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Review: Community, “History 101”

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Editor’s note: The following review was originally intended for publication during the first week of February, but it got spiked in order to deal with other issues that came with launching the site. However, it’s still a decent enough review, and since the episode itself was late to premier, the review can be late too, right? Anyway, here it is.

This week’s episode of “Community” was the long-awaited and long-delayed premiere of the underdog sitcom’s fourth season. It was also the first episode to debut in the wake of NBC’s shitcanning of showrunner and series creator, Dan Harmon. I suppose, to be fair, he wasn’t technically fired, he’s still contractually bound to hang with the show as, what he called, an “executive consulting something or other,” but essentially he’s not the brains behind the show anymore. That position is now shared by writers David Guarascio and Moses Port. For longtime fans of the show, like me, Harmon’s replacement almost certainly spelled doom for the show, which has seemed to have the deck stacked against it from the get-go. Unfortunately, This premier did little to quell that notion.

The season 4 series premier was all over the place. For starters, there was the show-within-a-show gag with Abed imagining life in a parallel laugh-track sitcom reality where he and the other group members were bounced back to square one and had to repeat the last three years of Community college. Then there was the weird “Hunger Deans” thing where the Dean had Jeff and other students compete for a slot in the new semester’s sole history class by winning a bunch of red balls. And then there was some weird thing where Annie and Shirley were breaking into the Dean’s office and playing tricks on him while Troy and Britta fought over a coin they tossed into a wishing well. Because Troy and Abed have rules for nerdy stuff, but since Troy is dating Britta now he needs to establish new rules for the two of them. Or something.

The brilliant thing about “Community,” the hook of the show, the thing that everybody who watches it is blown away by, is how the show reflects pop culture and cinema. It was a show that used the blank canvas of a generic community college in order to simultaneously parody and pay homage to things that nerdy people love. One episode might pay homage to the video game “Modern Warfare,” one might be a sendup of “Apollo 13,” one is an entry into the zombie horror sub-genre, one might be a western. It was fun to see all these big screen chestnuts and geek tropes reimagined for a well-written, strongly acted, genuinely funny TV sitcom. But it never felt like a gag. It simply felt smart. Like someone inside TV world is a geek like us and is communicating to us from the other side.

This episode felt like a gag. Or like several gags crashing into each other. Like someone said, “ok, so this show’s bag is parodying stuff, so what’s hot right now? What’s topical? ‘Hunger Games?’ Yeah, so do like some kind of game-based plotline.” And yet, that plotline didn’t really contain any specific references to “Hunger Games” beyond a costume change by Dean Pelton. It didn’t involve any of the cast members save for Jeff, and could’ve just as easily been an homage to “American Gladiators.” Or not an homage at all, just a really dumb competition.

Then the other major gag is the whole sitcom-within-a-sitcom thing, which I guess was the writers’ way of being meta and satirizing their own outdated format. I’m not sure why this was here either. Or why Pierce was played by Fred Willard, unless that is to set up something later with him replacing the outgoing Chevy Chase. It felt forced, like the show needed something to parody instead of wanting to do it’s own version of something that geeks and fanboys love. Because whoever is behind the show doesn’t really seem to understand why the show exists.

Whereas Harmon’s “Community” used to take its time and let its style homages or movie parodies have an entire episode to unfold, if not more, to really let his appreciation for that genre or that movie shine through, this just seemed like they were throwing stuff at a wall to see what would stick. Like they were shoving as many ideas into the pot as they could with the hope that fans couldn’t tell the difference between the old show and the new one. Because they knew this show did stuff in the past and they figured it should probably do that same stuff more.

Probably the worst thing about the new episode though was that it wasn’t funny. Nothing made me laugh. There was a distinct absence of humor here, exacerbated by the fact that the story and the setup felt forced and out of place, which just made the whole experience more awkward. And the thing with Troy and Britta fighting in the fountain was a full-on comedic trainwreck. So while the old “Community” used to, at times, genuinely move me (the Abed claymation Christmas episode immediately comes to mind), or at least cheer me up, this episode actually put me in a bad mood. Because it was awful.

I’ve always been a big “Community” fan. I was the guy in my group of friends who was trying to get others to watch the show, hoping that it would catch on by word of mouth and not get the plug pulled on it. Now watching the show, I feel like the thing’s on life support. The writers are already taking the characters into their final year of college. They know the end is near. Why do we have to prolong the inevitable? Maybe it would’ve been best to just let the poor animal die. Maybe, like the bizarre, irradiated, three-eyed, six-headed pop-culture chimera that it was, it just wasn’t meant to live that long in the first place.

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