TV Review: Community S4E01 – History 101
Note: This review contains significant spoilers and is meant to be read after viewing the episode.
Last season’s finale was in many ways the perfect ending for Community. It wrapped up a good deal of loose ends while hinting at some avenues for the series to continue should it be picked up for this fourth season. The final montage, backed by an extended version of the theme song, was endlessly satisfying and it would have been fitting for the show to give us Leonard’s YouTube review of Let’s potato chips as our final glimpse of the world of Greendale. The perfection of the season three finale and the departure of Dan Harmon leave me with a somewhat ambivalent feeling about season four. I’ve been looking forward to this for almost a year, but it’s coupled with an odd sense that perhaps we would’ve been better off just letting Community walk off into the sunset.
Can season four live up to that would-be ending and the rest of the first three seasons that, at their best, provided some of the most enjoyable and innovative television that I can remember? Can it do so without its creator? Probably not, but I still expect this season to be enjoyable, if not as tightly constructed, daring or innovative as it had become. I’m going to take the stance (perhaps for my own sanity) that there are only twelve more episodes left of one of my favorite shows of all time, and just try to enjoy the ride.
Opening the episode with horrendous jokes backed by a cacophonous laugh track induced a visceral recoil followed by some genuine worry. While, intellectually, I reassured myself that it must just be parody, nightmare scenarios kept bursting forth as I worried that NBC had not just canned Harmon, but gutted the soul of the show entirely. Perhaps the writers were going for such subversion, but it was a cruel joke to play on an audience at the best of times, and given my lack of trust in the future of the show, it was a sour note to begin on. Moreover, the sitcom segments, largely failed to play on TV tropes to much humorous effect, and instead were often simply grating.
Ultimately, the season premiere disappointed. It wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination and, dare I say, was good when compared to most of television, but that’s not the bar that Community has set for itself. It failed to achieve the greatness that I grew used to throughout season three, in large part because it tried to do too much by jamming four plot threads together without adequate investment in any of them. It was an enjoyable episode, but failed to quell my worries that it is all just downhill from here.
After discovering that the mother of all blow-off classes, the History of Ice Cream, has been over-registered, the study group splits up. Jeff spends the episode competing in the Dean’s ludicrous competition (The Hunger Deans) to win spots in the class for the entire study group, while Troy and Britta go off to make wishes in a fountain, and Annie and Shirley attempt to pull a prank on the Dean. Meanwhile Pierce tries to craft the perfect balls joke and Abed retreats into his mind at the thought of college ending. It turns out that Jeff has been taking summer classes and needs just one history course to graduate, prompting the study group to deal with the end of an era a semester early. In a predictable twist, the Dean had concocted this elaborate plan from the start so that Jeff would have to spend another semester at Greendale.
The Abed fugue state has been done before (and much better), and while I liked the idea of parodying a sitcom, and the Muppet Babies allusion brought a smile to my face, both fell flat. There was little depth in either and not much humor. If you’d like to see the sitcom parody done right, check out Scrubs S4E17, which quite effectively juxtaposes the conventions of the genre against Scrubs’ own style. Given that Community relies so heavily on meddling with television conventions, it is worrying that these segments were so loose. Not everything about these scenes was bad, however. Fred Willard as sitcom Pierce was a bright spot and a clever play on the audience’s fears/expectations given the rocky relationship between Chevy Chase and the show. Additionally, the riotous applause when Jeff appears, the Abed TV theme song, Coffins magazine, Microsoft Paint line, the American Sword Cooks advert, and Baby Pierce stuck in a terrarium all worked very well.
Both the Annie/Shirley and Troy/Britta plots lacked sufficient depth or screen time, which is a shame, because I felt both were worthwhile to explore, but weren’t given enough space. The tension between Troy and Britta deserved more exploration, particularly considering they seemed to wrap it up so quickly at the end rather than allowing the plot to play out in subsequent episodes. I was interested to see how Britta’s breaking of Abed’s rules would play given Troy’s usual rabid defense of his best friend, but we were given a quick fix instead. In Annie’s case, we again see her trying to escape the bonds of her own anxieties and expectations, but aren’t given much we haven’t already seen. Both plots provided some good moments, though, including the return of Annie’s Carolina Decker accent, and perhaps my favorite line of the episode, Troy’s “Why doe this feel good?” as Britta throttles him in the fountain.
However, the plot that suffers the most from the lack of screen time is Jeff’s. Which, is a shame because I thought there was a lot of potential with The Hunger Deans. Instead, we were left with only glimpses of the contest and only from Jeff’s point of view. When I heard there would be a Hunger Games spoof, I was expecting real chaos and conflict within the group; instead, we had brief glimpses of American Gladiators. Oddly enough, the paint ball episodes felt far more like The Hunger Games than anything in this episode did. Most of what we did see of Jeff and the Dean in this episode was great (particularly their tango), and the development of New Jeff, embracing his emotions and love of his friends, while trying to balance that with his efforts to regain his old life, is something I look forward to see explored further throughout the season. He has swung back and forth between the two poles from the very beginning, and maybe he’s finally finding some equilibrium.
A few random thoughts: Pierce seemed mostly absent from the episode, which I’m fine with given Chevy Chase’s behavior over the series’ run, though he did provide some laughs here. Dean Pelton appearing in red dress, black wig, and atop a chariot pulled by Unicorn-men was inspired. Yet, he also provided the worst moment of the episode, when he elongates the word “to” all the way to the Cafeteria to unveil “The Hunger Deans”. It was a classic Family Guy move, and as far as I can gather, only served to make the audience twitch. I kept waiting for Abed to do something to sabotage Jeff’s attempt to win the red balls (bone saw anyone?) but all we got was him retreating again and again to the sitcom in his mind. The last scene should have been naked Chang wandering up to the postman; it was the perfect reintroduction to the man who finally descended into madness last season.
At the end of the day, this historian is just glad they’re finally taking a history class.