written by Dan Harmon & Chris McKenna (5.1) & Andy Bobrow (5.2) | directed by Tristram Shapeero (5.1) & Jay Chandrasekhar (5.2)
It's a minor miracle that Community has reached its fifth season, having weathered a constant storm of low ratings, the firing of its creator Dan Harmon (which resulted in a mimicking fourth season most fans disliked), and the loss of a regular in Chevy Chase. The storm continues to rage, as NBC have only commisioned 13-episodes this year (seemingly to edge the show closer to the 100-episode ideal for syndication purposes), and Donald Glover will be leaving the show halfway through. But somehow, Community persists. It's so resilient, I think the cockroaches will be watching it after a nuclear apocalypse.
Dan Harmon's back as showrunner this year, which has understandably caused great excitement amongst Community's fanbase. He's wisely decided to accept that season 4 happened, so a great deal of these opening few episodes are designed to reimagine the show to an extent. Jeff (Joel McHale) is back at Greendale after his career as a lawyer imploded, only now he's a teacher; the Study Group have enrolled at the college again because their lives were worse afterwards, and they've agreed to form part of a 'Save Greendale' committee because the place is facing closure; Pierce has ostensibly been replaced by grouchy criminlogy teacher Buzz Hickey (Breading Bad's Jonathan Banks); and Chang's (Ken Jeong) is now back to his default role as crazy tutor (meaning his arc on the show has been so bizarre it was worthy of comment from the other characters).
If I'm completely honest, I actually didn't find this double-bill that funny. A fair amount of both episodes felt a little flat to me, and lots of jokes didn't really tickle my funnybone (and the few that did were given away in the trailers last month). However, you could immediately tell the show was back in the hands of the man who created it, and who knows these characters inside-out. There was a confidence with the storytelling and a focus on characterisation that hasn't been seen in a long time (arguably even during season 3), and it was a particular delight to see that Annie (Alison Brie) is back to her best. She even interacted with Jeff in a pleasant way that wasn't a subtext to them fancying each other.
It just seemed like a less willfully bizarre two hours of Community, which was refreshing after the awkward weirdness that characterised season 4 (which lapsed into self-parody all too often with Harmon around). Hopefully now the heavy-lifting has been done to get us to this point, the remaining eleven episodes will be considerably funny and, when necessary, as blissfully experimental and high-concept as fans have come to expect. I trust Harmon to get the balance right, so that the humanity of the show doesn't vanish amidst too many flights of fancy. Community may have gained traction amongst geeks when it started doing elaborate paintball battles and stop-motion animated Christmas specials, but ultimately the show was about a group of outsiders who somehow gel and learn from each other as part of a makeshift family.
I'm happy to have Community back, and wouldn't bet against it somehow managing to get renewed for a sixth season—if only because of the healthy PR the network would for relatively little expenditure, as "six seasons and a movie" has been this show's rallying cry since season 3. Heck, in the age where a Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars movie is a reality, who's to say a low-budget Community film wouldn't even be the cherry ontop of the cake?
- What a pleasant surprise to see Chevy Chase make a cameo appearance, considering his very public feud with Dan Harmon and decision to leave the show last season. I have no idea how they talked him into doing it, but like to think that Chase simply did the production a favour because he's not the completely unreasonable egomaniac he can be depicted as. Mind you, Chase only appeared in holographic form, so maybe he was only willing to assist because it would mean zero interaction with his fellow cast? Hmm.
- It was also good to see Kevin Corrigan back as Professor Garrity, who hasn't been on the show since "Competitive Wine Tasting" in season 2. His course on "Nicholas Cage: Good or Bad?" provided some of the funniest scenes, especially when Abed (Danny Pudi) spent so long studying Cage that he appeared to become possessed by the actor's spirit ("I'm a cat! I'm a sexy cat!")
- The best joke for me was Abed comparing this season to the controversial final season of Scrubs, which saw Zach Braff leave the show that made him famous, which caused Troy (Glover) to get very angry about Braff's apparent ungratefulness. The subtext being that Glover's soon going to be 'pulling a Braff' on Community this year.