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Community Review: "History 101" (Episode 4.01)

February 8, 2013  |  1:18pm
<em>Community</em> Review: "History 101" (Episode 4.01)

With the premiere of Community’s fourth season, the question on everyone’s minds has been how the show would change without Dan Harmon in charge. Harmon created Community and shaped its characters, world and attitude. While there have been many writers, directors, actors and other crew members working on Community, it’s been as much his show as North by Northwest was Alfred Hitchcock’s movie. He was fired at the end of the third season and replaced by Aliens in America co-creators David Guarscio and Moses Port. Now that we’ve seen the first episode, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the pair clearly did their homework, and “History 101” is recognizably Community. That’s both a blessing and a curse, though, because while the show is still the same, unfortunately it doesn’t feel like Guarscio and Port’s Community in the same way that it felt like Harmon’s—at least, not yet.

It’s also impossible to gauge how the show’s fourth, and likely final, season will turn out as a whole if we’re judging solely from the first episode (screeners have also been distributed to critics of the third episode). The first priority Guarscio and Port had in front of them was reaffirming that the show would go on as if nothing had changed, and you can see that goal all over “History 101.” The episode hinges upon two of the show’s hallmarks, the world inside Abed’s head and film/TV parodies. Both of these are well-done, but there’s a definite sense of trying too hard. Both aspects have become the show’s taglines, the shorthand used to describe Community, but to Harmon the show’s identity was the characters—whereas here the show’s identity seems to be the wacky antics that get jammed into an episode.

In order to keep Jeff from graduating early, Dean Pelton has cut the school’s history courses so that only History of Ice Cream is left, making it so that getting into the course is nearly impossible. Only students who pass his Hunger Games-esque contests will be allowed in, and Jeff decides that he will win enough spots for his entire study group, whether they want it or not. This leads to some great moments, particularly when he dances a tango with Pelton, but it also feels forced. It’s compellingly executed, but the concept itself doesn’t ring very true (and, when you think about it for long enough, has some plotholes).

Abed, unhappy with the idea that they’ll one day be graduating, goes to his “happy place” on Britta’s advice and pretends things work out perfectly in a laugh-tracked sitcom version of Greendale. Things don’t work out as he’d ideally like them to there, either, so eventually he regresses to an even deeper happy place, an animated Muppet Babies-esque world that’s hilarious and wonderful and everything that could be hoped for. But for all their fun, Abed’s fantasy regressions felt hollow here, too, probably because no one else even knew that this was happening. It was just a side plot until the very end of the episode, and even then it wrapped up immediately. While it was a new way of showing Abed’s internal life, it’s an idea we’re almost too familiar with at this point.

There were two other plots going on as well: Annie and Shirley pranking the Dean and now more couple-y Britta and Troy arguing about making wishes at a fountain. I particularly enjoyed parts of Annie and Shirley’s story, but neither of these were especially consequential. Britta and Troy’s was expository, telling us what to expect from their dynamic and likely foreshadowing more conflicts between Britta and Abed later in the season. Yet the sheer diffusion of stories here felt frantic, especially on an already schizophrenic show. It felt like there was an anxiety to be liked and a hope that fans would latch onto at least one of these multitude of storylines. It was a “there’s something for everyone” approach to the show.

There were excellent moments in “History 101,” and Harmon’s seasons all started out slow, too, so I don’t want to come off too negative about the episode, which I quite enjoyed. However, it felt workmanlike, almost a spec script version of Community that prioritized hitting all the show’s most popular bullet points. What worried me most wasn’t that I disliked the episode, but rather that this may be a calling card for the rest of the season. Community can very easily step over the line into self-parody, becoming about the gimmicks rather than making the gimmicks into flourishes. This episode didn’t do that, but another dozen repeating tropes from previous seasons will lead us down that path.

I don’t necessarily think it’s the new showrunners at fault here, either. Like few other sitcoms, Community has burned through ideas at an incredible speed. Because of this and its self-referential, insular nature, it becomes easy for the show to repeat itself. Harmon clearly struggled with this problem himself, and you can see that with the show’s third season. Making the show more focused on the students’ home lives was part of this, while another part was the strange, almost sinister air conditioner plotline. Harmon didn’t want to repeat ideas and was willing to take the show away from what’s comfortable in order to do so. Not all of his ideas worked, but it still took the show into new territory. Unfortunately, I worry about Guarscio and Port’s willingness to do so.

Again, it’s too easy to say how a season will turn out from just an episode, and many of the staff’s strongest writers and directors stuck around for this production run. With this first episode in the bag, we know the showrunners can put out a pretty good episode of Community, but the best part of the always-inconsistent show was its ambition to hit it out of the park week after week, whether or not it succeeded. The question now is whether Guarscio and Port have it in them to push the show in the same way, to make something we haven’t seen before instead of just reassembling parts of old episodes and calling it a day.

Stray observations:
•”Congratulations: it’s me.”
•And Fred Willard as Pierce Hawthorne. So were the three-camera sitcom scenes shot after Chevy left the show?
•”This can’t be good: he’s dressed as himself.”
•She’s pre-med at a community college? Is that a thing?
•I would love to watch American Swordcooks.
•”Let’s move everything on his desk over an inch except his stapler, then he’ll think we moved his stapler an inch.” – An excellent runner for the episode.
•Before I forget to mention it, I loved the Dean’s Slave’s unicorn horns. The production design was inspired as usual.
•My girlfriend found the tango between Jeff and the Dean to be really, really hot. So I guess whatever else happens this season, at least there’s that.
•”I wish I hadn’t broken Abed.”
Greendale Babies! Best of all was little Jeff’s bindle.
•The rest of Pierce’s story, which I didn’t write about above because it was completely irrelevant, was spent trying to make one pun. Seems like the writers essentially hate-wrote him this time, to the point that I can’t really blame Chevy for leaving.

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