February 8, 2013



COMMUNITY:  Thursday 8PM on NBC

In 1984, MGM released the movie 2010, which was a sequel to 1968’s classic 2001:  A Space Odyssey. 2010 had credentials to prove it was no mere rip-off:  it was based, like 2001, on a novel by Arthur C. Clarke, its characters and storylines related back to the original, it had a first-rate cast that included Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren and John Lithgow, and it featured a handsome budget and state-of-the-art special effects.

The only thing it lacked was Stanley Kubrick.

And without Kubrick’s astounding vision, 2010, while a passable sci-fi adventure, was completely unmemorable, a pale shadow of its forebear whose existence only comes to mind when it turns up on TCM every so often.

While no one in their right mind would compare series creator Dan Harmon to Stanley Kubrick (one hopes that would include Harmon himself, who may or may not be in his right mind), Season 4 of COMMUNITY is very much its 2010.  The new simulacrum of the old show labors mightily to reproduce the feel of Seasons 1-3, and in working so hard, it fails utterly to do so.

At this point, it’s an open secret that whatever NBC executives may say in their public statements, Season 4 Community exists strictly for financial reasons, because a series that completes 4 seasons of at least 13 episodes on a broadcast network has a value, per episode, exponentially more in aftermarkets than one that fails to last that long.  Having made it through 3 seasons, however low-rated, Community was worth keeping alive for a 4th.  But Harmon, who evidences the kind of perfectionist, “difficult” behavior that in Hollywood gets you worshiped if it carries Emmys and ratings along with it (virtually every auteur in Alan Sepinwall’s excellent The Revolution Was Televised about TV’s last decade is guilty of it in some measure) and banished if it doesn’t, didn’t deliver a hit, so he was ousted by NBC and production studio Sony Television from his own show.

In his place, the team of David Guarascio and Moses Port was brought in.  They’re experienced TV comedy writers, with shows like Just Shoot Me, Happy Endings (neither of which they created) and the acclaimed but short-lived Aliens In America to their credit.  But they’re not crazy, obsessed visionaries, and the result is the Beatlemania of Community seasons.

The season premiere, with a script credited to Co-Executive Producer Andy Bobrow and directed by Tristam Shapeero, is almost instantly all too literal.  Suffering from panic that the Greendale gang is entering its senior year and that “change” (which can be read as meaning, in meta terms, the changes behind the camera) is afoot, Abed (Danny Pudi) is told by fledgling therapist Britta (Gillian Jacobs) to go to a “happy place”–which turns out to be a multi-camera, laugh-tracked sitcom version of Community.  The gag makes sense, since at least half of Abed’s brain cells take refuge in television, but it’s the most obvious, least imaginative version of the joke, just another fake laugh-track spoof (among other shows, 30 Rock made use of the same bit).  Later in the episode, when the Dean (Jim Rash) has overbooked Greendale’s one history class to keep out Jeff (Joel McHale) and stop him from graduating, the students who are actually allowed to take the class are chosen via a parody of The Hunger Games.  Not only is the satire unimaginative and not particularly funny (let’s not dock it quite so much for also being dated, since the show was originally supposed to air last fall), but it’s the kind of current pop-culture sketch that was beneath Harmon’s notice.  This is the show that did an entire episode parodying My Dinner With Andre! Turning Community into Saturday Night Live is an insult to everyone.

There are a couple of bits that almost work, like an Inception gag that has Abed’s “happy place” within his “happy place” as a cartoon called “Greendale Babies.”  The terrific cast is still the cast (at least until Chevy Chase disappears later in the season, the victim of one crackpot tirade too many.)  But Community in its full, Harmon-infused form wasn’t just culty and anarchic–it was deeply, sometimes almost scarily weird, a series that dug so deeply into its conceits that it often let them take over the show entirely.  It didn’t feel like conscious risk-taking on Harmon’s part so much as compulsion, and the only thing compelling the new Community is the desire to get from joke to joke.

It’s overwhelmingly unlikely that Community will survive beyond this season (although with virtually every show on NBC flopping this midseason, who knows what desperate decisions the network will make come May).  For those of us who cared about the series in its original form, it may help to keep in mind that these days, no one even remembers that HAL also showed up in 2010.

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."