"Community" is back for a new season. I published my review of the start of the post-Dan Harmon era this morning, and I have specific thoughts on the premiere coming up just as soon as you waive the tomfoolery prerequisite...
Of the two season 4 episodes sent out for advance review, "History 101" was definitely the stronger one. It has a clear idea of what it wants to be about, how it's going to address both the regime change and the start of what will be senior year for most of the study group. And some of those ideas work fairly well.
Andy Bobrow's script embraces the skepticism about Harmon's absence head-on, with Abed's "happy place" seeming like everything the @GuarascioPort parody Twitter account promised. The format's suddenly multi-cam, the laughtrack is cranked up to 11, the jokes are stupid(*), and Fred Willard is playing Pierce.(**) The fantasy versions of Troy and Abed even can tell something is wrong, and Abed's fear of change gets to comment on both what the characters and the show are going through.
(*) Though oddly, the cadence of a lot of the AbedTV dialogue isn't that much different from how the characters speak otherwise. There are general differences in the rhythms of single-cam versus multi-cam, but not always. (I've often said that a lot of "Modern Family" dialogue could be placed in a multi-cam script without tweaking.)
(**) Given the longtime antipathy between Chevy Chase and the rest of the cast and crew (which culminated in Chevy's exit before this season was completed), I imagine all involved might have been happier if Willard had always been Pierce.
So I liked that aspect of the premiere, and the "Community" version of "Muppet Babies" as the happy place within the happy place made me smile. But other parts just seemed half-baked.
When I interviewed Port & Guarascio, we talked specifically about The Hunger Deans, and Guarascio said the idea was never to do a straight-up parody of "The Hunger Games," but just to give the Dean an excuse for some spectacle and some new gowns — that Pelton wouldn't really know enough about the real thing to get it right. And I can see the point of that, but that turned a great chunk of the premiere into something that was neither fish nor fowl. When "Community" does pop culture pastiche, what makes it work is how specific it tends to be. Megan Ganz's love and knowledge of "Law & Order" shone through every frame of "Basic Lupine Urology." Both "Modern Warfare" and "A Fistful of Paintballs" demonstrate a similar command of the source material, even as they function on their own terms for the people who haven't seen "The Killer" or "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." This was just a bunch of people running around in weird athletic competitions, while Pierce struggled to come up with a good ball-related joke. It had the weirdness of a "Community" high-concept episode without the execution to make the idea worth trying.
The show's season premieres in general have never been its strongest episodes, but it's clear that everyone involved tried very hard to put their best foot forward, knowing the scrutiny the first episode made without Harmon would get. And "History 101" isn't bad, but it feels... off. And flat, even with all the craziness happening in and around the cafeteria.
Some other thoughts:
* History tells us that Chevy Chase is a very difficult person to work with. That said, there have been Pierce stories (if you can call them that) over the years that have definitely spoken to the frustration Chase very vocally felt with this role. There are times when Pierce is well integrated into the group and their stories, and other times like this where he exists entirely on the margins for a joke about how classless and out of touch he is.
* Troy and Britta are now actually dating, but this script focuses much more on the frustration Troy feels about her than the attraction. It's a tricky balance, because Troy complaining about Britta is a huge source of comedy ("You're the AT&T of people!"), yet you don't want people to be constantly questioning why he's with her.
* Port and Guarascio noted that Chang was one of the biggest problems Harmon left for them to deal with, and we see the first baby step of how he might return to Greendale with our glimpse of him naked, carrying the note, "Hello, my name is Kevin. I have Changnesia."
* The prank subplot had a nice payoff towards the end when Pelton complained that someone moved his stapler, but until then, Annie was being written as too sheltered and repressed. She's been at Greendale — and participating in hijinks led by one or more of Jeff, Troy and Abed — for three years now, yet she seemed much more like the Annie from the start of the series.
Okay, that's me. What did everybody else think? Did "History 101" live down to your worst fears about life without Harmon, did it fill you with hope that the show can be just fine this year, or did it fall somewhere in the middle?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org