I love Community. Since the pilot, it has been unapologetically brilliant, unflaggingly hilarious, and unusually poignant for primetime TV. Last night marked the start of season 4, and I wanted more than anything for the much anticipated, and twice-delayed, premiere to live up to the greatness of years past. Sadly, it didn't. It just ... didn't.
The season opens on a one-camera-sitcom version of Greendale Community College. The characters trot out one by one to the exalting cheers of the studio audience and then make lame jokes that only a laugh track could love. Of course, this is all just in Abed's (Danny Pudi's) imagination, and serves as a wink to the audience from replacement show-runners David Guarascio and Moses Port. After the show's creator, Dan Harmon, was dismissed by NBC at the end of last year, fans of the show were nervous that season 4 of Community would become a dumbed-down, sitcommy shell of its former genre-bending, envelope-pushing glory. Guarascio and Port were clearly aware of these concerns, and set out to prove that they could be just as Harmon-y as Dan himself.
Unfortunately, this ham-fisted effort felt extremely forced, and they spent far too much time being unfunny on purpose. Two or three trips to Abed's imaginary sitcom would have served, but it seemed like half of the episode took place in that laughless environment. They wasted far too much airtime making the point that they know what lame TV looks like, rather than just making quality jokes and proving that they know what great TV looks like.
The rest of the episode, entitled History 101, wasn't much better. The characters spend most of the time commenting on how this is their last year at Greendale, and expressing concern over big changes for the coming year. This might very well be the last season of Community, and the “big changes” are a clear reference to Harmon's departure. Such self-awareness is part of what made the first three seasons so great, but in season 4 it comes off as more maudlin than meta. Once again, they wasted airtime addressing the concerns of loyal Harmonites, rather than just being funny. I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that I'd rather not be reminded that my beloved Community is not long for this world. And it certainly doesn't help that they seem to have already wasted one-thirteenth of the shortened fourth season.
My question for the team of Guarascio and Port, who also did work on ABC's Happy Endings, is this: Why spend an entire episode trying to convince us that we won't miss Dan Harmon, when you could have just tried to make us forget that he left? Even when Harmon went completely off the deep end in terms of meta-awareness, self-reference, and genre-defiance, he still brought the funny. Guarascio and Port did not. I'm glad that they didn't try to make the show more conventional, but they went too far in eschewing that label. It was almost as if they were afraid to make jokes for fear of being branded as just another punch-line parade of a sitcom.
But there is hope. As dismal as the season 4 premiere may have been, there were a few fleeting moments that hinted at the brilliance of earlier seasons. Much of the original writing team is still intact, and clearly the person in charge of Jeff Winger's (Joel McHale's) patented poignant wrap-up speeches is still on staff. The potential is clearly there, and as long as they get back to making jokes instead of self-gratifying references to behind the scenes drama, Community should be just “fyne.”