Review: Community, “History 101”

It has been almost a whole year since we last set foot on the Greendale campus, and the road to this point has been tumultuous, to say the least. When fans heard of Dan Harmon’s less-than-voluntary exit, most (if not all) were concerned that Community‘s distinct tone and presentation would be compromised. I was worried, too, but I reserved some cautious optimism for the still-remaining writers and the stellar cast. I had hoped that they would be comfortable enough with the subject matter to continue without Harmon successfully. They must have a handle on it, right?

After watching the first episode, I am glad to see that my cautious optimism was rewarded.

It is just the first episode under the new showrunners, David Guarascio and Moses Port (Happy Endings.) They are attempting to define their own voices within the self-referential, “Incepting” of the series, with hints of Harmon (a wise decision.) For all practical purposes, “History 101” is a pilot – except it already has tons of very vocal fans. That can’t be an easy position to walk into.

But while this episode was still a solid entry into the Community canon, it was far from perfect. Moreover, it was fairly clear to me that there was a marked difference in presentation — but I wonder how much of the normal viewing public would notice, if they didn’t know that the show changed hands between seasons 3 and 4?

“History 101” opens with a terrifying scene: Community becomes a traditional sitcom. Of course, as is Community‘s consistent conceit, this scene plays out in Abed’s internal meta-narrative. Now a senior with graduation on the horizon, Abed fears the future and retreats to a “happy place,” one that centers around repeating the past three years.

This is a not-so-subtle nod from the writing staff that addresses the biggest fear the fans had for season four: Community wasn’t going to become a traditional sitcom. Rather, it was going to embrace the different places it can go, while attempting to remain true to itself. Genre-jumping internal meta-narratives and all.

While effective in its message, the sitcom (and the “Muppet Babies” cartoon) that played in Abed’s head (and in Abed’s head) slightly overstayed its welcome. Sure, they were funny enough (with the notable inclusion of Fred Willard as Pierce — foreshadowing?), but they prevented the secondary plots from evolving to anything beyond superficial. It seems odd to complain that the A-plot overstayed its welcome, but here we are.

“The Hunger Deans” were the main B-plot, and I really wish we spent more time there. Not only was this plot the more important setup for the rest of the season (taking History as a group and Jeff’s potentially final semester), but any storyline that puts Dean Pelton and Jeff in direct action with one another is a storyline worth pursuing. The Dean’s unicorn men and Jeff’s call for the Dean to be his tango partner to claim the sixth ball gag were the highlights of the episode. There’s so much funny in those two, that I truly wished they had sliced some time off of the Abed plot to see more of the trials of New Jeff (who, by the way, seems to be taking PEDs by the size of his arms.) Also, -10 points for the crazy missed opportunity for not using the name Katniss EverDean.

The Troy/Britta relationship is “progressing,” which makes my heart warm. I loved their jaunt in the fountain (“Why does this feel good?!”), although that could be because it capitalizes on how anything screamed by Donald Glover is funny.

Annie/Shirley’s pranking plot was amusing enough, but seemed forced – as if they couldn’t really find something for them to do in this episode. There was no ultimate payoff for their trip to the Dean’s office. (Save for the one subtle joke when the Dean complains that “someone moved my stapler.”)

Ultimately, as the episode wrapped up, Jeff comes through with his (imagined) end-of-episode inspirational speech acknowledging that change is a part of life and we shouldn’t fear it, again not-so-subtly seeking to end the episode on allaying the fears that mirror our own. An appropriate end to a new Community.

I sat down at 8PM ET, threw on my hipster glasses, and watched this premiere live with nervous excitement for some new episodes, and I left satisfied. There was a bit too much crazy here that divided our attentions from investing in any one plot, and that’s the part where it’s obvious that we’re no longer dealing with Harmon (where’s the “magic circle”?) Still, there were some geniunely funny moments, and so I still remain optimistic that things can reach greatness as the season progresses.

Final Thoughts:
-If you didn’t enjoy this episode that much, I recommend watching it again. My opinion changed for the better after a second viewing.
-Looking forward to seeing how the “Kevin” Chang plot line progresses
-Am I the only one that’s afraid Dean Pelton will cross the line from “endearing” creepy to “creepy” creepy?
-The best jokes in this episode were the ones that were the most subtle.
-The Inspector Spacetime episode is coming up, and that’ll be the true test of the new showrunners’ mettle.
-I can’t help but look for the “magic circles” in the plot of which Harmon was such a fan, and while the A-plot does seem to fit, the others do not, which is probably why they appear to have fizzled in the end.

Grade: B. An admirable start for the new guys, but still with faults. Plenty of potential to reach greatness.

Written by: Dwight Tejano

Dwight is the founder of Open the Fridge, which he started in 2008 and rebooted in 2010. Due to the nature of early adopting, his bank account is normally empty. He likes to sing in world-renown choruses to forget such things.

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