Community: History 101 (S4E1)
So, October 19th has come.
And that’s fantastic. It’s something that I’ve been waiting for since the end of last season. But a lot has changed. And change can be good and change can be bad, and in the case of Community, there was a lot of danger involved: Dan Harmon is gone, the season is shortened, and things with Chevy Chase got so bad that he’s done after this season. Season 4 has a lot of momentum going in the wrong direction, but now it’s here.
And attendance is important. But it’s not everything.
There’s no way around it: this was a shaky episode, especially for a show with Community’s standards. It wasn’t like it was a far lower bar than when Harmon had off nights (which certainly happened), but no season opened like that, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned. The biggest problem to me is that the show seemed like it was trying too hard to be itself. It was so focused on being Community and embodying the things that made it so beloved (the self-awareness, the absurdity, the honesty),it became too self-conscious. And a show like this can’t be too self-conscious. The only way it can sell what it does effectively is if it wholeheartedly believes in its own ability to succeed.
This episode didn’t believe that.
The opening was okay. It wasn’t great, but starting the viewers inside Abed’s head was the smartest way to address preemptive critics, which is exactly what they did. It wasn’t very funny, but the writers made their point within the opening seconds. But it didn’t stop there. The writers didn’t believe in their ability to make the point, so they drove it home, again and again throughout the episode, using AbedTV as a guise to point out that everything was cool and normal. Except the gag lost its touch really quickly and the show didn’t know when to pull back. In trying to slyly address the doubters, they validated them. The laugh-track driven, Big Bang Theory satirizing facet made itself a big enough part of the episode that, somewhere along the way, the point got lost. They wanted to have a sketch that was simultaneously inherently unfunny and funny enough to drive most of the episode. But they can’t have their cake and eat it too, so it falls flat.
Despite it’s fatal flaws, the sketch does show that they have a fantastic understanding of Abed’s character. I’d argue they were too overt with it, but they clearly know how Abed ticks and what makes that character successful. I won’t take that away from them.
Their understanding, which is currently a positive, has the potential to turn negative, though, as this episode frequently confused “what makes Abed work” with “what makes the show work.” It was rife with references coming from many characters, with little regard for relevance or sense. A show like 30 Rock operates fine with that style, but Community does not. Abed has always served that purpose. He could tie in enough pop culture to each episode and everything worked out fine. That doesn’t work for the rest of the characters, and the many attempts in this episode to make it so were consistently disappointing.
The other plot, the real-life one, suffers from the idea that scared me the most going into the season: absurdism for absurdism’s sake. Community, especially in seasons two and three, frequently dives into the plainly ridiculous, seemingly with reckless abandon, but only seemingly. The thing about Harmon’s Community was that, despite appearances, the ludicrosity was always earned. He earned the Blanketeers vs. Pillowman fight through the power of Troy and Abed’s relationship, and he earned the first Paintball episode was earned through frequent instances of the Dean trying to raise involvement on campus through increasingly unrealistic means. But this episode doesn’t have that. This episode starts off too far gone and never finds a way to reign itself back in. The show hasn’t done anything to earn an episode in which the Dean sabotages what is apparently the school’s most popular class, and then stages an illogically formatted “Dean Games” for spots. (Why not just make all those interested participate and then give the seats in the class to the students in the order that they placed? Because that would have ruined the idea or incapacitated the rest of the plot. It’s lazy writing). Jeff keeps coming back on screen with less and less of his shirt, which besides the moment where the Dean makes eyes at him is completely useless.
And on that note: The Dean. His dialogue was, without question, the funniest part of this episode. But if they keep the dean going in this direction, there are going to be big problems. He’s always been infatuated with Jeff, and it’s always worked, but it’s evolved into something much more sexual and this episode went too far. This certainly isn’t the type of thing that the show can’t come back from, but I fear that it won’t. Making the Dean a legitimately gay or bi-sexual character changes a lot about who he is and what he’s done in the past as well as what he’s capable of doing in the future. It’s a road not worth trudging down, and I sincerely hope they don’t.
The relationship between Troy and Britta went alright in this episode, though not great. I think using wishing in the fountain as a context for fleshing out the problems Troy is having with splitting between Abed and Britta as well as the problems Britta has with sharing Troy with Abed was very smart. It let them argue over something that, in the grand scheme of things, is irrelevant, and it revealed important problems in their relationship.
Annie, as far as I’m concerned, was written very poorly. Her schick has always been her innocence, not her lack of intelligence, but this episode appeared to confuse those two for synonyms. She sets off on a quest to relax and pull pranks her senior year, and with the help of Shirley, she does so. But there are many moments where they show her to be confused or have her saying something dumb when the Annie from the first three seasons wouldn’t have been. The old Annie would have been morally conflicted between what she wants to do and what she should do, but she wouldn’t have been lost in the manner that she was. For me, this was the most frustrating part to watch. Hopefully they can nail Annie down in later episodes, because this interpretation feels incredibly off the mark.
Shirley and Pierce haven’t changed much, though if Pierce is written in this manner for the whole season, I can’t blame Chevy Chase for leaving. It’s funny, but it’s also embarrassing and most of his lines can be boiled down to him shouting “look how stupid I am!” and letting people point and laugh at him. Shirley is still Shirley, though she didn’t get much nuanced screentime here.
That brings me to Jeff. This episode plays on a very common trope from the show: can Jeff change? Did he change? Will he ever change? And to this episode’s credit, it doesn’t entirely answer the question. He appears to care more about the people around him, but he’s still putting forth a great deal of effort on his own behalf. His discussions with himself on the new Jeff vs. the old Jeff and how they differ and how they’re the same are interesting, and are, of course, more meta elements that the writers are playing with.
Which, I think, points to the crux of the episode. These 21 minutes were as much about watching Community as they were Community. This episode wanted to make known the frustrations of its loyal fans during the down time, it wanted to comment on how Community had irreversibly changed and how that was okay, it wanted to be about the way the characters were coming to grips with post-graduate life inching closer and closer, and it wanted to be funny, too. But a show can only wear so many hats, and the way Community’s were stacked, when one fell, the rest of them did. I admire the ambition, and it’s hard to not hit the ground running with the shortened season, Community can’t be rushed, it’s not in its nature.
This certainly isn’t damning for Community. It couldn’t be. But the show has used most of its leniency in episode one. It has to get better. Or maybe it doesn’t. It’ll never be what it was, and I know that’s okay. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still be great. It just isn’t yet.