I need help reacting to something.
I find myself dizzyingly mixed on Community's fourth season premiere, "History 101." It's not that I didn't laugh a number of times. It's not that I didn't find the episode's final act clever, especially the "Aha!" moment where it becomes clear that we're watching an Inception parody. It's not that I didn't find it far more memorable than the blandly pleasant oatmeal Parks and Recreation has decomposed into. Hell, if any other live-action sitcom mixed styles and mediums and genres like "History 101" in a single episode, I'd be damn impressed.
But without Dan Harmon, I'm still not sure it's Community.
Let me back up: Community was the best sitcom and one of the overall best shows of the last half-decade for two key reasons. The first, sexiest, most discussed reason was Harmon's willingness to experiment, commit to weirdness for whole episodes at a time, play with presentation and format and dive head-first into full-bore parodies of genres or of specific films or TV shows. And this yielded brilliance. If you know Community, you know the episodes. Action movies, Westerns, claymation, Glee, Goodfellas, Law & Order, My Dinner With Andre, classic video games, documentaries, Ken Burns, heists, zombies, multiple timelines, and bottle episodes were all subject to the Greendale treatment. Community had big brass balls and never played it safe.
But the second, less sexy, less discussed but equally important reason was its heart. I don't mean that in any cheesy, manufactured way – no one ever sang "Seasons of Love" in a nauseating attempt to make the audience cry (hear that, The Office?) – but it had rock-solid fundamentals in terms of characterization, relationships amidst the cast, and character development. Jeff, Britta, Troy, Abed, Annie, Shirley and Pierce were all funny, but they were never reduced to joke machines. (Chang sometimes was, admittedly.) Dan Harmon really, truly cared about the study group, and thus so did I. Jeff, Britta, and Abed in particular were largely sliced from his own personality.
(And the third reason, or what I'll call the second-and-a-half reason, is that oftentimes these two elements were mixed, with many of the biggest character developments occurring in the flashiest, most parodic episodes – Jeff and Britta consummating their relationship in "Modern Warfare," Troy becoming a man in "Epidemiology," Pierce's reckoning in "A Fistful of Paintballs," etc, though that's not immediately relevant to the rest of my point here.)
Community, at its best, managed to combine the ambition of Arrested Development and the committed weirdness of 30 Rock with the character development of The Office's prime years and the bighearted warmth of Parks and Recreation, all drenched in an extra coating of pop culture and seen through the eyes of a cocky prick protagonist with a heart of gold. Put simply, Community had great jokes, but it wasn't a show about jokes, or about references. It was about people.
And I'm not quite sure that's the case in "History 101."
Now, don't get me wrong, it's not like the episode just launches into Family Guy-style "Hey, you know this pop culture thing?" Its parodies of multi-camera sitcoms, Muppet Babies, and Inception are all rooted in Abed's fear of graduation and capped off with a Winger speech. But something does feel undeniably off without Dan Harmon's voice guiding it. The character Danny Pudi is playing looks like Abed, sounds like Abed, and walks and talks roughly like Abed, but I'm not quite sure it's Abed, just as I wasn't sure Lorelai was still Lorelai after Amy Sherman-Palladino left Gilmore Girls. Abed was so singularly driven by Harmon's own quirks and weirdnesses and obsessions that what's left is inevitably mimicry; cover artists doing their best to imitate the original.
But that isn't to say the journey through Abed's mind wasn't fairly clever and admirably weird. If anything I think that I would have liked to see this overstuffed episode – which in addition to Jeff and Abed's main stories also contained Troy and Britta's fountain date and Annie and Shirley's pranks, plus final scenes of the Dean moving next door to Jeff, a Chang cliffhanger and a tag – shed a couple minutes from its subplots and maybe insert another layer in between Abed's Happy Community College Show and Greendale Babies, to further reflect the many layers of Inception.
But on Jeff's side of things, there's no getting around the fact that every single Hunger Games reference made me cringe. Unlike Abed's stuff, those really were just references for the sake of references, the show gesticulating in the direction of the hot new thing going "This is what the kids like, right?!"
Now, if you ignore all that, Jeff's quest for seven red balls was mostly enjoyable, even if Jeff had the same disquieting not-quite-Jeffness about him as Abed's not-quite-Abedness. We got most of the show's recurring players in that half of the story, including some great Leonard gags and the welcome return of Annie Kim, who wants ice cream. But I would've vastly, vastly preferred the athletic competition sans Hunger Games references. (Granted, that's at least partially because I thought The Hunger Games was a pretty shitty movie and I'd rather not think about it when I don't have to, but still, I think less pop culture on Jeff's side of the narrative would have caused the pop culture-drenched Abed plot to pop more colorfully.)
I'm relieved that Community is still willing to be weird and do things that no other sitcom would even consider. Dan Harmon expanded the canvass, and the new showrunners have no plans to shrink it back down. "History 101" announced that assertively, and, as someone who likes my comedy clever and risky and doesn't watch most sitcoms because I find them bland as white rice, this pleases me.
But in the end, I really fucking wanted to see Harmon's vision for how these people's journeys turn out, and to hear them (especially Jeff and Abed, coincidentally this episode's two focal characters) speak Harmon's words. I suspect I'll still enjoy Community a lot on an episode-by-episode basis, but there's no getting around the fact that my ability to emotionally invest has been irreparably damaged by Harmon's dismissal, and even if Community runs six seasons and a movie, I don't think I'll ever get it back.
And so what we're left with is perhaps half the delicious vanilla-fudge swirl that was Community's mix of formal ambition and Dan Harmon's character work. And I am of course more than happy to eat that vanilla ice cream left behind (especially when 90-95% of other sitcoms on the air don't even reach the level of vanilla, most tasting a bit more of refuse and sewage), but after three seasons and 71 episodes of eating that vanilla-fudge, I do find something inescapably lacking.
I'm still looking forward to watching the study group's senior year. With 30 Rock ended, Louie off the air for 2013 and Parks and Rec not as good as it used to be, Community is still alpha dog of the sitcom pack, give or take a Bob's Burgers (and New Girl's last few episodes have been awfully good, though I'm still not sure I'd call them Community good.) But Community was my absolute #1 favorite show of 2012, and, were it not for Friday Night Lights, probably would've earned that distinction in 2011 and 2010 as well. And I don't think it can rise up to those heights again sans Harmon. That makes me quite sad.
Or, as Troy put it: "MY EMOTIONS! MY EMOTIONS!"