Can sitcoms have moxie? If they can, then Community, which is always teetering on the edge of cancelation, definitely has it. On the road to its fourth season premiere, everyone involved with the show has been forced to deal with a maelstrom of crap: low viewer turn outs; a public spat between creator Dan Harmon and sexagenarian prat-faller Chevy Chase; the subsequent ousting of Harmon by NBC; and the delay of this season’s debut, which demonstrated NBC’s general ambivalence about the show’s future.
Other sitcoms have been squashed by a lot less but Community is “the little cult hit that could.” The majority of the cast, crew, and fans soldier on and will continue to do so for at least a little while longer.
As the fourth season begins, the show’s irreverent, self-referential humor appears unaltered by all of the behind-the-scenes upheaval. Yeah, that’s right, Harmon’s NBC sanctioned replacements, David Guarascio and Moses Port, didn’t Britta the premiere. In this impressive first episode, which is hopefully a sign of what’s to come and not some bait-and-switch anomaly, the gang return to Greendale after summer break and prepare for their senior year. Jeff (Joel McHale) informs the study group that he took online classes behind their backs (he’s still fighting the love he has for his wacky crew). As it turns out, Jeff is only one history credit away from graduation, news that amplifies Abed’s (Danny Pudi) anxieties about everyone eventually splitting up.
Written by Andy Bobrow (who is responsible for the genius, Ken Burns inspired “Pillows and Blankets”), the premiere features allusions to The Muppet Babies (this bit is animated) and The Hunger Games (Dean Pelton has students compete for admittance into a course called “history of ice cream”) that feel true to the tone and spirit of this show’s previous seasons. The episode’s greatest success though is that it uses pop culture as a way to expose emotional truth–as Abed deals with the idea of senior year, his internal struggle takes the form of a conventional sitcom about the study group, replete with laugh track. There’s always been some larger purpose behind the meta digressions which is what made this show so endearing and satisfying, so it’s comforting to see that that hasn’t changed.
Though the episode worked for the most part, the one element that really fell flat was the way that Pierce (Chevy Chase) was handled. Honestly, he’s consistently been a discordant note on the show, even when Harmon was still involved. No one knows how to write this character–if he isn’t being over-the-top evil, his presence barely even registers. In this episode, Pierce has, maybe, five lines, all of which revolve around him trying to come up with a testicle joke. Chase left the show toward the end of filming this season (he’ll only be absent from two episodes, though) because he didn’t like the direction that his character was heading. I don’t doubt that the guy is a diva (divo?) on the set but there are fundamental problems with Pierce as a character. As if to play off audience awareness, in Abed’s imaginary sitcom, Pierce was played by Fred Willard and even though character was as half-heartedly rendered as ever, Willard was a lot funnier in the role. If Community makes it past season four, Willard should definitely be incorporated into the cast somehow.
Even with this first episode out of the way, it’s hard to be 100% excited about this season. Though Community appears to be in capable hands, Harmon’s mind and heart were intwined with this show–this was his vision and that vision has been derailed. As a fan, it’s probably best to look at this season as a treat. The show was wrapped up nicely with the mega-happy montage that capped off season three’s finale, “Introduction to Finality.” But this unnecessary fourth season is giving us the opportunity to spend a little more time with our favorite community college students (and the one old racist one).