Monday, January 6, 2014

Community is back – for real this time

Season 5 Episodes 1 & 2 – "Repilot" and "Introduction to Teaching"

Other than belonging to the same series, there's exactly one thing I see in common between Community's fourth and fifth season premieres, "History 101" and "Repilot": You can see the sweat on their brows. Some Community episodes have a relaxed, easygoing vibe to them – and plenty of entire sitcoms, including most of TV's highest-rated, are always relaxed and easygoing – but sometimes Community is working really, really hard, and both of these episodes fall in the latter category.

Difference is that in the fourth season premiere, with Dan Harmon in the wind, the new producers were working hard at proving Community was still Community by throwing as much of what they saw as "Community-type stuff" at the screen as possible: An extended Hunger Games spoof, an extended Inception spoof, an animated Muppet Babies spoof, a laugh track-scored multicamera sitcom spoof, and lots of Community recurring characters and catchphrases, all layered in on each other and crammed into 22 minutes. And whatever your stance on "History 101" – I neither hated nor loved it – no one can deny that Guarascio and Port were working incredibly hard to placate the fanbase and assure them that Community hadn't gone mainstream.

(Whether they were still working hard by the time "Advanced Introduction to Finality" rolled around is a whole different thing, and based on the evidence my theory would have to be "No.")

"Repilot" is also clearly the end result of dozens of rewrites, but otherwise exactly the opposite: A quasi-bottle episode set mostly around the study room table; one of the quietest, most down-to-earth, low-key and purely emotionally-driven of Community's 86 episodes to date. It has jokes, but they all stem from dialogue and character give or take a robot fight and table bursting aflame, and pop culture references, but no outright spoof (unless you count the perfectly-placed Zach Braff Scrubs voiceover narration at the end). Like Guarascio and Port, Dan Harmon is here to prove that Community is still Community, but rather than with wackiness, he's doing so through character and emotion – which ultimately proves superior.

Where all the effort comes in is right there in the title; in the repiloting. In introducing a whole new premise and status quo and new and surprisingly dark and despairing beginnings for these characters to relaunch from. The episode feels subdued, but under the surface there's a million engine parts cranking as the show bends over backwards to get the Greendale Seven Six home in 22 minutes without it being stupid as hell. And it would have been a real episode-killer for me and weak, uncompelling writing if the study group had returned to Greendale for no other reason than that they missed it and loved each other.

But that's why the lawsuit concept Harmon has come up with is great: Though Jeff Winger now loves these people, the lawsuit allows him to nevertheless again become the deceptive snake in the grass trying to get something from them he was way back in the show's original pilot. It tears at these people's bonds and threatens the school's very existence not with paintball war or zombies but with a piece of paper. In a word, stakes, something Harmon has always excelled at. So when the study group finally comes together and builds Table Mk II, it really means something, as Jeff, Britta, Troy, Annie, Abed and Shirley have made it through a gauntlet of real emotional darkness.

When you've accomplished that much in your plotting and character work and emotion, the fact that "Repilot" is also stuffed full of funny jokes and quotes and has a Pierce Hawthorne cameo is just kinda icing on the cake. It's not quite season 2's "Anthropology 101" (for my money, damn near the best season premiere for a live-action sitcom ever), but it's a damn good episode of Community.

Season 5's second outing, "Introduction to Teaching," also has a bit of work to do in its introduction of criminology professor Buzz Hickey, played by Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks. And it does it well, establishing Buzz's intimidating exterior, uncertain/aspiring cartoonist interior and new place in the group quickly, efficiently and entertainingly, straight through to the simultaneously dark and goofily hilarious end tag. The fact that Banks proves an instantly great sitcom actor – something not necessarily true of every badass guest from dramatic cable TV Community has brought in – sure helps too.

But beyond that splash of laying the groundwork – certainly less intense than "Repilot" in that regard – "Introduction to Teaching" is Dan Harmon proving that he can still do a relaxed, easy-viewing half-hour about Greendale antics and classroom shenanigans and wacky teachers and pop culture discussion without any high concept or needing to spoof anything. It's totally in the spirit of season 1 episodes like "Beginner Pottery" and "Physical Education" or season 2's "Competitive Wine Tasting." And, after a near-complete lack of classroom antics in season 4 (the history class in "Alternative History of the German Invasion" and the physical education education in "Economics of Marine Biology" are all I can come up with, and neither of those stories were that great), it's a nice skin to see Community back in.

When Community draws to its end, neither "Repilot" or "Introduction to Teaching" are likely to top many people's best-of lists (though "Repilot" probably deserves to be high up on a most-important list), but I loved them all the same because the show's voice is back. The rhythms of the jokes and dialogue and editing are back. Jeff's cockiness and Abed's references feel like they used to again. Annie is once again a driven go-getter and not just Jeff's romantic interest. Without Dan Harmon, Community was an ice cream sundae minus the ice cream – the cherries and syrup and sprinkles and nuts may taste good, but they aren't why anyone ordered the damn thing. And with Community's feet back under it, I look forward to seeing what strange and compelling new ice cream flavors Harmon can show us next.

Odds and ends:

• One thing I'm not sure I liked? Shirley having lost her job, her husband, her kids and her dreams (and 166 episodes of Bones) in the space between seasons 4 and 5. I'm all for emotional stakes, but... christ. That is really, really dark. Like, that's genuinely upsetting stuff. Maybe it should just have been Shirley's Sandwiches failing?

• I'm curious to see if the story with the collapsing bridge and Marvin Humphries and the lawsuit against Greendale is over and done with or if it comes up again later this season. It does seem like kind of a big deal, and could serve as a way to tie the season together.

• I admired the cinematography here, with the moody, almost dramatic-television lighting of "Repilot" reflecting the character's emotional states and giving way to something brighter and cheerier in "Introduction to Teaching." (Also on the visual front, I liked the wide, long establishing shot of the entire campus after the credits in "Repilot." It was a breath of fresh air after the claustrophobic "Advanced Introduction to Finality.")

• For the record, Adaptation pushes me just over into the "good" column in the Nicolas Cage debate. Without that movie I'd probably be just as confused as Abed. Adaptation or no, nothing changes the fact that Knowing is one of the very worst movies I've seen in a theater in the last five years.

Favorite line: In "Repilot," Annie and Britta's exchange: "At least the drugs I sell don't get slurped out of my belly button!" "THAT'S ONLY ON TUMMY TUESDAYS!" In "Introduction to Teaching," Buzz Hickey to Leonard: "Go and get your earring, you piece of human garbage." However, my all-around favorite joke was not a line, but the visual gag of Table Mk II getting an F in birdhouse class.

No comments:

Post a Comment