“Troy and Abed back from summer!”
Actually, it’s Community back from an unnervingly long break between the end of Season 3, which culminated with three of the series’ most creative episodes, and the start of what will likely be its final season. Though the show’s rabidly loyal fan base has done everything in its power to support the show and save it from cancellation, Community is living on borrowed time at this point. The show is far too intelligent and high-minded for most TV audiences which has led to ratings too low to sustain its run. To be fair, NBC has done a commendable job supporting the show for as long as it has and continuing to promote it relentlessly, playing up the inside jokes shared amongst the fans.
Where NBC failed, however, was in their less-than-amicable split with creator/show runner Dan Harmon, the man who inspired Community’s drive to subvert the expected paradigm of television comedies. His absence is felt (strongly) in the premiere of the new season. “History 101,” though it has a few genuinely enjoyable moments, feels like the writers are trying too hard to be wacky and out-of-the-box. The reason Community has been so entertaining over the last three seasons is because it never felt like the show was forcing any of its “concept” episodes. Instead, each happened organically and genuinely fit within the show’s run.
The premise of the episode is the study group wants to take a total blow off course titled “The History of Ice Cream” together. The problem is the class is overbooked due to some error in registration – a totally believable catastrophe given Greendale’s track record. Jeff has gone out of his way to secure seats in the class for all six of them and this strikes the rest of the group as very un-Jeff Winger-like. He admits that he has taken extra credits online over the summer and he only needs this last History credit to graduate. The others feel that Jeff was dishonest and lied to them (very Jeff Winger-like) because they were all supposed to graduate together at the end of the year.
Dean Pelton informs the clamoring mob of students that he has found a way to solve the problem of the overbooked course: The Hunger Deans! (Okay, that was hilarious.) Everyone who wants a seat in the class will participate in a series of challenges. The winners will be allowed to stay in the course. Jeff promises the group that he will win enough red rubber balls (the dean’s version of a prize) for them to all take the class together.
Given the show’s history of over-the-top competitions and games (paintball, pillow forts, etc.), I know it’s strange to say that the Hunger Deans seem unbelievable, but that’s how it came off. With the other over-the-top escapades, we could buy into it because we saw it develop. Here, we are just thrust into a fully-launched Olympiad organized by a man barely capable of driving a car. It just feels false.
The episode does have some fun, though, with Abed’s imaginary version of how the events should be taking place. At the start of the episode, we watch Britta “therapize” Abed by helping him to manage his anxiety. She tells him to go to his happy place when he feels worried. For Abed, his happy place is, of course, a classic sitcom-style version of reality, complete with laugh track and G-rated, non-offensive humor reminiscent of Full House. These interludes in Abed’s mind are presented with an authentic multi-camera approach: one main set, generic props, asinine theme song, etc. We also get to see Fred Willard as Pierce Hawthorne which is wonderful.
Overall, this was definitely a subpar episode for Community and probably their least impressive season opener. The relationship between Troy and Britta is annoying and unnecessary and Annie’s preoccupation with Jeff has become tiresome. Dean Pelton, as per usual, has some of the episode’s funniest moments, but he, too, feels like the writers are just playing up his most flamboyant qualities and dismissing any sense of him being a real person.
Was it great to see the “Greendale Babies” fantasy? Yes! Is Leonard smack-talking Jeff always funny? Yes. Other than that, though, the episode was quite underwhelming. Let’s hope the writers get their act together and the final season doesn’t spoil the hard work of the first three.