The average TV viewer pays vastly less attention to what’s going on behind the scenes at their favorite shows than the average TV critic or reporter does. When there’s a major change in production, we write about it endlessly, but most of the audience neither knows nor cares.
 
There are special cases, though, and NBC’s Community — which belatedly returns for its fourth season tonight at 8 — is one of those. Not only is it one of the most self-referential shows in TV history — one of its main characters, Danny Pudi’s Abed, is essentially aware that he’s on a TV show, and comments on all the familiar tropes and archetypes the series plays with — but its creator Dan Harmon created an ongoing online dialogue with the comedy’s small but passionate collection of fans.
 
“Community” fans know and care about how their sausage gets made, which means they’re acutely aware that Harmon was fired after last season and replaced by comedy veterans Moses Port and David Guarascio. It isn’t often that a TV series defined by a singular creative voice has said goodbye to that voice — Larry Gelbart left “M*A*S*H” after a few years, David Milch eventually quit “NYPD Blue,” Aaron Sorkin was forced out of “The West Wing” and Amy Sherman-Palladino left “Gilmore Girls” before the end — but when it does happen, those shows haven’t felt the need to have their characters comment on the departure.
 
“Community,” naturally, tackles the change in the very first scene of the post-Harmon era.
 
Without giving away what happens at the start of a new school year at Greendale Community College, the season premiere acknowledges that things have changed, and that change — whether for someone with Asperger’s like Abed or his friends Troy (Donald Glover), Jeff (Joel McHale), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Annie (Alison Brie), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and Pierce (Chevy Chase) — can be scary. Even taking the showrunner change out of the equation, it’s the senior year for most of the characters (Pierce has been going to Greendale forever, for instance), and they’re beginning to wonder if they’ll still be friends once they don’t have this ridiculous place to hold them together.
 
The season premiere’s approach makes sense, and fits in with the meta vibe that “Community” has cultivated for years. Yet having seen the premiere and another of this season’s early episodes, I can’t help thinking the show would have been better off not trying so hard to recapture Harmon’s idiosyncratic style.
 
For the most part, the new episodes understand who these characters are and how they relate to each other. They speak in the show’s usual cadences, and they drop the appropriate pop culture references at the right time. (The other episode sent out for review takes place at a fan convention for “Inspector Spacetime,” a “Doctor Who” pastiche that has entranced Troy and Abed.) But something’s off about almost all of it. It feels like Port, Guarascio and the other writers decided to reverse-engineer the Harmon version of “Community,” but couldn’t quite manage without the missing ingredient of Harmon himself.
 
As Troy puts it early in the premiere, “There’s something changed,” even if he can’t identify exactly what it is.
 
A television show is a collaborative process, and not just the work of one man or woman. The entire cast (including Jim Rash as Greendale’s pan-sexual dean, Craig Pelton, and Ken Jeong as psychotic former Spanish teacher Ben Chang) is back, as are many writers — including Andy Bobrow, who’s been around since season 2 and wrote this premiere — directors, and other crew members.
 
But there are certain cases where the spark of demented genius comes from the creator and only the creator, and the only way to deal with the loss of that spark is to do something completely different. Both “NYPD Blue” and “West Wing” struggled for a while in the immediate aftermath of their creators’ exits, then found their footing once they stopped trying to be a pale imitation of Milch and Sorkin and reinvented themselves as something the new creative team could do well. (“NYPD Blue” became a more traditional police procedural where all the characters spoke plain English, while “West Wing” essentially turned into a spin-off about a presidential campaign that still featured the original characters in supporting roles.)
 
Port and Guarascio have said all the right things about wanting to keep making the Harmon version of the show that fans loved, which is both admirable and understandable. But these early episodes — the Inspector Spacetime episode in particular — feel like everyone is trying much too hard to recapture some lightning that flowed out of the bottle when Harmon left. Port and Guarascio have worked on some excellent comedies over the years (most recently at “Happy Endings”), and they have one of the most talented and versatile ensembles in all of TV comedy(*) at their disposal. Having seen a couple of episodes of their Dan Harmon imitation, I think I’d rather see their own take on these characters and this setting.
 
(*) One of the things that set this cast apart in seasons past was how easily they could shift into different tones, genres and performing styles. It always seemed that Brie, for instance, was giving the same performance as Annie no matter the episode, yet it seemed effortless how she could play Annie in a broad comic mode, in a more buttoned-down or emotional style, or even as a plausible Old West gunslinger in one of the paintball episodes. For the first time this season, you can see Brie and her co-stars start to sweat as they try to make the material work, like a strange Annie story in the Inspector Spacetime episode that has her on her own for far too long.

Late in the premiere, Dean Pelton announces, "I don't know why I was so worried about change. This year's gonna be great!"
 
I hope so, because “Community” at its best is a treasure. But I’m less optimistic now than I was before I watched a few episodes from the new regime.
 
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com