Credit

Though details of the upcoming episode about Pierce are all over the internet, I’d rather not spoil it for people who’d like to remain in the dark about the fantastic guest star there.

It is impossible to overstate how amazing Jim Rash and Donald Glover are in their roles. They have proven time and time again to be the standout performers in the cast, and this show will sorely miss Glover’s ability to convincingly deliver non sequitur one-liners.

Ken Jeong is still a part of the cast, but justifying his presence is still Community’s Achilles heel. Harmon brushes aside most of the fourth season as the fault of a gas leak when Chang pops up for the first time, but it’s still unclear why he’s always around.

I still, after watching the episode at least three times, have absolutely no idea what is going on with the hilariously bizarre French song about Excel at the end of the second episode as Jim Rash looks forlornly into the study room with a single tear running down his cheek. Any enlightening comments would be appreciated.

This is one of those shows that for some reason just spews out quote after quote that I have to write down, so here’s a collection of my favorites from these two episodes:

“That’s only on Tummy Tuesdays!”

“Do you guys feel weird about doing this without…Magnitude?”

“I’m much sadder than the rest of you…I’ll figure out why later!”

“You found my Clive Owen Tumblr…”

“I don’t know. If I was in 70 films over 30 years and I spent each one talking at random volumes, I might accidentally win an Oscar.”

“It’s one duck, his name is Jim, and publishers are interested!”

“Et tu, Brute? Am I using that right?”

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