'Community' Review: 'History 101'
Community's fourth season premiered Thursday night, four months after its initial premiere date in the middle of October. NBC sent it to the Friday Night death slot as a lead-in to Grimm, which is as bad a mix as chocolate syrup on a piece of cheese. NBC's since gone crazy and delayed Grimm until next month after promising its return for late January. The delayed premiere for Community didn't bother me like it would have when Dan Harmon ran the show. There it is: the Dan Harmon of it all. The television business can be a nasty place. Show runners get replaced, the show goes on. Show runners were never as famous as they are now. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse took show running out from the shadows during their LOST days. ABC released a weekly podcast with the two. In LOST's final season, Lindelof and Cuse starred in fifteen (or so) webisodes. The post-finale special on Jimmy Kimmel Live featured the show runners in an "alternate" ending of the show. People don't know when a show runner is replaced. If they do, they usually don't care--it's usually a floundering show in need of new direction and ideas.
Dan Harmon's a different kind of show runner. TV goes on because its writers can adopt many voices and blend into the show. Watch any episode of a TV show without credits and try to name the writer of an episode. Distinctive writing is rare and precious in TV. Buffy's writers adopted Joss' voice in writing the show. Joss brought his writing style with him to The Avengers, The Cabin In The Woods (with Drew Goddard, of course), and Dr. Horrible; but his writers moved onto other shows and wrote the voice of the show they were now writing for. I watched Spartacus three years ago because I'm a fan of Steven DeKnight. His ANGEL episodes are gems, but Spartacus bore little resemblance to a Steven DeKnight ANGEL episode. Community's first three seasons were distinctively Dan Harmon. I rarely post statuses on Facebook about TV, but I posted about Dan Harmon's firing to tell anyone fellow fan of the show that the show they loved won't be the same again. Dan Harmon's season three finale was essentially a perfect cap to the show.
Indeed, if anything, if the new era of the series fails to be the Community Dan Harmon wrote, the first three seasons still matter. They were Dan's, and his writers, story and it was complete. TV's a business first and foremost. Story is secondary in the medium. It's true that the writer is king in television, but the almighty dollar is still more powerful. If story mattered to the executives, then creators choosing to end their shows after x seasons wouldn't be unheard of. Writers work hard to create a show, get a pilot made, and have the pilot picked up for a series order, which is why people think it unusual for a show runner to end a series. Not every writer can choose to end his or her own show. The business is too big. Network executives would like a show to run for years and years, well past its natural end, because of its profitability. Networks aren't solely to blame; fans, too, want their favorite shows to continue. I remember the disappointment I felt the day TheWB cancelled ANGEL after five seasons. I wanted season six so badly, even if season five ended perfectly.
I wanted a fourth season of Community. While season three's finale was terrific, Dan Harmon's story wasn't totally complete. The group hadn't graduated. NBC's announcement of renewal was great. Their subsequent announcement that Dan Harmon was fired was not great. I didn't want to watch the fourth season. Community was Dan Harmon's show. Months pass, though. I knew I'd give the new show runners a chance. I watched the cast interview with Entertainment Weekly during Comic Con and disliked them together for the first time since the show premiered. Their tomfoolery and mirth seemed force, a network directive more than anything else; but time marches on and the interview faded from memory. The show got pushed back. Then, last night, "History 101" finally premiered with a more than overt meta story about the changes behind-the-scenes, as well as a different energy.
The new show runners want to make a show old fans will love. The premiere featured cameos from Leonard, Neil, Susie Kim, and other recurring characters. Jeff referred to Garrett. Jim Rash dressed in a number of dresses. Abed went into his mind and imagined a sitcom wherein his friends never graduate from Greendale. Jeff just referenced Garrett, though--there wasn't any sign of my favorite recurring side character. Garrett's so Dan Harmon that maybe the actor left the show with him. Harmon found him doing stand-up comedy in Los Angeles. The dude produced magic any time he got screen time. The episode had a spoof of The Hunger Games, animation, parodies of traditional sitcoms. It had Britta and Troy holding hands, Annie trying to be so un-Annie, Jeff learning another lesson about the importance of the group (which is a lesson he learned and kept in the finale), Pierce making inappropriate jokes, and a naked Chang and a new pun of his name. The elements were there, but Community didn't feel the same. Is that sentence disingenuous? Would I notice a difference in the show if I weren't deeply interested in the business of television, didn't follow its news, and never knew Harmon left? I'd like to think so. The episode had a forcedness reminiscent of the cast's Comic Con interview with Entertainment Weekly. Community's not supposed to feel forced. It is organic. If it stumbled under Harmon, it stumbled because he shot for the gosh darn moon and missed. He'd rebound, though, and come up with something brilliant like the episode Dean Pelton directs a documentary for Greendale. I don't know if the new guys needed to be quite as committed to the show as it was. That show left with Harmon. Perhaps they make it their own in future episodes. "History 101" didn't seem a goodbye to the old show; it was an embrace, a promise that the beloved Community isn't different, it's just changed.
I don't know where the season will go. I'll keep an open mind about it. Hopefully, I'll separate it from Dan Harmon's Community accept it for what it is. I do love these characters, this world, and the performances. Optimism is the key.