With October 19th finally upon us in early February, Community opened classes for season 4 this past Thursday. It opened without creator and show runner Dan Harmon, and without a couple key writers, but still featuring the same cast and many of the same writers as seasons past. The Internet seemed to turn in on itself last year when Harmon was fired a few days after the oft-on-the-chopping-block show was miraculously renewed following a fantastic third season finale (one which could have easily been a series finale.) A notoriously perfectionistic and difficult to work with creative mind, Harmon was without a doubt the heart and soul of the show; every character in essence an aspect of his personality. Take Harmon away, whither Community?
The answer, at least after the first episode of the post-Harmon season 4 “History 101″, is “business as usual, but not really.” All the regulars are here, none of them acting incredibly differently or out-of-character. The plot references a pop culture trope while also turning it on its head, there’s some left turns, Abed sinks into himself while somewhat commenting on the situation the show and its runners find themselves in: all checked off on the Community list. But it felt… hollow, somehow. Almost backtracking.
Take Abed, for example. The entire series has shown how often he retreats into himself, into his own perceptions of how things are/should be. He views the world through a pop culture lens (one which often leans very heavily against the fourth wall), but through the three seasons has been shown making progress and relating more to things as they are, without shutting down. The basic idea of his side plot in the season three finale was him accepting that things can change, that he can grow along with his friends. Yet, here we are, back into a world where someone says something he doesn’t agree with, and then everyone’s a cartoon baby.
The entire concept of “The Hunger Deans” seems like something someone would joke about Community doing, but would be too soft of a target. It smacks of lazy reference for reference sake. It wasn’t terrible, but it also wasn’t as inspired as, say, a Pulp Fiction homage that’s really a My Dinner With Andre recreation. It was easy to do, and easy to make funny, but… easy.
I don’t envy the new show runners. They’re really caught between two roads that they can’t take without criticism. Try to take risks the way Harmon would, and people would complain that the show was “too different” and stop watching. Keep it safe, and the people who love Community for its weird charm would be disgusted and turn away. So they tried to play it both ways: easy jokes, but with weirdness. But they failed to capture what makes the best Community actually work: the heart. Everything in this episode was funny, but it happened because it needed to happen to keep the plot moving. There was no deeper meaning, no bittersweet heart in the center.
But perhaps I’m being too hard on the show. It’s only one episode. There’s 12 more to go. And Dan Harmon’s doing ok; he’s got pilots going at Fox and CBS, an Adult Swim show in the works, a movie with Charlie Kaufman, and his weekly “Harmontown” podcast (which, side note, is goddamn HILARIOUS.) He’s just fine. And hey, maybe Community will get better, right? There’s been off episodes before. I’m trying to remain positive. I’m hoping NBC and Sony haven’t killed the baby AND destroyed the bathtub… OK, that metaphor sucks. I want to keep watching. I think everyone does. But if it continues this way… one by one, we’ll all just fade away.