Would a casual viewer of "Community" have noticed the difference in the series when it kicked off its fifth season last night on NBC with back-to-back episodes entitled "Repilot" and "Introduction to Teaching"? The two installments were exactly in line with what the show has always been like -- deeply idiosyncratic and prone to meta-commentary on its own developments, both a sitcom and a show about sitcoms at the same time. But the season premiere and its follow-up represented not just the continuation of a cult favorite that has spent most of its expectation-defying run under the threat of cancellation, but the return of creator Dan Harmon to its helm after he was fired at the end of season three.
"Community" has been singular enough a network comedy to make it feel like it has no casual viewers, only dedicated ones who've logged its most insane easter egg jokes (the three-year-long "Beetlejuice" gag, Abed delivering a baby in the background of "The Psychology of Letting Go"), most dedicated pop culture references and most unexpectedly engaging character developments, along with its behind-the-scenes drama.
"Community" has always felt like Harmon's deeply personal and complicated creation, and his tendencies toward social media mishaps and ill-advised airings of private grievances have only made that feel more the case, so that his being separated from the show came as a slight to fans as well as to the writer/producer -- how could it go on without the man who gave it its very particular comedic voice?
It did, for a fourth season under the guidance of Moses Port and David Guarascio that was neither awful nor the same, a gamely made simulacrum that Harmon has trampled in person and now on screen, with Annie (Alison Brie) referring to the "gas-leak year" and Chang (Ken Jeong) dismissing last year's terrible "Changnesia" storyline in a few abrupt sentences. It's funny that the first episode was entitled "Repilot," because it was the second, in which the new baseline was established with Jeff (Joel McHale) returning to Greendale as a teacher and the rest of the characters re-enrolling to escape their dissatisfying lives, that really served that purpose. "Repilot" was pure Harmon fan service, a gleeful stripping away of the past season's developments with plenty of in-jokes and self-mockery.
There was Abed (Danny Pudi) comparing Jeff's return to season nine of "Scrubs," only part of which featured Zach Braff, and the departing Donald Glover, who's only signed on to appear in five episodes this year himself, as Troy snarling "Son of a bitch! After everything 'Scrubs' did for him." There was Troy's musing "Do you guys feel weird about doing this without... Magnitude?," a nod to the absence of Chevy Chase's Pierce; Chase having left the series abruptly last season after a history of creative disagreements.
And there was the recap of all the madness that has happened to Chang over the years, and how each of the study group members has changed from their original characterizations -- "This is a four-year process," Jeff proclaimed. "We went in one end as real people and out the other end as mixed-up cartoons!"
As self-deprecating as that line might be intended, it's the "real people" part of that equation that's always been the key to "Community," the underlying solidity under the "Law & Order" and "My Dinner With Andre" homages and paintball sagas. One of the things that Harmon's understood, and that became more clear as the series evolved from its relatively standard beginnings into something much weirder, is that his characters don't need to be adorable and that quirk needn't come across as a gesture toward lovability. Greendale is not a "good place for good people," it's a place for oddballs and losers and people trying to figure out life after their original plans went awry, and those categorizations include the show's main characters, who are all as prickly as they are amusing.
"Repilot" came across as such a relief for devoted "Community" fans not because of its indisputable cleverness but because of its sitcom-atypical aura of disappointment, its willingness to have let its characters all flunk out of their latest attempts at mainstream life.
Jeff, Abed, Annie, Britta, Shirley and Troy may all be assigned their comedic roles, but they're also flawed in memorably realistic ways -- they can be annoying, inconsiderate, self-serving and mean, which is what makes the show's moments of heart so hard-won and not at all of the "awwww" variety. It's how, after years of letting Pierce be a repository for the series' worst behavior, he can be the thing that brings Jeff back to the side of good, albeit in weird hologram form.
There's all that, and a noticeable disinterest in opening up the series to new viewers who might be stopping by -- hell, at this point, you're either in or you're out. And I, for one, am thrilled that the show is back and back-to-form.