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Monday, January 6, 2014

COMMUNITY Introduces a New Teacher Or Two

Article first published as COMMUNITY Introduces a New Teacher on TheTVKing.

If the first half of tonight's Community season five premiere on NBC is all about rebooting and setting up a new premise, the second half, "Introduction to Teaching," focuses on the characters trying to find their footing, the new normal, if you will. In my opinion, it's just a little weaker than episode one, lacking the emotional heft, but overall, it's still a pretty great installment, definitely feeling more cohesive than all of season four.

Jeff (Joel McHale) starts his job as a teacher, and quickly realizes he has no clue what he's doing. Not being educated in the content, he doesn't know what to tell his students, and not having any experience or knowledge about teaching, he doesn't have a methodology as a basis, either. Basically, he's a mess, and he knows it. At least he feels bad about it.

But only at first. It doesn't take Jeff long to bond with his office mate, Professor Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks, Breaking Bad), who introduces him to the finer points of teaching. They get to bully students, like Leonard (Richard Erdman), drink in the faculty lounge, and the Dean (Jim Rash) must stay away from them. The professors rule the school, and it takes Jeff very little time to adapt to the new position.

Except, Jeff isn't the same person he used to be. In the past, shallow Jeff could enjoy the perks and coast through the job without caring. This Jeff cares, which Annie (Alison Brie) is quick to remind him when she signs up for his class and pushes him to do better. An attempt by Hickey to scare Annie off her quest only convinces Jeff to side with her more strongly. Plus, he really doesn't like that he's suddenly on the other side of the war between teachers and students, his former classmates (other than the study group) treating him differently.

So what does Jeff do about it? At the Dean's urging, he gets Hickey and his friends to form a Teacher / Student Alliance to work towards a better Greendale. This actually demonstrates real growth for Jeff, working on a program that doesn't directly benefit him much. He could keep going along with the divide, but instead, he chooses to make Greendale a better place.

That seems to be the whole point of season five: Jeff saving Greendale. The Dean mentions that Jeff's Save Greendale group is fake, but the alliance is a version of that, a realistic way to effect change. Perhaps this doesn't solve every problem the community college faces, but at least it seeks to unite those who have a vested interest in the place, and could definitely come in handy when the hammer comes down.

And this gives the main characters a great, believable reason to stay together as a unit, with Hickey replacing Pierce (Chevy Chase) at the table, albeit in a very different type of role.

I really dig Hickey. Jeff needs a new buddy that's in the part of his life that his pals can't follow. Hickey is also a very fresh role, not being anything like any other character on the show. He's not just a threatening stereotype, with layers already peeled backed in his first appearance. There is some real potential for him to be a main character and bring something new to Community, and that appears to be the direction the show is taking him in.

The dynamic between students and staff in "Introduction to Teaching" is interesting. It's not something we've really seen before, with Chang (Ken Jeong) the most developed teaching character up 'til now, and surely not a typical representative of the faculty. Now we see how Chang got by, but it also explains a lot about why the education provided at Greendale is as sucky as it is. The teachers don't care about their charges, but Jeff does, and he wants to change it.

While Jeff is settling into his new position, the rest of the study group take an "easy" class from Professor Sean Garrity (Kevin Corrigan), someone we've seen before. The course poses the question "Is Nicholas Cage good or bad?" It's just the type of bizarre subplot Community is known for, and it's quite funny.

Abed (Danny Pudi), predictably, becomes obsessed with finding out the answer. Surprisingly, he isn't able to. We all know Cage is a weird man who takes on a variety of roles and is both revered and hated by moviegoers. So why does he exist in this pocket universe, with individuals having such varying perspectives on his talent, and his skill seemingly very uneven across pictures?

Not being able to definitively find a conclusion, Abed snaps, becoming a crazy Cage himself. Abed has been more fragile in the later seasons of Community, and something like this shakes him to his very core. Abed bases all his faith and framework of understanding life on the movie world, and to come across such an unexplainable mystery practically destroys him.

It's easy to see the parallels between Abed and a religious person, and so it has to be Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) that saves the day. After all, who else understands belief the way she does? Abed and Shirley rarely get screen time together outside of the group, so this is a pleasant twist that I'd like to see explored more, though it's hard to imagine it will be, as Shirley will never accept Abed's ideas as a true religion.

Other little bits are also entertaining. The Dean attempts to learn Excel, and feels left out when Jeff finds ways to cut the Dean from his life. Britta (Gillian Jacobs) has some choice one-liners, including one about an Asian. Familiar recurring parts are seen in the riot of the students, a scaled-down epic event on scale with other Community disasters. As much as I love the main story, it's the details that were missing last season, and by getting them right, it restores the high quality of the show once more.

My only complaint is that Troy (Donald Glover) seemingly has had less to do than anyone else in the first two episodes back, and with the actor only signed on for three more installments, his time is dwindling. Hopefully, the rest of his run will give him his due.

Community airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

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