…an episode reminding us all the importance of “vision boarding!”
Regardless of your opinion on Community’s maligned fourth season (for the record, I didn’t hate it as much as most), you can’t deny the show’s dire need for a creative boost. While the first three seasons crackled with a maniacal creative energy, last year seemed content to recycle gags—Inspector Spacetime, Darkest Timelines, and paintball—and become more insular, much to the show’s detriment.
In reclaiming the throne previously wrestled from him, re-appointed showrunner Dan Harmon needed to do two things: reestablish the show’s madcap comic sensibilities (duh) while somehow assuring us that last season was simultaneously an anomaly but not a complete waste of time. This required the fifth season of Community to both distance itself from last year while also building off it in some capacity. Um. Yeah. Sounds simple, I guess?
Going into Thursday night’s premiere, I’ll make a confession: I was worried. Harmon’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans, at this point, are well documented and won’t get more play here, but I had a very real concern that his ego would interfere with his ability to pull off this virtual high-wire act of a reboot.
Sometimes, I love being wrong. Of course he pulled it off.
From the first shot of Jeff’s absurd attorney promo film (an Abed Nadir joint, we later found out), this all felt so…right. In the tradition of the best Harmon-era episodes, the narrative of “Repilot” was driven by a close attention to this ragtag assemblage of characters, and it gave us a chance to fall in love with them again. After all, when character (and not gimmick) drives the story, the jokes feel fresh and organic, and fresh and organic jokes tend to land, which they consistently did tonight.
What’s more, Jeff’s post-graduate law practice failed before it really began—that inflated SFX budget on his film did not prove a wise investment—which sparked a plot that found a very believable way to put Britta, Annie, Troy, Abed, Shirley, and Jeff back in the study (now record) room together, which had been closed for sentimental/asbestos reasons after graduation, according to Dean Pelton.
You see, it turns out Greendale graduates have a track record of ineptitude. In fact, a local bridge collapse can be traced back to one such alum, Marvin Humphries, whose path toward mass destruction could probably have been predicted by his end of coursework thesis: a faulty Lego bridge. His attorney is, of course, Jeff Winger’s nemesis Alan Connor (a hilarious Rob Corddry). Connor’s defense strategy is to prove Humphries was “irresponsibly educated” by an institution that, as he says, “turns idiots into bridge collapsers.” Jeff, feeling as if he’s lost his lawyerly mojo, agrees to retrieve Humphries’s Greendale files for Connors, and before you can say E. Pluribus Anus, he’s strolling the halls of his old stomping ground, prompting raspberries from Leonard and gasps of ecstasy from Dean Pelton.
Naturally, Dean Pelton shredded Humphries’s records, so Jeff has to embrace his inner sleazeball in order to both prove he’s still got it and get payback on a college he believes failed him. After Abed wrangles the crew together to take part in a “Save Greendale” Committee, Jeff seizes the opportunity to suggest to the former study group about bringing a class action suit against his alma mater. All it takes is some minor Machiavellian manipulation of his closest friends.
There was something really interesting bubbling under the surface here, a heft that gave the comedy more meaning. As we caught up with these characters, none of them were living the post-graduate lives they imagined they would be. Britta’s a bartender. Abed gave up filmmaking; apparently, irreconcilable creative differences over inserting Jeff’s “derivative” 555 office number during his film left a rotten taste in his mouth. Andre left Shirley again, this time because of Shirley’s diverted attention with her business. Annie is pushing pens for a drug company that both invented and cured fibromyalgia. And Troy, well, Troy is waiting to sue Abed—don’t ask. The sequence played like Community’s version of group therapy, both for the study group and the audience. By checking in with each character, or more to the point, Harmon’s version of each character, it seemed like the perfect way to make sure our transition back to the Community of yore was a smooth one while also addressing the very real notion of post-college anxiety and disappointment.
Of course, the study group ultimately opted to skip the class action (thanks to a hilarious and surprising message from Pierce Hawthorne in hologram form who gave Jeff the reminder he needed). Rather than destroy Greendale, they decided to rebrand themselves, torching the old study room table and rebuilding a new one. But Harmon played this heavily symbolic moment, which might have otherwise come across as hokey, just right, having them fail a woodworking assignment for making a table but not the required birdhouse. For me, this was a microcosm of Harmon’s genius: the zany bond of friendship flying in the face of logic. It’s what Community has always been about, and I loved seeing it addressed so cleverly once again.
As the episode closed out, our study group friends are re-enrolling at Greendale to quit making excuses and grab their lives by the throat. Good for them! Oh, also Jeff’s a teacher now. And a bald-headed, vision-boarding dean is definitely hot for him.
The Community we love is back, folks. Oh, happy dean!
Quotes from the Former Study Room:
– Britta: “I’m on sabbatical.”
Troy: “You’re Jewish?”
– Britta: “I don’t believe in evil. But this school clearly got a finger up its butt as a child.”
– Dean Pelton: “I’m going to cry.”
Jeff: “Please don’t.”
Dean Pelton: “Request denied.”
– Hologram Pierce Hawthorne: “Don’t turn your back on this place. It’s a crappy place, for sure. But only because it gives crappy people a chance to sort themselves out.” Vintage Pierce: crude but sweet!