[This is a review of Community season 5, episodes 1 & 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
To some, last year's Dan Harmon-less season of Community represented the darkest timeline, while his return was a momentous strike back against "The Man" who had fired him from the show after season 3. But while season 4 was awash with half-executed hijinks that felt more like an homage to the show's past (without the standout moments that were commonplace in the time of Harmon), there was some value in the final product, with the characters showing a fair amount of growth.
At the start of season 5, it seemed only natural to wonder how Harmon would deal with last season's developments: connect his season to the last one, or cover the whole thing up and pretend it never happened? Interestingly, Harmon chose to take the middle ground.
Changnesia is dismissed as a canard while other events from last season are (and aren't) given permission to float away, thanks to what is described as "The gas leak year." With that device, Harmon cleverly recalls the events of the "Epidemiology" episode from season 2, where the campus Halloween party became a zombie invasion - an event that was dismissed by authorities as a "gas leak" - while also giving himself an out to keep or toss whatever he likes as it pertains to season 4.
The first half of the two-part season premiere, 'Repilot,' handles the bulk of the reconfiguration, placing every member of the study group out of school and in a dire state. Essentially, Greendale is in the rear-view mirror, but Jeff, Shirley, Abed, Troy, Britta, and Annie are all metaphorically stuck in traffic.
As the group's unquestioned leader, we naturally focus most on Jeff, whose legal career is once again floundering following his four years at Greendale. Desperate and Scotch-less, Jeff begrudgingly takes a job working for his former cohort, Alan (Rob Corddry), as a henchman/investigator on a case against the college.
By way of the rules of tidy storytelling, the rest of the gang assembles in the study room/records room to help Jeff, who tells them that he is there to save the school. The episode depressingly lingers on the real state of the group beneath their brave smiles before conveniently and allowing them the chance to press reset on their lives (again) by re-enrolling at Greendale.
'Re-Pilot' isn't necessarily a funny episode, though there are laughs to be had. What it is, is a necessary evil to allow Harmon a fresh canvas on which to draw out the rest of this season. And, in the second half of tonight's premiere, 'Introduction to Teaching,' Harmon more firmly re-establishes his dominion over the weird and wonderful elements that make Community a charmer.
Sure, making Jeff a teacher to keep him in the school setting comes off as a massive blinking cliche (complete with Jeff initially blowing off his new job before seeing its value and his affection for it), but Harmon makes it work with more than a helping hand from Jonathan Banks, who plays Jeff's testy mentor.
Chevy Chase's exit didn't have to automatically lead to the addition of another actor to fill the group elder role, but with Banks, no one will accuse Harmon of simply trying to swap curmudgeons. After all, he trades Chase's background aloofness and occasionally disruptive villainy for Banks' no-nonsense intensity and Sahara-dry sense of humor. Without Banks' Prof. Hickey, Jeff's transition to teaching would have felt frivolous, but through Hickey we see a whole new side of Greendale that allows us to think that there might be value in this choice.
There is also value in straying from the narrative to embrace the silly, and as always, Abed is the perfect vessel for that kind of flight of fancy, as he absorbs and then morphs into Nicolas Cage when he goes overboard for an assignment from Prof. Garrity (the returning Kevin Corigan).
It's not like it hasn't happened before, but it's interesting that Harmon leans so heavily on Abed with little assistance from his usual running mate, Troy.
Tonight's premiere represents two of Donald Glover's final five episodes on the show, and on the whole, his character contributes the least out of the entire study group. Is this a way of weening us off of the Troy/Abed partnership, or is it just a coincidence?
Surely we'll find out as Harmon likely works to wrap up Troy's storyline in the coming weeks, but after a premiere night that was half-spent in transition, one hopes that Harmon can give Troy a proper send-off while continuing to move the show forward.
Community returns next Thursday with "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics" @8pm on NBC.