Last night saw Dan Harmon’s return to Community and Community‘s return to television. Upon their arrival, the line between what makes a television show good or bad became a little clearer. Harmon may have a derisive personality, but his skills as a writer and showrunner can’t and shouldn’t be denied. He has an ingenious writing process. His actors, crew, and fans are rabidly loyal. His episodes, well, they’re streets ahead all the others.
Even if we just look at Harmon’s approach to episodes 501 and 502 of Community, we’re forced to acknowledge how creative, and honest, of a thinker he is. The mess of Season 4 seemed impossible to clean up and bring back the show he started and loved, so he didn’t clean it up. He admitted that he contributed to that mess with his work in Seasons 2 and 3 and started over. That’s right. Last night wasn’t really the fifth season premiere of Community. It was the pilot of Community 2.0. And here are the five most important things you need to know about it.
Arguably the only thing that was right in Season 4 was also prominent and annoying–the Dean’s obsession with Jeff. Maybe the showrunners focused on it so heavily because they knew it was the only part of Community they “got.” Maybe they genuinely thought it was that funny. Either way, the Dean’s love of Jeff has always been a part of the fabric of the show and it still is.
In 501, it was once again a major plot point, explaining why the Dean was so eager and quick to hire Jeff as a teacher. In episode 502, it returned to a more tolerable level. The gag of the Dean attempting to learn Excel was clever and inserted into the story at the perfect points. Maybe you could argue the Dean trying to learn something is him attempting to improve himself. I’d reply that he did it at Jeff’s behest and used it to try and get Jeff’s attention. With Jeff critiquing how bad of a Dean the Dean is, maybe the series finale (or movie) will see Winger taking over as Dean. Great, now I’m saying the D-word as much as the character.
God Dean it.
If there’s one defining characteristic about Community, it might be how meta it is. Usually through the character of Abed, the show takes shots at itself and its place in storytelling and television. When properly approached, the writers tell you what they’re doing while they’re doing it, letting you in on the process. In a way this technique supplements Harmon’s theme. We, the audience, are part of the community of Community. In Season 4, we weren’t. We were outside observers, just like with most shows. It didn’t make the show bad, just different than what we were used to, and ironically off-putting to a large contingent of fans.
Well, that meta-approach that is off-putting to everyone else in the world has returned to “normal.” In episode 501, Abed not only compared their repilot to Scrubs Season 9, a Scrubs S9 Zach Braff voice-over was included near the end of the episode. Additionally, Donald Glover’s imminent departure and recent bouts with sadness were worked into the episode. The funniest meta-joke of the night may have been Troy’s contribution when all the characters described how their lives weren’t awesome post-Greendale, “I’m much sadder than the rest of you. I’ll figure out why later.” Talk about commenting on real life. In episode 502, Jonathan Banks’ Buzz played off of his character from Breaking Bad, using intimidating tactics on the students and intimating that hits should or had been executed on them. Also like Mike, Buzz was shown to have a noble reason for how his actions and became one of the gang to start Season 5.
What makes Harmon’s writing so strong is that his “formula” helps him craft precise episodic arcs for each of his characters. He understands that fundamentally things at the end of a story must be different from the beginning and that each episode of a television series is a story. That knowledge is why each episode of Community during his tenure was new and exciting. It wasn’t just a retread of all the weeks before. In Season 4, the episodes were those retreads. Most of the episodes, though containing different trappings, felt like a repeats. Thankfully, Harmon has started the character growth again.
“Repilot” and “Introduction to Teaching” mainly focused on the growth of Jeff Winger, and that’s alright because he’s the main character and there was a lot of legwork to do for the retooled premise. They had to show why Jeff would become a teacher rather than a lawyer, not just plot-wise but psychologically. They had to show why he would care about teaching. If these two whys weren’t established, the new premise wouldn’t be, as Abed likes to say, “earned.” Other characters earned their way into the new season too. Abed’s growth was jumpstarted with a Nick-Cage-centric plot mechanic and Buzz learned that students weren’t the enemy. Shirley had a tiny bit of growth, and I’m sure we’ll see Britta become more complex again soon.
The departure of Chevy Chase at the end of Season 4 left the a hole in the group. Besides Shirley, the rest of the group was young and hip in their own ways. (Ok, so maybe Britta isn’t hip, though I would argue she’s the most hipstery.) There needed to be someone from an older generation who was a bit burnt out about how the world had changed. Chase was right in the reasons for his departure. Pierce had ceased being that voice, instead being used for throwaway racist and sexist one-liners.
The addition of Banks is a stroke of sheer genius, especially coming off of his Breaking Bad role. Buzz is the same as Mike and different from Pierce in all the right ways. He’s rough and abrasive enough to still cause tension in the group, but his kindheartedness shines through more than Pierce’s ever did, integrating him into the group more easily. He also started as Jeff’s friend because he’s a teacher, so he straddles the teacher-student line better than Pierce ever did. Remember how early in Season 1 Pierce was the first person Jeff connected with? I’d expect more of that dynamic from Banks and McHale.
Of course, maybe I was the only one who laughed at a lot of Banks’ line delivery in Breaking Bad, so I’m inordinately excited about his inclusion here. If we want to go the appropriate meta-route, Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gillian is guest-starring this season and the perfect direction for his rumored Better Call Saul spinoff would be comedic considering the acting stable of Bob Odenkirk, Bill Burr, and Lavell Crawford. Could there be in-jokes about Buzz actually being Mike? Please, Harmon, make this happen.
Actually, it’s not technically any of those seasons. It’s, as I wrote earlier, a whole new show that’s based on Community (if Harmon weren’t running it they’d be forced to include “Based on Community Created by Dan Harmon” in the opening credits). Jeff is a teacher. The study group is the Save Greendale Group. Pierce has been replaced by Buzz. It’s Community 2.0.
Still, thematically and tonally it’s most similar to Community S1. This story is about how helping other people is the most important thing in life, not individual journeys of self-discovery that subvert our understanding of the world alongside the characters’. In this light, Buzz’s 502 arc is easy to understand. He went from seeing students as the enemy to working with them. Jeff and Abed’s stories on the other hand are a bit more complex, and revealing of Community‘s (1.0 and 2.0) and Harmon’s underlying philosophy that shapes its themes. (Though if you really want to understand how Harmon thinks, all you have to do is read this analysis of one of his own episodes.)
The group’s first blow-off course of the year is “Nicolas Cage: Good or Bad?”, a subject that immensely appeals to Abed. The problem is that he can’t derive an answer and has a Cage style freak out of his own. The subsequent conversation Shirley has with Abed wherein she essentially counsels him pushes the show’s focus forward.
Abed: This (film) was my religion. I thought the meaning of people was somewhere in here, then I looked inside Nicolas Cage and I found a secret. People are random and pointless.
Shirley: Well, in my religion, the whole point is that you can’t understand every little thing and, you know, there’s a world for people that remind you that you’re not god and invite you to try a little harder.
Abed: Prophets, messiahs, Kung Fu Pandas, so Nicolas Cage is Jesus?
Shirley: Uh, no, but he clearly works in mysterious ways, and maybe that’s just his job.
Abed: And that’s why critics can call him a genius or an idiot and be right no matter what.
Shirley: A demon to some and an angel to others.
The answer to the question Abed has been asking, according to Shirley and the show, is that there is no answer. Different people will think of Cage in different ways. And what direction does that turn Shirley in, and thus must turn Abed? To the people that remind you it’s not possible to know but to try a little harder anyway. Ignoring the Sisyphusian contradiction of exerting effort at something that is pointless, Abed learns here that people are random and pointless and that’s ok.
What could he have learned instead? That the answer of Cage being good or bad is never going to be the same for everyone, but it is clear and definitive for Abed himself. Maybe Abed’s assessment of Cage will change from movie to movie depending on the value he is trying to get out of Cage’s performance, but it will still have a defined and comprehensible value to it. This scene isn’t making that point though. It’s telling Abed to stop finding truth and start finding other people.
Why does the show turn away from truth? The answer to that question, and yes there is a definitive answer, is found in the scene where Jeff realizes he has something to teach.
Garrett: Mr. Winger, how did you do that?
Jeff: Do what?
Garrett: You won an argument against Annie Edison.
Jeff: You don’t argue with Annie, Garrett. You let her argue with herself until she loses.
Ski Cap: You can win by not arguing?
Jeff: Yes, Ski Cap, anyone that tries to argue has already lost because they pick an argument to lose. I mean, that’s why I never lost a case. Prosecutors beat themselves because they–they draw a circle around something called “the truth.” And they say that everything outside it is a lie.
Here Jeff is subtly and implicitly teaching his students that there is no truth and if you accept one, you are setting yourself up to lose. It hearkens back to Jeff’s line from the original Pilot.
I discovered at a very early age that if I talk long enough, I can make anything right or wrong. So either I’m god or truth is relative. In either case, booyah!
This idea, that truth is relative, is what Jeff has been meant to be teaching the other characters all along. (Alternately, in his dark moments he swings back toward acting like he is god.) In return, they are meant to be teaching him the value of other people to give him something to believe in–just as Shirley did for Abed in this episode. This conflict, God-Complex vs Relative Truth, is the basic conflict of Community. It is was gradually slipped out of the show over Seasons 2 and 3 and disappeared altogether in Season 5. Now that Harmon has returned, he’s reinstalling it. That in itself makes it interesting to see where the series will go from here.
Though I don’t think a regression to a Season 1 approach is the way for Harmon and the group he’s created to Save Greendale, it should be a clever, hilarious, and unique ride either way.