Community was broken. The show’s fourth season was not only bad, it was destructive, emphasizing the worst parts of the show and expanding them out of all proportion until fans of the show began to question why they ever liked it in the first place. I don’t think it was entirely the fault of the fourth season’s showrunners, either, because it’s hard to think of who could’ve continued the show in the same vein as the first few seasons. With some shows, it doesn’t seem to matter who’s in charge, but Community’s humor always had a certain strange specificity to it. Its comedic voice was certainly the most specific in broadcast television, and it was always a step away from complete and total collapse. Auteurism in television criticism has grown out of proportion, but it did feel a bit like the studio was making a Chaplin flick, or at least a Marx Brothers production, and 10 minutes before the end decided they’d rather someone else finish the picture. The result wasn’t just disappointing, it was depressing.
The question for Community’s fifth season was whether even Dan Harmon could put the pieces back together, especially since the fourth season ended so conclusively. Where, really, was there left to go, and how could Community continue without writing off the entire last season off as a bad dream? Not only had the show plummeted in quality, it had also written itself into a corner, as well as losing one and a half members of its core cast along the way. It would be one thing if the show had a hiatus, but Harmon was asked to return to a show that in 13 short episodes had quickly become a parody of itself.
Harmon’s answer to all these questions was the staggeringly brilliant “Repilot,” which whipped through the myriad of problems of characterization and plotting by facing them head on. Make no mistake about it, “Repilot” was dark. Most importantly, though, the dark and cynical place it came from felt extremely honest. The meta-jokes (particularly those about Troy) were all tinged with both sadness and anger, and in a sense the episode questions the essential premises of Community as a whole. What was the show about, why did Greendale matter, and have any of its characters really grown? Has the increased cartoonishness of every aspect of the show squashed the essential humanism and realistic psychology that used to make up its core?
The conclusions Harmon and the episode’s co-writer Chris McKenna draw are primarily negative, and much of the episode is devoted to a “burn it all to the ground” mentality that’s physically manifested by nearly having the core cast sue Greendale (not to mention literally burning down their furniture a few minutes later). But this isn’t really an answer, and Jeff, like the writers, seems to understand that this is a cheat. There was something about the show before, something honest behind all the weird jokes and movie parodies, and so Jeff agrees to return as a teacher. His real mission, though, is to make the school work. Greendale was always about helping people, but somewhere along the way it lost track of that, as did Community.
If this all sounds too schematic and obviously metaphorical in analysis, that was far from the actual tone of “Repilot,” which was raw. It was obvious that Harmon wasn’t the only one who felt wounded by the disappointing fourth season and all the good ideas in it that went badly awry. The cast itself seemed betrayed and didn’t feel any need to hide it. The emotional honesty of Community returned with a roar, and while this wasn’t the most fun 20 minutes of television, it was funny and painful in all the right ways.
In its infinite wisdom, NBC decided to follow this episode with another. But although they clearly weren’t written to be shown this way, it was still a wonderful one-two punch to begin the season. “Repilot” addressed all the problems of the previous season—many of which, I should note, were there to a lesser extent long before then—while “Introduction to Teaching” was a reminder of how good a typical episode of Community can be.
Once again we’re introduced to new courses, new faculty and new personality conflicts, but in every case they worked. The specificity of the Nicholas Cage jokes, for instance, was perfect for Community, but not worth its own episode. It was the type of thing that last season could’ve easily devoured an entire 20 minutes, but here it was distilled to just a few entertaining scenes. Instead, there was some real heart in Jeff learning that he cares about his students. The plotting for the entirety of “Introduction” was elegant, and the episode felt jammed with jokes, characterization and more than anything else ideas. Jonathan Banks was an excellent addition to the cast, and even if he only pops up a few more times this season (which is always the norm for Community’s faculty), it’s a nice way of filling in the gap left by Pierce’s departure.
Most importantly of all, both of last night’s episodes were hilarious. Last season, there were a few episodes where my negative review was essentially an expanded way of saying “it just wasn’t very funny.” There were varying reasons why this was the case, and by the end of the season they all kind of piled up together until I was overrating mediocre episodes just because I chuckled a handful of times at otherwise fairly bleak material. This time, there was hardly a missed beat. Humor is always a very subjective thing, but Community is back where it was before. It’s still an acquired taste, but for those of us who liked the show in the past but had all but given up on it, this was a wonderful return to form.