COMMUNITY Review: 4.01 “History 101”

Is COMMUNITY the same without Dan Harmon? BC reviews the latest episode after a very long hiatus. 

I don't want to dwell on the obvious. Yes, Community is back without Dan Harmon; his credit as an "executive consultant" (buried in the end credits, right before the costume designer) is complete horseshit. But it has retained pretty much the same crew, at least two of its most prolific writers (Andy Bobrow, who is credited with tonight's episode, and Megan Ganz, both of whom have been promoted to producers), and new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port seem to have no intentions of changing it up too much. Whether you watch it or boycott it is up to you - as previously explained, I will watch anything Chevy Chase does from now until we're both dead, so you know what team I'm on. My biggest fear was that it would seem like a pod person version of the show, not that it would become something completely unrecognizable, and that fear was quickly erased the instant that the episode began, and I realized that they weren't about to do anything that would be considered "normal" tonight.

Despite the reaction some had when they heard "Hunger Games Parody", the main(ish) story in "History 101" should be a relief to those who miss the idea that these people are indeed going to a community college, something that has slowly dwindled over the past three years. The Greendale Seven have chosen the blow off class "History of Ice Cream" to take together for their senior year, but there's a problem: it has been insanely overbooked, leading Dean Pelton to stage a Double Dare-esque series of physical challenges and such to earn a seat. It's not really much like the hit movie (Dean calls it "The Hunger Deans", but that's about the only similarity), and the bits of Jeff competing are pretty quick, mostly shown in a montage where he earns most of the red balls needed to secure seats for all of his friends. Much like the "Pulp Fiction episode" not really being much about Pulp Fiction at all, this is just an easy/popular thing to focus on for ads and not really a main element of the episode (less than 25%, I'd say).

So why is Jeff competing alone? Well, as we learn right off the bat, this is his last class at Greendale, after taking a few summer courses online (once again, it seems that these folks - who go on camping trips and decorate nurseries together - don't talk to each over at all over the summer). So he wants his last class to be with the others, but they take it personally that he wants to graduate early and go off on their own adventures for the episode, leaving Jeff to fight for their seats in the class alone. I can't help but wonder if they should have saved his reveal for the end of the episode, because it renders it a bit dramatically inert - no one seems to care whether he succeeds or not. Hell, they don't even WATCH: Pierce and Abed sit on the sidelines but barely pay attention, Annie and Shirley go off to pull a prank on the Dean for no real reason, and Troy and Britta carry out the never-before-seen-but-apparently-annual-tradition of making wishes in the school fountain for the year ahead. As we learn, this is usually a Troy and Abed thing, but Abed uncharacteristically lets Britta take his place.

See, not only is Jeff leaving, but Troy and Britta are now a couple, which is putting a slight wedge in "Trobed" and putting the change-fearing Abed at risk of mental break. So thanks to Britta's psychiatric advice, he shuts down and goes to his "happy place" for most of the episode, not really caring about  or reacting to anything happening around him. And what is that happy place? The show as we know it reinvented as a multi-cam sitcom, complete with a laugh track and Pierce replaced by a beloved comic actor (I won't spoil since this will be up before it airs on the West Coast, but if he ever sees the episode, Harmon will certainly appreciate the slight meta-ness of the casting). Half the episode takes place in this style, until the real world keeps creeping in on that and forcing the "happy place" version of Abed to go to HIS "happy place", giving it a bit of Inception flare as well. It's an inspired idea, but I couldn't help but think: why didn't they just do the multi-cam thing for an entire episode, rather than cut back and forth?

And then the answer came to me about 10 minutes later - they already did. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" basically employs the same idea: Abed deals with change by regressing into a TV-based fantasy world. It's just one of the many things in the episode that feels a bit rehashed; Britta trying to help Abed but making things worse (and getting chewed out by Troy as a result) recalls "Cougarton Abbey", and Shirley going along for a prank only to make it far more destructive than her partner had in mind harkens all the way back to the first season's Halloween episode. Pierce has three bits in the entire episode, and they're all recycled: he gets left out of a hug, he makes jokes about Jeff being gay, and then he gets confused as to what just happened (same as the Dreamatorium episode). It makes the episode feel like a 'greatest hits' of some sort, and I started wondering if this was the new showrunners' way of letting the fans know that things wouldn't be different - by inadvertently making it too much of the same. As a result, it becomes a bit too easy to start comparing it to other episodes, which is a bummer when the episode is already under unavoidable scrutiny.

Luckily, it has two things to coast on that almost completely make up for it. The first: it's funny! Jim Rash is the MVP, scoring huge laughs in and out of costumes (and kudos to director Tristram Shapeero for underplaying the sight gag near the end when he reaches into his pocket), and even though it's been partially spoiled by clips, his tango with Jeff is what Pierce would say is "socially unacceptable, but theatrical dynamite!" There's a pretty good running gag involving hipster glasses with a perfect punchline, and even a ham sandwich running things behind the scenes would be able to spin gold out of anything that allows Gillian Jacobs to show off her physical comedy chops. It also boasts fun turns from Neil, Leonard and even Annie Kim, who has been MIA for a while - it's nice to see that the supporting cast haven't been left behind with all the turmoil (though we can be assured that we'll never see Star-Burns again). There have been funnier episodes, but what's most important (for those scrutinizing its Harmon-less-ness), there have been a number that weren't as funny (looking at you, "Contemporary Wine Tasting"). Some of the emotional beats don't work as well as they might since the episode has so much going on, so those moments have to be raced through, but that's been an issue throughout the series' run - I've said before that it probably would have benefited from an hourlong slot like Freaks & Geeks (though that would have gotten the show canceled, most likely).

And that leads to the other ace in the hole: regardless of who is missing behind the scenes, the cast remains intact (well, for now - enjoy Pierce while you can!). After three years, their chemistry is flawless, and I'm pretty sure at this point they can make anything work just by staying true to the characters they've helped mold after 70 episodes. Indeed, they even adapt quite nicely to the multi-cam approach, with lots of "Oh YOU..." reaction shots and making the awkward pauses while the audience laughs seem natural - I think I would actually watch this version of the show! Annie seems to be a bit out of sorts, a bit more uptight and dorky than she's been, but for every moment that rang untrue there was a bit that brought her back to form. So even when things feel "off," McHale, Jacobs, etc are there to keep it on track.

You might recall that I was as panicked as anyone when the news broke that they had fired Harmon, so it would be easy for me to say "TOLD YA SO!" and write it off as a time-waster, but the truth is, I'm kind of optimistic about it based on this and the other episode I've seen (which airs third this season). They're funny, a bit sweet and still unlike anything else on TV - even more so now that 30 Rock has left us forever. It might feel a bit forced, but it seems like the new showrunners are trying hard to keep anyone from noticing any difference, and it could have been much, much worse. And thus, in a way it's kind of interesting that they won't have a chance to use our feedback to shape future episodes, as they did in S1 and 2 (and part of 3) - the whole thing has been shot and even edited, as far as I know. Therefore, they won't have a chance to second guess themselves; whatever approach they take for the season as a whole, we're stuck with it - and so far that's not such a bad thing.