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Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

'Community' (and Dan Harmon) Returns with a Vengeance in Season 5

After being fired from Community in 2012, creator Dan Harmon used his live-show-turned-podcast, Harmontown, to build a cult of devoted followers. It became the platform for him to air his grievances about basically everything in his life from problems with Sony to his family to negative comments on the internet and provide a hyper intensive glimpse into the madness of his creativity. It was on Harmontown where he first announced that he would be back on Community and then proceeded to tear apart season 4 to much public backlash. He’s gone through his process coming back to the show, let secrets for season 5 slip, and used his weekly presence to build even more anticipation for the season of his return.

Season 4 of Community was a fine season of television. But that’s all it was, fine. Still better than most of the terrible sitcoms being put to air but completely forgettable all the same, a shallow recreation of a once genius show. Before even getting to the first episodes of season 5, I re-watched season 4 because, likely to Harmon’s delight, I could simply not remember a thing that happened.

Watching it again, the lack of emotional depth and creative structure that came to define the first three seasons was painfully clear. Knowing that Harmon had nothing to do with he penultimate Jeff Winger’s dad episode was devastating. It was hard to see how everything was going to get back on track.

The obvious Harmonian solution was to create an entirely new track.

Season 5 starts off decidedly dark with a villainous Jeff leading the crew, a huge contrast to last season’s “New Jeff.” Scruffy with a scotch in his hand, he has failed on his own as a lawyer and is lured back to his conniving ways by Alan Connor (Rob Corddry) who is suing Greendale. He returns to his alma mater under the guise of starting a “Save Greendale” committee (which of course consists of the original Greendale 7 minus Chevy Chase) while secretly trying to bring the school down from the inside.

No time is wasted trying to make connections to season 4 or filling in the blanks of the last few months. Once around the ol' study room table, and we realize that everyone is pretty much the same. Any off-character details are due to the “gas leak year,” a subtle solution to completely ignoring whatever happened in the last season.

In a self-aware nod to classic sitcom tropes, Jeff is bribed by Dean Pelton (Jim Rash in his usual absurd perfection) to actually save Greendale. The only way he can get the money to Jeff? By hiring him as a teacher and paying his salary while the rest of the crew re-enrolls as students to re-focus their dreams. And just like that, everyone’s back at Greendale.

The setting may be similar, but the cast is evolving. The first few episodes show not only how the characters have grown and changed, but give the actors a chance to give broader comedic and emotional performances. Danny Pudi especially finds a sweet spot when given the chance to be outrageous instead of robotic. The addition of Jonathan Banks as a terrifying criminology professor (basically Mike Ehrmantraut incarnate) adds to the darkness of the season, and he serves well as a mentor to Jeff as he navigates the insane world of Greendale teachers.

As the season continues, there is an impressive roster of guest stars to look forward to (including Nathan Fillion, Vince Gilligan, and Harmontown’s breakout star, dungeon master Spencer Crittenden), as well as animated and D&D episodes. Harmon’s touch is definitely back, and all we can do now is hope that he doesn’t over do it. From what he’s let slip about the rest of the season, there’s a lot being squeezed into these 13 episodes.

The biggest impending bummer of season 5 is Donald Glover’s impending departure. Troy was a standout in the first bit of the new season. In season 3 he seemed poised to take on the hero role, so it’ll be interesting to see what the dynamic is like without him and how the characters adjust to fill in the gaps.

Even with its flaws and so much up in the air about the direction of the season, even at its worst Community is miles beyond a typical sitcom. Each episode does something a little different and the writers are always trying new things which, when once again under the direction of Dan Harmon, will make it the most interesting show to follow this season.

Stray observations from the first three episodes:

-Does Dan Harmon hate Zach Braff? I feel a feud on the horizon.

-“I’ve never been to Legoland, I just wanted you guys to think I was cool.” I’m really going to miss Troy.

-Dan Harmon’s legendary story circle makes a cameo.

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