‘Community’: Season 4 of the NBC Comedy Ponders the End

The absurdist comedy returns to NBC on Thursday after a lengthy delay and many behind-the-scenes changes, including the exit of creator Dan Harmon. Jace Lacob says its gonzo energy is intact.

02.06.13 9:45 AM ET

“What’s the deal, Jessica Biel?”

Community, after an absence of what feels like five years and numerous timeslot and launch date changes, finally unveils its fourth season on Thursday. For the faithful, waiting this long to return to Greendale has been an arduous trial, particularly as curiosity is running high amid the many behind-the-scenes changes made since the show wrapped up its third season way back in May 2012.

For one, series creator Dan Harmon is no longer at the helm, after a well-publicized ouster that saw him as well as showrunners Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan depart the NBC comedy. A handful of others—including writer/producer Chris McKenna (currently writing on Fox’s The Mindy Project), executive producers/directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and actor/writer Dino Stamatopoulos (Starburns)—also exited stage left. In their place are new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port, perhaps best known for their work on the multi-camera workplace comedy Just Shoot Me and for creating the short-lived comedy Aliens in America.

Suffice it to say, fans of Community want to know: what does the show feel like without Harmon and Co. steering the plot? On a show so gonzo and absurd and generally out there, what does the loss of its creator mean?

It would be far easier to say if the (new) Community were a disaster or a masterpiece. However, the truth doesn’t fall at either end. Community now feels rather like it did during its first three seasons, with its sense of humor and bizarro-world energies intact. (That sense of sameness might be aided by longtime writer Andy Bobrow scripting the season opener, offering a sense of continuity.)

If there’s anything I noticed during the two episodes provided to press for review (the first and third installments, but not—oddly enough—Megan Ganz’s Halloween episode, which airs on … Valentine’s Day), it’s that perhaps a spark that permeated the very best episodes of Community is missing. Perhaps that sense of mad genius came from Harmon himself or perhaps it can be regained once this new configuration of the Community writers finds their legs. But I can’t point to anything specific after two viewings. It doesn’t feel entirely off, but it feels as if not everyone came back from this prolonged summer break.

As for the two episodes themselves, they are good, if perhaps missing the same levels of confidence that Community exhibited during its run thus far. The Season 4 opener (“History 101”), written by Bobrow, and the third episode (“Conventions of Space and Time”), written by Maggie Bandur, both demonstrate a savvy and deft hand at juggling the metatheatrical underpinnings of the show.

“History 101” is particularly self-aware about the audience’s expectations, skewering fans’ preconceptions about the conventions of multi-camera comedies and the new showrunner team at play here. The episode imagines what the format of Community would be if it were filmed before a live studio audience, the jokes becoming suddenly far broader and more stereotypical, and followed by inane and hollow canned laughter. I don’t want to give away why multiple Greendales are at play within the episode, but I’ll say it involves Abed (Danny Pudi), television escapism, and a dawning realization that the gang’s time at Greendale is coming to an end.

Let that sink in for a second.

Characters, like real human beings, shouldn’t ever be static. They should grow and change and, in the case of this eccentric group, possibly go their separate ways. As far as the show is about the absurdist plots (zombie apocalypse! Paintball warfare! Parallel universes and causality!), it’s also about the emotional bonds that unite a group of people who likely would not be friends had they met anywhere other than Greendale, that chronically underfunded Skinner box of a community college.

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When Community began, each of these characters was stuck. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) started out as an obnoxious, self-centered jerk; his sacrifice in the Hunger Games-spoofing season opener points toward how much he’s changed and how he’s come to care about these oddballs. Annie (Alison Brie) was a perfectionist and overachiever who crashed and burned after an Adderall addiction. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) wanted to find an identity outside motherhood. Troy (Donald Glover) had lost his football scholarship and sense of purpose. Abed (Pudi) was looking for connection. Britta (Gillian Jacobs) was a caustic activist searching for meaning. And Pierce (Chevy Chase) was bored. Like Jeff, each of them has grown and changed, finding a maturity or grounding that they were missing. (Except maybe for, well, Pierce.)

Both “History 101” and “Conventions in Space and Time” contain moments that advance the relationships between the characters. The bond between Troy and Abed is tested by the arrival of an Inspector Spacetime-obsessive (Little Britain creator/star Matt Lucas) who shares more with Abed than just a love of the Doctor Who send-up. Annie imagines a life as “Mrs. Jeff Winger” and finally sees herself as Jeff’s equal. Britta navigates the awkwardness of her newfound romance with Troy, particularly around Abed. A trip to the Inspector Spacetime convention brings out these inner conflicts, magnifying them against a backdrop of the fictional and the surreal.

The inexorable sense of change apparent here is not only intentional but important. The writers seem to be well aware of the show’s situation at NBC and the real possibility that this could be the final season of Community. They might just be preparing the viewers to say goodbye in May, both to Greendale—which provides the show’s fluid premise and setting—and to these vibrant and strangely lovable characters as well.

Will I mourn the death of Community when it comes? Absolutely, but I also celebrate the show for taking—and continuing to take—risks with its storytelling. In an age of television sameness, of procedural conformity and lowest common denominator programming, Community has dared to be different