With the cast now radically different from before, Community needed to prove that it could still function as itself without key characters. Troy and Pierce weren’t as important to the show as Jeff and Abed are, but they were still a big part of its formula. That being said, though, that formula did grow a bit tired, and plots began to be recycled—particularly last season, but even a bit since Dan Harmon’s return. Maybe shifting things around was part of what the show needed to keep telling entirely new stories.
There was something very fresh about nearly everything in “Analysis of Cork-Based Networking,” and the part that wasn’t at least mirrored the past intentionally. The main story was a pairing we hadn’t seen before largely because Buzz Hickey is still so new. Jonathan Banks was completely typecast in the part, so it doesn’t take much imagination to fill in the rest of his character, but this story still felt imbued with discovery.The large swath of guest stars—including Paget Brewster and Nathan Fillion—didn’t hurt either, but it was really all about the chemistry between the two leads. Not only that, it’s also been quite a while since Annie took the lead in any story (if I recall correctly, that happened once in all of the fourth season), particularly in one that’s not about her relationship with Jeff. It felt like Harmon and the current staff were rehabilitating her a bit by reminding us that she should be more than a match for Hickey’s surly laziness.
Meanwhile, most of the rest of what used to be the study group and is now the Committee to Save Greendale spent the episode making decorations for one of the school’s innumerable dances. Not only did this have John Oliver play another large role, which is excellent whenever it happens, but “Analysis” also worked at putting Chang back into Community in an interesting way again. He’s always been the most difficult character on the show, but for once he felt like part of the ensemble instead of just there to derail things whenever his face pops up. These four characters working together felt just as new as the Annie/Buzz pairing, not to mention coming up with a pretty great backdrop for them to fat dog around in.
Another goal of “Analysis,” albeit a bit smaller, was to have Harmon and the current staff solve a few of the problems of Community’s fourth season. One of those was of course Abed’s romance with Rachel, which until now was never mentioned again. He has a very similar romance with another woman here, which gets destroyed by Britta (as do so many good things in life), but this also has him more or less remember his attraction to Rachel, who he runs into at the end of the episode. This is clearly far from realism, but as a way bit of storytelling it was still completely satisfying. It’s clear that Harmon wants to rehabilitate Abed the same way he is Annie, and one of the most important parts of that is giving the character his humanity back rather than leaving him as a cartoon.
One of the things that Community’s fifth season has placed more importance on than before is growing the show’s serialism. In the past the show has returned to its status quo, but finally it seems ready to push forward. Obviously part of this was caused by the cast removal, but Abed’s rekindled relationship with Rachel also hints at something more. When Harmon’s in charge, there’s been so much control of the characters’ voices that it’s easy to see how Community can keep doing the same thing forever, using the same sitcom formula as many other shows despite its visual flair. The show has tried to have more serialism in the past, too, but it’s rarely followed through with any of this, as it hits the reset button without trying to. This season, though, in every way—from a new cast to fresh stories—Community is trying to push forward and keep from getting into another rut. The show feels risky again, and with that the stakes and the excitement of every episode have grown significantly.