Friday, January 03, 2014

Community Season 5 Premiere Review: Dan Harmon Proves to be the Head of the Class



Rating:  ***½

Season: 5  
Episode: 1 & 2
Director: Tristram Shapeero (1), Jay Chandrasekhar (2)  
Written: Dan Harmon & Chris McKenna (1), Andy Bobrow (2)  
Starring: Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Prudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alison Brie, Donald Glover 
Guest: Chevy Chase, Rob Corddry, Jonathan Banks
 
If you based popularity entirely on pop culture websites and the comments that linger about at the bottom, then you'd probably come to the conclusion that Community is one of the hottest shows on television.  Unfortunately, the gushing of critics and the very vocal minority isn't the gauge for a show's actual success, and the television ratings show why this internet darling is about an inch away from the chopping block every May and likely has survived this long because it is on the network that tends to be dragged down by a lot of rating albatrosses.  It is now surprises that in the magical world of internet and all over social media that the ousting of showrunner Dan Harmon was not only major news but a catastrophe.

Everyone assumed the show entirely relied on the quirky, pop culture fueled mind of Harmon.  The guy was apparently hard to deal with and was a bit of a control freak, and it was this meticulous and thorough control of the show that made it so beloved by pop culture geeks.  Community is a hilarious and eccentric show that seeps originality from every pore, but the love largely comes from those that have far too much TV and movie trivia crammed into their brains.  It is a constant parade of winks at iconic things from film and TV, while also constantly playing with tropes and cliches in a way where it is molded and crafted to become something new but still recognizable.  On top of all that, the most important part is the fleshed out characters that each have complex personalities and become people you actually care about and help create engaging stories that are both emotional and warm.  There really isn't any other series or film that is largely a parody that could boast the depth and layers of Community.

This is why many lamented the Harmon exit, because it was believed to largely be his own creation, even if he didn't write and direct every episode (though he apparently was very hands on with everything done on the show).  When Season 4 without Harmon's genius rolled into town, it was largely beaten up on the internet and many were ready to throw dirt on the series (and land a few solid kicks while it laid their prone).  Critics and fans felt vindicated in their belief that the show needed Harmon and felt even though the episodes had glimpses of brilliance, were a pale imitation of the former glory.

This is where I deliver my confession.  I didn't mind last season.  I actually liked quite a few of the episodes.  I'd still stand by it being one of the best sitcoms on television, even if I also admit it wasn't as strong as the Harmon run seasons.  I thought the show had some strong theme episodes, and the puppet episode was near brilliance, and the finale was a really strong send-off if fate was against the hopes of six seasons and a movie.

Now, Harmon is back, and most were declaring it the greatest season ever before any had aired.  I started getting a little nervous that far too much pressure was being thrown on the man.  He was good, but Jordan was the best in his sport and he was never quite the same after returning from retirement.  Harmon had a year off, and no one knows if he is battling with network executives this time around.

But the season premiere has arrived on our doorsteps, so we no longer are left guessing and prophesying.  As much as I was happy with season four, I can say with great confidence that the series premiere gives hope this series is back on track and things will be far better.

I painted Harmon as the pop culture whiz kid who also had an incredible sense of comedic timing and a daring to do far-out things while playing with the traditional formula.  This is exactly the spell being weaved in the two episodes being combined for the much anticipated Season 5 kick-off.  Abed (Danny Pudi) our trusty guide into the zany pop culture collage that is Greendale, alerts us right off the bat that "Repilot" (first episode title) is following the path of popular shows trying to cling on to a few more seasons by coming up with a convoluted plot device to justify the characters staying in a place that they should be long gone.  He goes for the Scrubs analogy in order to point out the former student returns as a teacher and surprise, surprise, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) through a windy and zany episode comes out the other end a teacher to force him to remain yet another season.  It isn't just the fact that Community openly acknowledges it is embracing tropes and cliches or following the ill-advised plans of past series, but rather it is done with such a zest and energy that you can't help fall in love with its daring to plow ahead with plot points that would crucify any other series and make viewers revolts with screams that it is time to give it up.  It probably helps Community's ratings have always been sub-par, and every expert claims it has been on death watch since day one, so there isn't any real risk to throw out the rulebook and tackle the same things that killed other series.

Community obviously needs to be set in Greendale and it needs to have the cast we've fallen in love with (sadly, minus Chevy Chase's lovable bigot Pierce), and the season finale was written to fit just fine as a series finale, so everyone was now graduated and gone, so we knew the show was put in a corner.  The fun was trying to figure out how our perpetual students would return to a college that normally would have three year programs at most and they has all happily graduated after four.  It seems our dear friends kind of suck at life outside of Greendale and need a few more of the school's mind-numbing courses to really find their way.  And in a lesser series that would be enough and Jeff would return as a professor in some heartwarming moment to give back to the place that means so much to him.  Except for the fact Jeff has spent four seasons whining about the mediocrity of the place and trying to find ways to stay away from Jim Rash's Dean as much as possible.  Any show would see the humour in making him a professor, but only Community would get to that result after he was trying to manipulate his friends into suing the college so he could finally get his career as a lawyer on track.  Then in order to save the school from his own devious plan, he takes on the role of faculty.  Yes, it is just as convoluted as any other series trying to justify one more season, but it was the ridiculousness that made it all so fun.

The thing that really caused this premiere to really groove and rock and restore faith back in this series as one of the best things on television was the continual barrage of quotable lines both due to their sly nudges towards the trivia of TV past while poking fun at themselves.  It also has material that is just plain funny even if you don't know a thing about pop culture.  Troy cursing Zach Braff for only being in six episodes in Scrubs final season was funny, but it has another layer when you realize that he is played by Donald Glover who will be in fewer episodes this season due to movie commitments.  It may not be the freshest joke ever, but I still got a kick out of Abed refusing to continue recording Jeff's video because 555 at the start of the phone number seems fake.  Speaking of the video, superhero Jeff fighting a third rate special effects robot screams local TV ad and was a pure joy to experience.  The punch line was even funnier when you realize the ad led to the downfall of Jeff's practice.  I claimed you don't need to know pop culture to enjoy every joke that was thrown out and Annie (Alison Brie) bragging the drug she promotes both creates and cures fibromyalgia is the type of line that will be quoted for weeks at dinner tables everywhere.

I've only been touching on the first episode of the two part premiere.  It was the stronger of the two, but the second half served up some pretty memorable moments as well.  The Jeff as a new teacher was a closer to formula story until his attempt to do the right thing for Annie lead to a student revolt, which was one of those unexpected moments that make Community great.  The real gem of the second half was Abed enrolling into the course that asks if Nicholas Cage was a good or bad actor.  The professor claims it is unknowable, but Abed refuses to accept that and well, his mission leads to a breakdown that causes him to perform at a Nicholas Cage level.  The storyline was genius, because well, Cage is one mysterious actor who goes over the top and goofy, but also has proven time and again he has loads of talent.  It was fun seeing the film geek battle over the worth of Cage and get his brain fried to the point he goes through every possible Cage mannerism and overacting performance.  It then all led to a rather unexpected sweet moment between Abed and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) that showed maybe the bubbly Christian may not be all Veggie Tales and gospel music (anyone predict a closet Hellraiser fan?).  Since Troy is going to be absent for half the season, hopefully this scene was set-up for a new friendship between the two because they play off each other well.

Community is also the wonderful land of guest appearances, with John Goodman still being the king even though his character's fate means no return this season.  Rob Corddry as Jeff's unscrupulous partner is pretty terrific and hopefully, the two continue to clash throughout the season.  It was nice to see Chevy Chase, who I assumed would be totally absent this season, even if his cameo was simply in holographic form.  The best guest appearance for the night belongs to Jonathan Banks as a cranky professor who isn't very good at drawing ducks but publishers are interested.  Banks has a history of playing tough guys, and he kept up that persona here but he also wasn't afraid to show some vulnerability and be the butt of a few jokes.  It was his tough exterior that actually made several of the punch lines that much stronger and unpredictable.

The premiere had a good balance of feeling like a standalone episode that you could enjoy without following the entire series, but also it set-up some intriguing stories for the future.  The lawsuit will likely be an ongoing issue the entire season, and Jeff will likely have a new series of problems as a professor (especially since he currently expects to be around for a very short time).  The most exciting stuff is the feeling the characters are going to grow and change this season.  One of the better inside jokes was when Jeff complained about them coming into the school as real humans but now being manufactured into cartoon characters.  It is true that Brita has got goofier and more clueless as the series has progressed and Troy has shifted into an Abed lackey, and each character sort of has a gimmick that defines them that also bring about most of the jokes.  At the series strongest moments, they still feel like real characters and the events affect and shape and change them.  The best part of the premiere is the promise that this will continue this season, and the best is yet to come.

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