For the scant few of us Community fans, Thursday was Back to School night. What NBC was hoping, however, was that it would also be the First Day of School for everyone else: those people who, despite the sitcom’s critical acclaim for its four seasons, have been resistant to ever give it a try.
Titled “Repilot,” Community’s first episode back was an attempt to wipe the slate clean. At the end of the sitcom’s wonky season four, the rag-tag study group of adult students at Greendale Community College finally got their diplomas, making season five a perfect chance to start over and launch a new narrative. Going so far as to title the premiere “Repilot,” NBC and the Community creative team seemed to be sending a message in neon flashing lights that it’s OK to tune-in for the first time and not be completely lost.
Given that the show’s passionate fans and enamored critics have been professing their love for Community and imploring the world to watch for four years now—and their efforts have remained fruitless—it’s likely that not very many new audience members sampled the sitcom’s premiere Thursday night. It is likely, however, that those who did tune in were actually a bit disappointed.
It’s not because the premiere was bad. In fact, the show confidently has its mojo back, with Thursday’s season five premiere featuring a dizzying array of meta jokes and genius self references while still setting forth a believable arc for reuniting the cast of now-graduates at their alma mater.
It’s three years after graduation. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) failed as a lawyer, and has one shot left at saving his career—it just happens that the last shot comes in the form of suing Greendale for, essentially, giving students crappy educations. He tries to get his old study group members—the now-jaded once-optimist Britta (Gillian Jacobs), the stalled go-getter Annie (Allison Brie), the hopelessly co-dependent Troy (Donald Glover), the aimless divorcee Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), and the untapped genius Abed (Danny Pudi)—to join the class action suit. After a cruel dressing down from their former group leader, Jeff, they all dejectedly sign.
“Our lives are worse than the day we got here,” Annie says. Shirley agrees. “This place ruins lives,” she says. The brilliance of Community: knowing that good comedy finds it root in places as bleak as they are bonkers.
The failure of the season five as a “Repilot” isn’t because it’s not as good as Community was at its best. It’s because it’s good for the same reasons Community was at its best. Which is to say: you really had to have already been a fan already to have enjoyed it.
When Community is at its funniest is when it’s making fun of itself, firing off self-critiques harkening back to the most minute and specific plot points from previous episodes, if not even previous seasons. The series is one prolonged inside joke. While “Repilot” manages to hit the reset button plot-wise, the biggest belly laughs came from those inside jokes, self-aware zingers about the show’s continued struggles—both creatively and in making its mark on the mainstream—over the course of its run.
There was, for example, a searing monologue delivered by Jeff that served two purposes. Superficially, it existed to shame the study group into joining the class-action suit by pointing out how Greendale has turned them into failures as human beings. But for fans of the series, it’s a satisfying acknowledgment that the show has created some egregiously incoherent characters:
“Britta, when we met you were an eclectic anarchist. How did you become the group’s airhead? Shirley, you’ve gone from an independent divorcee striking out on her own to a bankrupt fry cook waiting for a call from her husband. Troy, your entire identity has been consumed by your relationship with another man. And what happened to Annie, the unstoppable go-getter?”
There’s rapid-fire banter delivered in Community’s signature Doppler effect comedy style—the hilarity of the joke hits you several beats after the dialogue has passed—about the ludicrousness of Chang’s (Ken Jeung) existence on the show. Even the very mission of the “Repilot” was magnified through self-ridicule. “This could be like Scrubs, season 9,” Abed says when the study group gets back together again. “A revamp. A do-over. Jeff could come back to Greendale as a teacher.”
The show is essentially calling out the risk it’s taking. The Scrubs reboot was a catastrophe. It was on a different network. The show looked and felt nothing like the one that accrued eight seasons of fans. Most of the cast didn’t return. Doctors became teachers. New characters took focus. It was as if there had been an 11th season of Friends without Rachel, Ross, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, and Joey, and featuring Gunther as the lead.
Community knows this cautionary tale. In typical Community fashion, it’s mocking this cautionary tale, too. “Give him space,” Abed says after a Jeff freakout. “Repiloting can be intense. New people show up. Regular shift roles even fall away. Season 9 of Scrubs, Zach Braff was only in six episodes.” Troy is aghast.: “Son of a bitch! After everything Scrubs did to him?”
There’s a misconception that the purpose of a reboot or a relaunch is to win over a new audience. Really, though, it’s to make the old one happy. Change the DNA of a show, and the fans reject it. And there’s certainly no appeal there to prospective new viewers: “You know that show that everyone said you try out because it was so good? The show is nothing like that anymore. Wanna watch now?”
The best recent reboots treated the opportunity as a chance to fix creative problems and free itself from irritating plot traps they got themselves stuck in…by erasing them completely. Desperate Housewives fast-forwarded the clock five years at the start of its fifth season, essentially resuscitating a primetime soap that was flat-lining on its own ridiculousness. Just when it was at its most disjointed and insufferable, Glee split its narrative between Lima and New York City, sequestering the show’s most talented actors in their own Big Apple universe that was far more of a pleasure to watch than anything going on at McKinley High.
When a TV series gets long-in-the-tooth, a little shake up can be just what it needs to survive. Or it can be what kills it. (That Scrubs failure could be rivaled by that lottery-winning season of Roseanne most of us prefer to pretend never happened.) It shouldn’t be a surprise that Community manages to pull off a creatively strong reboot. Heck, Community manages to completely transform itself with almost every new episode. In its four seasons it’s already been a western, a procedural drama, an animated Christmas special, a musical, and an action blockbuster.
The bittersweet hilarity of all of this is where “Repilot” succeeds. Longtime fans of the series will delight in how it is just so Community. (“After you and your friends left, it was closed for sentimental reasons. And asbestos reasons,” says Jim Rash’s Dean Pelton about the gang’s study-hall hangout.) Newcomers there to watch a “pilot” of sorts of a series just won’t get it. The purpose of a “pilot” is to introduce the uninitiated to a new world and convince them they want to stay there. The problem with “Repilot” is that the world of Community is so already established that newcomers will feel like unwelcome extraterrestrials.
The rest of us Community fans, though, couldn’t be more excited for what should be another season with the Greendale Human Beings.