Coming into this season of Community, there was a lot to contend with. Dan Harmon returned to run the show, a less than satisfactory season 4 had to be addressed, the departures of Chevy Chase and Donald Glover had to be dealt with, all this added to the typical series lull that comes with a fifth season of a sitcom. With the Olympics taking over our regularly scheduled programming for the next couple weeks, we have some time to really think about how Community is doing this season.
The first six episodes of this 13-episode season have highlighted all of the show’s strengths. Quickly brushing season 4's missteps under the rug, the characters emotional arcs, rather than plot, became the show’s focus. This is made most clear in the two of this seasons episodes that stand as contenders as my favorite ever, "Cooperative Polygraphy" and "Geothermal Escapism". While they couldn’t be more different structurally — one is a contained, dialogue-reliant narrative while the other is referential and action-packed — they both prove that the show is at its best when the characters’ humanity is on display as we dig deeper into who they really are. This is the biggest improvement from last season when major developments were scarce and surface-level.
The greatest addition to this season was Jonathan Banks as criminology professor Buzz Hickey. He fits seamlessly in with the rest of the crew and is the perfect character to push everyone else into directions they wouldn’t have otherwise gone. A foil to his scary serious professor, John Oliver’s return brings a goofier edge that may well serve as a replacement for Troy’s usual absurdity now that Donald Glover is gone. As for the rest of the guest stars, Harmon is brilliant at only using them to their purpose, never over-saturating the scenes for the sake of star power, but simply expanding the world he has created.
Fleshing out Community's world with these characters has been a great addition to the ensemble work, but on the other end of the spectrum, this season has so far allowed more characters their individual time to shine. Britta and Abed in particular, who are normally paired off with others for their hijinks (most recently, both with Troy) are stepping out individually as key players. In fact, Jeff, the once ring leader, though still an important bond between the group, has faded into group storylines, itself a mark of his change of character.
So far, Harmon et al have brought the heart back to Community and delivered half a season worthy of the legacy left before it from season 1-3. It seems likely, though, that the hardest leg of the journey is what still lies ahead. Donald Glover stood out as one of the best parts of the first half of the season because of both his knack for hilarious one-liners and his character’s emotional growth, and his absence in last night’s episode, especially during Abed’s storyline, was somberly noticeable. Then again, if his absence means the presence of Kumail Nanjiani and Nathan Fillion, not to mention an abundance of Labyrinth jokes, then who knows, maybe we’ll all be just fine.