February 8, 2013

This Week’s ‘Community’ Recap: “History 101″

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So, recently, the NBC comedy Community came back for its presumed final season. Thought Catalog, in their infinite wisdom, has allowed me to write a weekly recap of the show. I hope a few of you will check in weekly and go through this with me because, as we all know, internet friends are just as good as real friends.

Before I begin, I think I should point out that I’m a pretty huge fan of Community. Not, like, a I-have-a-Tumblr-full-of-Abed-gifs fan, but I can say the show has been my favorite sitcom on since it debuted a few years back. And like every other Community fan, I was pretty terrified when the show creator Dan Harmon was fired last year and the announcement came down from NBC execs that they were bringing in two new guys to run the show. Would the show lose its heart? Would it become a shell of its former self, a disgusting vanilla replica of every other piece-of-crap situation comedy that gets millions of viewers every week? I sat down last night, terror-filled, and waited to have those questions answered.

The answers? Well, hm. The show has not, entirely, really, 100% lost its heart. The characters are still there, as well as the actors who play them. The setting is the same. The self-awareness that marked the show and made it so refreshing? Yeah. Well. Yeah-ish. (More on this to come.)

Is the show a shell of its former self? Sadly, I think so. That doesn’t mean we’re in 2 Broke Girls territory here (sorry 2 Broke Girls fans) but the show has moved away from the utter unpredictability and lawlessness that once made it so thrilling to watch. This makes me a little sad, in the way that a show I once loved not being quite so good can make you feel sad.

The season premiere was called “History 101” and quickly showed the new show runners having fun with everyone’s fears about the changes. It opened in multi-cam format (like they use on Two And A Half Men and Big Bang Theory, and opposed to The Office, Parks and Rec, and Community which have always used one camera to shoot) and featured an audience providing a loud laugh track. The jokes were corny and predictable. This was it—our worst fears realized. A show destroyed.

Of course, it was just a gag. After a few tired jokes and the introduction of a “new” Pierce, played by the always wonderful Fred Willard, the camera zooms out and we see the whole thing had been a fantasy of Abed’s. Britta had decided to “therapize” Abed and tells him to go to a happy place. His happy place is Abed TV, a sitcom Greendale, a place where things are simpler and things made sense.

(This is about the time I did a small fist-pump on my couch. Having fun with the audience! Self-awareness! Meta-commentary! Maybe we got something going here!)

The next five minutes got me even more excited. We cut to Greendale and see our familiar cast, Chevy Chase included, going to their first class. But after too many people enroll in “The History of Ice Cream,” the Dean leads everyone to the cafeteria for his big reveal, complete with curtain drop and shirtless man-slaves. To get a place in the class you need to compete in THE HUNGER DEANS, a massive, gladiator style competition where the object is to collect big red rubber balls. Get a ball, you get in the class.

(At this point I was clapping my hands together and telling my girlfriend to go warm up the popcorn. Community was BACK, baby!)

And then, sadly, it all fell apart. Instead of using The Hunger Deans as a brilliant launching off point to satirize and pay homage to the real Hunger Games, the writers decided to take the show back to Sitcom 101. They completely abandoned the promise of a wild alternate reality promised by The Hunger Deans. Instead, the characters broke off from the others, each getting their own little subplot, each one more boring than the next.

Troy and Britta go to a fountain to make wishes for the new school year. When Britta tries to make wishes, Troy tells her that she’s doing it differently from Abed, and they get into a splashing fight in the fountain. There’s one funny line, when Britta is choking Troy and Troy yells: “Why does this feel good!?” That’s it. That’s the whole subplot.

Annie and Shirley decide to prank the Dean, for reasons that are never explained. Annie turns out to be not great at pranking, which would be an OK joke if New Girl hadn’t done the same one a month ago, and if they actually did anything other than have Annie and Shirley put some popcorn in the Dean’s car. That was that whole subplot.

Lastly, Abed and Pierce sit and watch Jeff compete in The Hunger Deans. Abed periodically flashes back to Abed TV, his happy place, which allows the show to make even more jokes about usual network TV, including having promos for other, imaginary shows pop up in the bottom left hand corner of the screen. Again, this would have been OK, but Family Guy did this joke a decade ago.

It was at this point that the show began to feel a little paint-by-numbers to me, and I got sad again. It became clear that the writers weren’t interested in using The Hunger Games as a way to make a perceptive, satirical commentary on a pop culture phenomenon but rather as a way to show Jeff punching an old guy in pursuit of a rubber ball. Relationships which had been previously muddled and bizarre became crystal clear—Annie is still in love with Jeff, Britta and Troy are now in stage three of the seven-stage “Will they or won’t they” sitcom arc that you all know so well.

Even with the meta-commentary of the Abed TV — showing the audience’s worst fears for the show realized — it soon was obvious the writers were doing it less as a way of commenting on the expectation of viewer vs. creator or the impossible situation they’d been put in to try and keep this show running, but rather as a way to guard against criticism. Like: listen guys, we know this isn’t the same, but it could have been so much worse.

The show ends with a standard Jeff speech (this time supplied by Abed’s imagination). Then we get more of the Dean, whose character has moved from quirky intto the sad realm of caricature, and we learn he is moving in to the condo next to Jeff. (Meaning we get to look forward to a whole season of borderline stalking and sexual harassment. Hooray!) Finally we got a weird dose of Chang, who walks up, naked, to a postal worker, saying he is suffering from “Changnesia.” It’s a decent gag, I guess, but for me it was too little too late.

Sorry this turned into a bummer. I’m probably being unfair. There were some solid jokes in the episode, and the performers all still seem game for anything. I guess I just miss my old friend, is all. A show where the rules of the sitcom were laughed at, where characters changed on the fly, where the jokes were bizarre and the format strange and the reality of it ever slipping away. In its place is a decent sitcom with an above-average cast. For many, that’ll be enough. We’ll see how I feel next week. TC mark

Nathan Savin Scott

Nathan Savin Scott is a writer based in Washington, DC. He enjoys writing about music, sports, and was briefly a High …

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