January 2, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Community”


COMMUNITY:  Thursday 8PM on NBC

A few days ago, the NY Times had a fascinating article about Pei-Shen Qian, an artist who is almost but not quite a forger.  He doesn’t duplicate actual paintings of the masters; instead, he paints new works with such precise adherence to their styles that (he claims) unbeknownst to him, unscrupulous dealers sold them to wealthy collectors as the real thing.  The Times critic, reviewing the artist’s work, found that it had enormous technical command, but no vision–no soul–of its own.

That was Season 4 of COMMUNITY.

Before the season started, NBC and the show’s studio Sony TV dumped series creator and showrunner Dan Harmon, who by all accounts–very much including his own–is a tremendous pain to deal with, resistent to collaboration or compromise, and not all that good at showrunner basics like delivering shows on budget and on time.  The network and studio wanted more episodes for cable and syndication sales, but they didn’t want Harmon, so he was replaced with a pair of perfectly competent, experienced TV writers who did all they could to capture the style and feel of Harmon’s work.  But while the brushstrokes were there, and the show didn’t suddenly become terrible (the puppet episode was quite clever), the soul that animated it all was gone, and Season 4 Community felt proficient and empty.  Yet the ratings didn’t suffer all that much, certainly not compared to the barren wastes of the rest of NBC’s comedy schedule, and so improbably, Community was renewed, that much closer to its storied goal of #sixseasonsandamovie.  Even more remarkably, the keepers of the kingdom took note of the complaints from critics and fans, and they invited Harmon back.

The first two episodes of the new reHarmonized season aired back-to-back tonight, and Community‘s return to form was instantly apparent.  Harmon’s secrets aren’t really secret at all:  he has a spectacular attention to–insistence on–detail, and he truly cares about his malformed, screwed-up characters.  The endings of both of tonight’s episodes showcased his touch:  in the first, titled “Repilot” and written by Harmon and Executive Producer Chris McKenna (directed by Tristam Shapeero), he didn’t just make meta jokes about the rebooting of Scrubs into a medical school show for its final season, he had Zach Braff doing a voiceover sum-up to the episode.  (Which was itself a meta meta callback to the special relationship between Community and Cougar Town, also created by Scrubs-meister Bill Lawrence.)  In “Introduction to Teaching,” written by Co-Executive Producer Andy Bobrow and directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, he gave Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) a lovely little end-of-episode voiceover song, in subtitled French no less, in which the singer expressed the Dean’s regrets that Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) didn’t return his attentions–it had little to do with the plot, it could easily have been omitted, but it added a funny and genuine moment of grace for the Dean and the episode

How happy was Harmon’s return to Community?  So happy that even Chevy Chase, who left with an assortment of bad feelings behind him, showed up for a cameo at the end of “Repilot” (albeit in hologram form, so he didn’t have to interact with the rest of the cast).  “Repilot” was the more strained of the two half-hours, because it had to do the heavy lifting of explaining just why Jeff and the rest of the study group–Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Abed (Danny Pudi), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), Annie (Alison Brie) and Troy (Donald Glover, who’ll only be around for the first 6 episodes–itself, of course, the subject of a meta gag)–were all back at Greendale, which amounted to a listing of ways in which their lives had gone sideways since graduation.  Jeff, who originally came back to gather evidence for a lawsuit against the school, ended up staying as a teacher (after that hologram visit), while none of the rest had realized their post-graduation dreams.

“Repilot” had plenty of laughs, but it mostly cleared the way for “Introduction to Teaching,” which was Community back in full force.  Jonathan Banks is a splendid addition as Criminology teacher (and secret cartoonist, notwithstanding his problem with duck bills) Buzz Hickey, who tutored Jeff in the upsides of teaching, including the ability to bully Leonard (Richard Erdman), the luxurious teacher’s lounge, and the ability to drive students (specifically Annie) crazy by giving “A-minus” grades.  Banks is a recurring guest star, and as a member of the faculty/student committee that’s apparently replacing the study group as the engine of the show, he should recur often.  If that wasn’t enough, Kevin Corrigan returned as the professor of “Nicolas Cage–Good or Bad?”, a course that drove Abed (and Pudi) to a brilliantly performed, semi-verbal Cage-imitation breakdown.  It all wound up with a cafeteria riot, and Jeff inspiring the Greendale students to embrace their own work-in-progressdom, even as he discovered that he might like teaching after all.

Community is never going to be a mainstream hit, and the good news is that it no longer has to be–even a rating that would get it canceled on any other network might well be considered quite decent on NBC.  Network and studio have apparently put controls in place to make sure that Dan Harmon delivers his show as required, and they’ve vowed that as long as that happens, they’ll keep their hands off it and him.  The brush has been restored to the right artist, and once again the originality and inspiration of the canvas is beyond question.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."