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Sunday, January 5, 2014

COMMUNITY Season Five Preview



Article originally written for Seat42F.com

NBC’s COMMUNITY is back this week! And so is creator Dan Harmon! After three fantastic seasons, Harmon and the show parted ways, resulting in a not-so-good fourth year. But as the story picks up for round five, months later, it’s quickly clear that Harmon’s return heralds the show getting back to form quite quickly.

***This review contains light spoilers, with much more focus on tone and quality than plot. There are some fantastic, surprising bits in the hour, and those will NOT be revealed in this article. Still, if you’d rather not know anything ahead of time, please check back here after the show airs.***

Two episodes are presented this week: “Repilot” and “Introduction to Teaching.” Rather than throwing out a whole batch of episodes that aired in 2013, these installments attempt to reset the tale, taking into account developments such as Jeff (Joel McHale) graduating, and finding a way to move the story forward again. The first half hour is concerned with a realistic way of bringing the characters back together, while the second strives to establish a new normal, which should carry on for the rest of the season.

The biggest change by far, and it’s one made pretty early on, so I don’t feel it’s a big spoiler, is that Jeff becomes a teacher at Greendale. I won’t go into the circumstances that lead him to this point, but suffice it to say, he must return to the place he couldn’t wait to escape from. And he’s not alone.

It’s no secret that Greendale Community College is a haven for losers, those that failed at life in general, and have few options to better themselves. Still, it takes a bit of spirit and drive to go to college at all, and through this, we’ve found reasons to care about the students enrolled, making them underdogs to root for, instead of failures to pity.

Leaving the safe walls of the school, though, it turns out that our ‘heroes’ may not be exactly prepared for the real world yet. Jeff sure isn’t, and Annie (Alison Brie), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Troy (Donald Glover), Abed (Danny Pudi), and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) aren’t, either, leading them all to make their way back early in COMMUNITY’s return.

As one might imagine, this makes “Repilot” extremely depressing. COMMUNITY is first and foremost a comedy, and there are funny parts even in this premiere episode. However, there’s also a sadness that has always underlain the story. “Repilot” brings that up to the surface, really digging into who these people are and what they need. It’s gloomy, but there is also hope. More than most installments of the show, this one is a dramedy.

Now, many shows would have to do something hokey to contrive to keep a group of people together whose time has naturally come to an end, in this case through graduation. COMMUNITY does not. It builds upon who the characters portrayed in the show are and how they’ve grown, as well as how far they have yet to go. The way everything comes together makes total sense and promises that, while the series will still be what fans love, there is a trajectory that is being followed, and there has been movement on that path.

The Dean (Jim Rash) and Chang (Ken Jong) are back, too, of course, with the former taking a big role in “Repilot” and “Introduction to Teaching.” There is a definite arc to season five, which is only just getting started, and it will involve the Dean. We also get to see a side of the Dean we haven’t seen before, a raw, exposed nature that has always existed, but never focused on until now. It’s not that pleasant to think about, but it makes sense, and it makes me wonder what the endgame will be exactly.

“Introduction to Teaching” introduces one of this year’s big new players. Besides the return of Professor Duncan (John Oliver), which does not happen this week, another teacher who will fill a major role in year five is Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks, Breaking Bad). He’s gruff and stern, hinting at Bank’s infamous AMC character, but he’s also someone of layers. Intriguing from the start, Hickey lends a new dynamic to the cast that should shake up interactions for the foreseeable future.

All of this is great, but what viewers want to know is, is COMMUNITY fixed? After two episodes, I feel confident in unequivocally saying yes. The series was still funny and the characters remained the same people in season four, but the stories lacked depth and cohesion, with that intangible spark absent. Both “Repilot” and “Introduction to Teaching” are much improved, with the feeling one gets when watching the best of COMMUNITY fully restored. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the Harmon-led installments are so much better than the others, but there’s just an overall depth and charm to the early years, and that is definitely back now, in a darker manner befitting the changes that have occurred.

COMMUNITY premieres Thursday, January 2nd at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

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