TV Review: COMMUNITY 5.01 and 5.02

NBC sees Dan Harmon's value now.

"It's ONE duck, his name is Jim, and PUBLISHERS ARE INTERESTED!"

"I see your value now," Abed says to Jeff on his first appearance in Community's Season 5 opener, titled "Repilot." It works on many levels; it's a callback to one of the first things Jeff said to Abed in the show's pilot ("Pilot"), which is acknowledged in the subsequent dialogue for those who didn't catch the reference. But it could also be Abed speaking to creator Dan Harmon, who was brought back to the show after being dismissed from Season 4. Apparently, the execs realized that the show wouldn't become a ratings darling with more "normal" guys running things, and then they lost the show's critical buzz to boot, so they might as well make SOMEONE happy. So, in an unprecedented move, they brought him back (alongside Chris McKenna, the only other Season 1 writer besides Harmon that's still there) to do a few more episodes and make the show's already existing syndication package even sweeter.

(And if you want to dig deeper, it's also a sort of tribute to the Season 4 finale, as Abed originally repeated it then during the post-graduation celebration in the study room - but the line was cut for time.)

As the title suggests, "Repilot" is a reset for the show, designed to hopefully bring in new viewers (or old ones that abandoned ship during the previous two, more polarizing seasons) and tone down some of the nuttiness that has permeated the show ever since the first paintball episode gave them license to go as crazy as they like with the storylines, as long as the characters stayed in check. Indeed, it's remarkably free of the show's "mythology" - if this was the first episode of the show you ever watched, the only thing that would confuse you would be when Jeff encounters an old friend (via hologram, of all things) during the episode's third act. Actually, I've seen every episode multiple times and even I was a bit confused by it, mainly because it comes out of nowhere and is never mentioned again.

Otherwise, I was impressed at how well it balanced the need to entertain newcomers without disregarding what came before. There were rumors that all of Season 4 would be chalked up to a dream or something, but Harmon thankfully was a bigger man than that, opting to include it even more than necessary (one of S4's new characters will return later in the season). However, it's not a direct continuation, either - it seems to be about a year later, and we learn that everyone basically quit the school after Jeff graduated, therefore jumping ahead enough in the timeline to more or less ignore anything that might have been ongoing then. But one thing has remained unavoidable: Jeff needs a real reason to return to Greendale, and the answer is an obvious one - he will become a teacher.

This is actually the "surprise" climax of the episode, but since it's been the focus of what little marketing NBC has done for the show, I guess it's not really a spoiler anymore. Most of the episode is actually about him coming back for a different reason: his old law rival Alan (Rob Corddry) has asked him to help secure the records of a former student who is suing the school. It's a bit of a bummer to see Jeff return to sleazy lawyer mode so quickly, but thankfully it doesn't take long for him to come to his senses and HELP the school by working there and keeping the Dean off the chopping block.

And in the process, he convinces his old friends to return to finish their degrees (except for Pierce, who also graduated and is played by an actor who, unlike Harmon, no one fought to have come back). The episode's funniest scene is an old fashioned discussion/fight around the study room table where everyone reveals what they've been doing since they left (best is Annie's job for a medical firm that created the problem and cure for some disease), where the writers take a few more quick jabs at the previous season (a "gas leak year" is mentioned more than once, and the study room has been overrun with clutter that they need to clear out before they can get back to normal). Speaking of which, it's not the funniest episode of the show's run by any means - there is so much catching up to do that there isn't a lot of time for jokes, but the actual pilot had the same issue, so it's not the end of the world (and there's nothing here as painful as the lunchlady scene in the show's debut). It's not unfunny - there's a meta joke at Donald Glover's expense (regarding his impending departure) that had me cackling, and even Chang scores a few good lines, but there's little of the rapid wit that the show displays when it's firing on all cylinders. However, if you love the show and its characters enough, you'll be too happy to see them back to themselves again to notice that you haven't been drowning out their dialogue with laughter.

It's possibly for this very reason that NBC opted to air two episodes on premiere night, not to mention introduce us to Jonathan Banks' character sooner. "Introduction To Teaching" shows Jeff adjusting to his new role as a teacher, with some assistance from Banks' Professor Hickey, a criminology teacher who, like Jeff, has taken a job there to pay bills until he gets a real job. Except that's what he did fifteen years ago and is still there, but Jeff quickly learns that being a teacher isn't all that bad: special lunchroom privileges, a breakroom that stocks booze and keeps the Dean out, and the reveal that "minus" grades ("A-", "B-", etc) are meaningless - they're just a way of the teacher telling you that he doesn't like you. So Jeff is content to just let his students quiz each other or form small groups to discuss chapters arbitrarily, until Annie inadvertently makes him discover that he's actually pretty good at teaching after all. It's very much like a Season 1 episode: Jeff learns a lesson while the rest of his friends join some kooky class.

And that class would be a limited course on Nicolas Cage, a storyline that the writers have been trying to incorporate for years (apparently they wanted to do it a while back but Sony balked because of Ghost Rider 2's impending release). It's a goofy throwaway plot that mostly serves to let Danny Pudi offer a Cage impression and take a few shots at some other actors ("Johnny Depp: the bad kind of good"), but it also gives us another appearance by Professor Sean Garrity (Kevin Corrigan), who has always been one of my favorite Greendale staff members. On the whole, this episode is funnier than the premiere, but less essential in the long run (having seen a few more episodes down the line, I'm sad to say Jeff's role as teacher is largely ceremonial - in seven episodes this is the only one that shows him in his classroom), so it makes for a good pairing: together they provide everything we love about Community.

Well, mostly. I'm sure I'm in the minority for missing Pierce, but few could argue that Britta is sadly wasted in both episodes. While all of the others get a chance to shine (particularly Alison Brie, a standout in "Teaching"), Gillian Jacobs gets very little to do beyond back up the other characters in crowd scenes. Even Shirley and Abed get a nice scene together (probably the least common pairing on the show), where we hilariously find out about her love of the Hellraiser movies ("I didn't like Pinhead in Space, but I'm in it for the long run!" she explains), but if you were watching these episodes as your first, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Britta is just some random seat filler for the group. And, like Jeff's teaching, I haven't seen much improvement on the ones ahead, though there is some potential for her "therapizing" skills when Glover makes his exit, as I'm sure Abed won't be taking it lightly.

Minor quibbles aside, I'm pretty damn satisfied here. I wasn't as down on S4 as most, but I'd have to be pretty bored to defend it in an argument, and it only takes a few minutes to realize how much more spirited the cast is (Brie and Joel McHale in particular) now that their old captain has returned to this seemingly unsinkable ship. Remember when the idea of six seasons (and a movie) was laughable? At this point I'd be more surprised if they stopped there. NBC's Thursday ratings have cratered thanks to the abysmal new shows (ironically, Welcome to the Family was the only one that wasn't completely awful IMO, and that was the one that got axed), so it's extremely likely that tomorrow's ratings report will show Community - the perennially low rated "we got nothing better to put in its place" show - will be the highest rated thing they have on the night the network used to own. Granted the ratings will be a bit inflated due to the "premiere" allure and curiosity regarding Harmon's return, but if they can stay above the average 1.0 rating that the rest of the lineup has been getting all throughout fall, then there's no reason to think they'd pull the plug now - especially with NBC actually selling shirts saying "Six Seasons And A Movie" on them. We can do this!