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Sunday, January 5, 2014

COMMUNITY Nails The "Repilot"

Article first published as COMMUNITY Nails The "Repilot" on TheTVKing.

NBC's Community finally returns tonight with "Repilot." It's been months since the study group graduated from Greendale Community College, and all find their lives much worse than when they enrolled. Jeff (Joel McHale), a lawyer again, has an idea of what they can do about it. But confronted with his friends in the place they called home for the past four years, Jeff's first plan may not be the one he ultimately chooses to carry out.

"Repilot" is a reboot in a lot of ways. Things can't just return to normal from the first moment the show comes back. These characters have moved on with their lives, not very well, but still, away from the security of the school. It takes a twist to bring them back together.

What's remarkable about said twist isn't that it happens but that it unfolds so easily. Everything about this initial half hour makes complete sense. These people aren't ready to build professional careers for themselves, and so they can't move on. What else can they do but to re-enroll, bringing themselves back to the place where they actually felt like they could accomplish something?

Jeff's law office, which promises to help "good" people, goes under. Shirley's (Yvette Nicole Brown) business has failed and her husband has left her again, the working mother losing both things she has worked towards. Annie (Alison Brie) is selling pharmaceuticals, something she herself struggled against. Britta (Gillian Jacobs) has been reduced to being a bartender. Abed (Danny Pudi) still can't relate to people, making it hard for him to find work as a filmmaker. And Troy (Donald Glover) seems to be doing nothing. Yet, rushing to aide Jeff and the school, they find purpose and hope again.

This seamless plot is the first surefire sign that creator Dan Harmon has returned. While season four floundered about, extremely uneven, season five picks up right where season three left off. The story from last year counts (a "gas leak" explains why it was off), but the magic that had been lost has been found again, a brilliant mind tying everything together in a way no one else would have quite seen, no matter how hard they attempted to look.

Heart is bursting at the seams. The way the study group puts their faith in Jeff, letting him to decide how to handle Greendale, is both sweet and a culmination of a long arc, with their trust in him finally earned. Jeff getting advice, somewhat unintentionally, from hologram Pierce (Chevy Chase, no longer a main character) fills a void that I didn't realize I was missing until that scene. He just had to be included, and it hurts less to lose him because he comes back now. Watching the gang build a new table feels perfect.

It's also super funny. There are some wonderful in-jokes, especially concerning Scrubs and Glover's imminent departure from the series. Every character is back to acting authentically who they are, with terrific lines such as Britta's about owls and analogies. Seeing what the study room has been turned into and why ought to elicit a chuckle or two.

There's a lot of debate in "Repilot" as to what Greendale is. There is no arguing that there is a lot of dysfunction at the institution. The question is, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a safe place where people can take the time to figure themselves out? Or is it a crummy hall in which losers are taken advantage of? The viewpoint of the main study group is clear, but the jury is out on what the public may say.

The public may very well get a say because Alan (Rob Corddry) plans to sue Greendale. His first effort is thwarted when the Dean (Jim Rash) shreds the records of an alum who designed a faulty bridge. His second chance is blown when Jeff turns on him. But Alan may still show up to make trouble in the future.

What could save Greendale is Jeff, who, unlike the others, decides to come back as a teacher, not a student. Jeff has always been a leader of his peers. In the group, everyone listens to him, as they continue to do in "Repilot." It makes sense for Jeff to step up and take a larger role in the new year, and besides, he doesn't need more education for what he is doing with his life. Now, he'll be assisting the Dean in protecting the school, while also bettering his career.

This actually puts Jeff on a different path than the others. He'll still be their friend and he'll still care about them, but he also will relate to most of the characters in a new manner. He is working with the Dean instead of against him, wanting to give Greendale what Greendale gave him. Namely, a heart and soul and people to care about. Jeff may not be successful as a lawyer, but he has a place where he fits in and is (mostly) happy and that place is Greendale.

"Repilot" is a dark episode. It forces self-examination and characters, especially Jeff, consider doing things fans won't like to believe they'd do. It shows us our beloved protagonists at their lowest points. Raw pain and struggle are exposed. It's sad. It grows the series in a new and interesting way that remains entertaining and fresh.

It also makes one look at the Dean in a different light, one in which his incompetence is not just goofiness, but actually damaging. He has rehired Chang (Ken Jeong) as a math teacher, although Chang can't do math (insert Asian stereotype joke here). Why would the Dean do such a thing? Did he grow depressed when Jeff left and his ill-behavior is a self-destructive cry for help? Or is he really much more terrible than many assumed all along?

It's hard to think of the Dean as a bad guy or someone who hurts the group, but that may just be the direction Community goes in. There's a real heavy sense of reality in "Repilot," something not always existing (that's not a complaint) in the rest of the show. Will season five be when the series really takes a long look in the mirror, as Jeff sort of does here? If so, sign me up, because this is a very interesting concept.

Even with the new or enhanced elements, by the end of the episode, I was filled with a supreme sense of satisfaction and feeling of being back with an old, familiar friend. "Repilot" feels like the best of Community, with the spirit and depth returning intact and better than ever. This is exactly the kind installment viewers longed for throughout last season. Thank goodness it's back!

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


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