Creators of many TV shows lose their position of power, for one reason or another, all the time. Most viewers don't notice, unless the show in question went through one person's filter as "showrunner" to a far greater extent than usual. Dan Harmon was one such person, having extensive input on every script for NBC's low-rated but highly-regarded Community—which means the show is intrinsically the product of his unique imagination. That's not to discredit the many talented writers who have worked on Community, but now that Harmon's been fired by NBC (amidst all manner of behind-the-scenes tittle-tattle), the fourth season of the show is in a distinctly precarious position. Can the remaining writers and directors keep the show's unique voice alive (perhaps even taking it to inspired new places), or are they doomed to crank out a weak imitation?
Sadly, on the evidence of season 4's premiere "History 101", the signs aren't too good. It's impossible to critique this show without knowing Harmon is absent, having been replaced by executive-producers David Guarsascio and Moses Port, but I think you can tell something's not quite right. I chuckled a few times and the episode elicited some wry smiles, but it just didn't seem to take off. Community veterans Andy Bobrow and Tristram Shapeero wrote and directed this episode, respectively, but it felt a decent first draft in need of a Dan Harmon rewrite to pull it together.
There were definitely some fun ideas bubbling around this half-hour—particularly the meta-joke of Abed (Danny Pudi) wondering what everything would be like as a traditional laugh-track studio-based sitcom, which in many ways echoed fan's fears of a Harmon-less season 4. I especially liked the idea that Pierce (Chevy Chase) was instead played Fred Willard in Abed's "happy place", although they didn't go anywhere interesting with the idea and it was returned to ad nauseum. And taking Abed's imginings to a weird extreme with an animated Muppet Babies spoof didn't work. There was an odd sense of desperation to it.
Other things felt forced and, perhaps most frustratingly, uncool—like doing a pastiche of The Hunger Games called 'The Hunger Deans', which feels like a lazy target most Community fans would roll their eyes over. I have a suspicion Harmon would have made everything a great deal more savage and cutting, but here it came across as lame. Or perhaps the target was just too broad, in an attempt to draw in new audiences. But do Community fans really want teenage Hunger Games fans in their clique?
Admittedly, maybe it's simply impossible to put aside knowledge that Harmon's gone and we'd chalk this up as a fun but weak episode otherwise. Community has had poor episodes, let's be honest. It's hard to tell without sampling three or four more instalments but it's not usual that my attention drifts after 15 minutes... or an episode's left me without much to spend a week repeating to my friends. On the plus side, there were some nice lines of dialogue and less of a hectic pace than usual—which allowed for some character moments to breathe. Community could be quite relentless under Harmon, so maybe this fourth season will find extra subtleties in the characters than its gag-heavier past allowed for. I mean, Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Troy (Donald Glover), Chang (Ken Jeong) and Pierce are four characters that have been handled poorly for various reasons, so maybe Community's new chiefs can find a way to make them more three-dimensional.
Overall, I'm not going to condemn the Harmon-less fourth season just yet... because all shows needs a chance to adjust when their auteur creator departs. Hopefully Guarsascio and Port will manage to quickly manage to capture the show's spirit without trying to emulate Harmon's comic voice so unwaveringly. Any attempt to copy him is doomed to feel like mediocre fan-fiction, which is what this premiere mostly felt like.
written by Andy Bobrow / directed by Tristram Shapeero / 7 February 2013 / NBC