A recap of Community Season 5 so far…
There are milestones in television that loom forebodingly in the distance when a pilot gets picked up for its initial season. These are the hypothetical situations contingent on a show’s continued success to the point that either the setting or the cast actually needs to change. It happened to Buffy and the kids on Glee; it happened to Zach Braff on Scrubs; it happens about every four years at Degrassi High, and last year it happened to the Greendale Seven, otherwise known as the cast of Community. They all had to graduate.
Community is in a special place to deal with this milestone. Thanks to its self-reflexive nature, the show has managed to return to the status quo in three episodes while still respecting the event of graduation itself, essentially saying everything that happened mattered (even the gas leak last year), but nothing ever really matters (including the gas leak).
Season five starts out with “Repilot,” which is exactly what the title implies. Last year ended with the study group graduating after defeating their evil-timeline selves in a match of trans-dimensional paintball and entering real life, which proved to be even worse to them than their alter egos.
The episode endeavours to get everyone we love back to Greendale and in the study room on a weekly basis. What’s more: Season three signalled the firing of the show’s creator and original showrunner. Now that Dan Harmon is back guiding the ship he built with his own hands, he needs to reestablish the course in terms of tone. This is a five year old television show back in pilot mode.
Jeff is a lawyer. Finally (or again, depending on how you look at it). The only issue is that his experience over the past four years has taught him empathy and his practice is failing as a result. His former nemesis turned partner (played by Rob Corddry) has a case that stands to get Winger back on his feet, but there is one catch: Jeff will need to cash in his good guy card and sell out the place that got him into the rented office above a shopping mall (the same one that is in the process of being repossessed as the show opens).
The initial scheme falls through when Jeff can’t get the records needed to file suit against Greendale for allegedly causing the collapse of a bridge as a result of its terrible education, and his old friends show up (minus Pierce), all called by Abed. In a turn that is seen quite often in this show, lawyer-Jeff tries to use his attorney powers to manipulate his former study pals to unwittingly do his bidding, in this case: Make up for the lost case by filing class action against Greendale.
And boy do they have good reasons. Annie has gone from pill popper to professional pill pusher, Britta is doing field research on the effects of alcoholism (actually a bartender), Troy is waiting to sue Abed when he makes the next big Facebook-esque Internet sensation, and Shirley’s husband left again, taking the kids and DVR (containing 166 unwatched episodes of Bones). Pierce is banned from campus for sexual harassment, but is still there in spirit (or rather, hologram form, telling people that the place is crappy, but still better than not being there).
In the end, none of it works out and Jeff, just like Abed had been predicting all episode, takes a job as the school’s new law teacher. We’re treated to the best meta-gag of the episode when this prophecy comes true, with a montage played underneath a Zach Braff Scrubs voice over.
Overall, “Repilot” puts all of the pieces into the right places for what has proven to be an already excellent season, but for a fresh start it gets hung-up on the past a little too much. In other words, “Repilot” is very piloty (or perhaps pilotish or pilotesque) but not to enough of an extent that it alone could attract new viewers.
The trouble with this is that as much as season five of Community feels like a show coming back from cancellation in many ways, it actually never left the airwaves (despite being under constant threat). It makes sense that this season needs to reestablish what the show actually is from a plot perspective, simply because they need to deal with the question that the show has nodded at for the entirety of its run up to this point: What happens after graduation from Greendale?
Tonally, a re-pilot is needed because of the gas leak. With Harmon back running the show this season a certain kind of Community viewer is already pleased as punch. This is an event comparable to what the return of Firefly would be to Joss Whedon fans (practically a miracle). To others it might make very little difference. Many viewers watched and even liked season four, with its Inspector Spacetime conventions and trans-dimensional paintball finales. I was not one of them, but these people exist.
To these season four loving members of the Community community it must seem kind of offensive to be told that the show you have been enjoying for the past year sucks by the characters of that very show. For those who are just starting their time with the staff and students of Greendale (like my mom who tried to watch the premiere with me) the meta jabs at the politics surrounding the show simply won’t make any sense. Troy showing outrage that Zach Braff left Scrubs season nine after only six episodes will not make sense to people who don’t know that Donald Glover will be leaving mid-season, having graduated from the show to pursue his music career.
If, like me, you were reserved about the viability of season five of Community by the end of “Repilot” I hope you stayed for the second half hour of the double-dose NBC gave us. Episode number two proves that, like all things that Greendale serves as a metaphor to (mostly life), the more things change the more they stay the same.
What has changed after the gas leak year? Jeff works for the school, Dean Pelton knows how to use Excel, and Pierce has been replaced with someone more likable: Annie’s criminology professor Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks from Breaking Bad).
What is the same? Shirley has great one-liners, Abed is Abed, Troy is Troy, Britta wants to be a psychologist, and Annie has the best chemistry with Jeff. They are all in the same maniac-filled building trying to achieve a dream that could so easily be achieved if only the rest of the world weren’t so insane.
This is to say that after a season of characters not acting the way we loved (gas leak), they are back to normal. The strength of this show has always been in the cast’s ability to connect through absurdity, and even though the roles of the players have changed, their relationships to each other haven’t.
“Introduction to Teaching” is proof that Community is back to its old ways. The entire story exists almost solely to prove that even with Jeff teaching and Pierce banned from campus, the main purpose of this kind of business-as-usual episode is to marvel at the absolute lunacy that makes Greendale America’s #2 Community College (according to Greendale’s own website).
Jeff has to get into the swing of being a teacher, the gang has to find the Greendale rhythm again. Abed takes a two day course called “Nicolas Cage: Good or Bad?” in an effort to actually discover an answer to the conundrum and Jeff tries his best not to teach, just like the rest of the faculty. Buzz shows him the ropes (“She’s lead, we’re chalk.”) and Chang tells him the standard class plan (Break into groups, mark each other’s papers, and the seven disc edition of Planet Earth).
By the end of “Introduction to Teaching” we get to see what Community is now that Harmon is back and almost everyone is re-enrolled: The same as it was before. Abed has a psychotic breakdown when he can’t place Nic Cage on the spectrum of good versus bad actors, and is accidentally brought around by Shirley who is trying to introduce him to a “skinny little Hebrew handyman” and makes a Hellraiser reference, illustrating that its okay for people to be unclassifiable.
Jeff also finds his place of contentment by accident, defeating Annie in an argument about how bad a teacher he is and inadvertently teaching his class how to be bad lawyers. All the while we are introduced to Buzz, who is filling the seat of Pierce on the newly minted Save Greendale Committee, with amazing non sequiturs that suggest a traumatizing background in forensics and ambitions to become a cartoonist.
The first two episodes are examples of how Community is capable of both cynical beauty and restoring its status quo while respecting its history. The third episode of the season is an example that the show is also capable of mastery, easily the best so far. A full on style-change, like the season three “Remedial Chaos Theory,” “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” is a spot on send-up of David Fincher thrillers like “Se7en” and “Zodiac.” The episode takes a risk on the regular A-B-C plot structure, starting with the ribbon cutting of Shirley’s new sandwich shop (in which her sons sing Radiohead’s “Creep”), followed by a special title sequence, and ending with the death of a character.
This episode elevates Annie’s ambitions in forensics as a lense as Greendale is preyed upon by the Ass Crack Bandit: A mysterious serial molester who drops quarters down the butt canyons of unsuspecting students. As the collected change racks up, the school attempts to crack down on the Mad Hatter (Except for Butts), with Annie and Jeff taking center stage in a team up that showcases Alison Brie and Joel McHale’s chemistry (a major strength of the show).
Speaking of strengths, this episode highlighted the best of everything Community is capable of offering: Sharp writing, clever direction, Chang being especially terrifying, and about two reasons to laugh at every line. That’s not even mentioning the two original songs about The Filler of Cracks, a slew of Dave Matthews jokes, and an end credits played over top of a Kickstarter for a dog-propelled cat-car.
By the end of “Numismatics, “which sees the return of Starburns and the possibly official departure of Pierce who apparently died while the ass banditry was at its suspenseful peak, I harboured no doubts that this show is now in the best hands possible. The overall feeling that the show is emitting after these three episodes of its first post-graduation season is one of confidence in the face of change.
It is difficult to grade these episodes of Community, considering that even their worst moments were better than anything in the 13 episodes that preceded them threw at us. This being said, here is the report card for the first 25 cents of Season Five:
“Repilot”: B (it just doesn’t feel right do this without Magnitude)
“Introduction To Teaching”: A minus… and if you’re lucky I’ll slip in some Planet Earth
“Basic Intergluteal Numismatics”: Solid A with about $5 in quarters