Dan Harmon Returns To Run ‘Community,’ And The Show Grows Up In Its Fifth Season


This episode discusses some basic plot points for the fifth season of Community.

“A film degree doesn’t make you a filmmaker. I need to learn how to work with other people,” Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), the Aspergerian film student whose adventures in community college have often lent a meta edge to Community, NBC’s low-rated, wildly-creative sitcom about Abed and his friends’ time in school and what pop culture means to them–and by extension to us. He could be speaking for series creator Dan Harmon, who was very publicly fired from Community after its third season, and who returns to helm a fifth year of the show after his replacements failed to make the fourth season of the show spark (I mostly couldn’t bring myself to watch).

That fifth season, which premieres with two episodes tonight at 8 PM, feels less elaborate and extravagant than the version of Community that Harmon used to run–“Maybe you should have spent less money on special effects,” a repo man tells Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) of an ad for his failed law practice as a crew hauls furniture away from the now-abandoned office. But if Community returns to us a sadder, wiser show, then the sadder but wiser show is definitely preferable to the attenuated fourth season.

Community‘s original premise might have lent itself to a four-season structure as its characters finished their degrees and headed out into the world to pursue their careers. But the way the show brings them all back together both feels organic and deepens the show’s exploration of its themes.

After Jeff’s law career founders, he reluctantly accepts a teaching position at Greendale, hoping it will be temporary. That he’s at least moved on to professional work makes sense: Jeff was the most directed member of the study group from the first season, arriving at Greendale with both established work experience and exceptionally clear career goals. His fellow students have fared less well. Annie Edison (Alison Brie) is working as a pharmaceutical representative, rather than in hospital administration. Shirley Bennett’s (Yvette Nicole Brown) sandwich shop has foundered, and her family has broken up again. Abed hasn’t actually found work as a filmmaker, having quit his only gig as the director of Jeff’s commercial. Troy (Donald Glover) has so thoroughly subsumed his identity in his relationship with Abed that he’s barely made progress in the adult world at all. Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) is bartending and has lost her activist edge.

The first time the characters all got together, it was because they hadn’t completed college in the first place. Now that they’ve tried, the show is up against a hard reality that the fifth season of Community has put into the foreground. The great promise of college is that it will guarantee you stable, decent employment, and maybe even a dream job. But in this economy, a degree from a patently fraudulent educational organization may not actually lead you anywhere at all. Greendale Community College failed the study group. But they don’t have significantly better choices than to come back to it, and try to extract more skills and knowledge from the one place that they can afford to go. While in previous seasons, the study group’s retreat from real life into pillow forts and Dungeons & Dragons games could be lighthearted rather than worrisome, this season, Community‘s characters feel less like they’re running away from adulthood, and more like they’ve been rejected from it, and are trying to work their way back in.

Their dilemmas are real, and at times, they feel painful. “RelaxRX doesn’t make you give up your dreams! That’s just a side effect,” Annie says plaintively, trying to keep up her facade of optimism to avoid confronting the fact that she’s pushing the kinds of drugs that sent her to rehab in the first place. “Andre left again,” Shirley confesses. “It’s not like last time. He’s staying with family. He took the boys. He took the dog. He took the DVR…I cheated on him. With Shirley’s Sandwiches.” Last time around, Shirley felt betrayed by Andre, and was determined to do for herself. Now, she’s learned that overcorrecting in the opposite direction can be just as detrimental. Doing you can lead to doing you and doing you alone. And Abed’s figured out that mastering the funhouse mirror reflection of society that shows up in popular culture doesn’t mean you know how to live in the world. “I thought the meaning of people was somewhere in here. And then I looked inside Nicholas Cage and found out that people are random and pointless,” he tells Shirley forlornly.

If this sounds like a grimmer program, it’s absolutely true that these first two episodes of Community‘s fifth season are more subdued than the show’s typical madcap mode. But by the fourth episode, the show is in rare form, thanks to Walton Goggins, who is fast-becoming a kind of human special effect. The half-hour is functionally a bottle episode: the study group finds themselves stuck in a room being questioned by a Mr. Stone (Goggins), an attorney who informs them that they have to undergo a collective polygraph. But unlike in years past, Community doesn’t have to declare that it’s doing a bottle episode. The show just lets the characters snipe and snap at each other. “It’s anti-Semitic to do things like that when you know full well you’re Jewish,” Shirley reproves Annie for living up a stereotype by overcharging Troy and Abed for the rent. “Is one of those items a pair of Ms. Perry’s panties?” Mr. Stone demands of Jeff after Jeff admits he keeps trophies from his sexual conquests. “You told me a hawk stole them!” Britta turns on her occasional hookup. “You exploited me! And made me believe in a slightly more magical world!”

The episode is a reminder that Community may have done brilliant things with paintball guns and chicken nuggets and flashbacks, but that even stripped of those things, the show worked because it had great acting and characterization at its heart. Not everyone may agree with me, but some of Community‘s best episodes have been its least flashy, whether the gang was taking a trip to a local watering hole, or giving us a very effective potential goodbye at the end of the show’s third season. The fifth season of Community may scale new conceptual heights. But if it sticks to the concept advanced by its name, that’s just fine with me.