It’s no stretch to say that NBC’s Community turned out to be one of last season’s most delightful new comedies. Earning critical praise and an ample fan base (evident at the jam-packed Comicon panel), the show ended last season with a big soapy cliffhanger finale. All of which means that Community seemed to have set itself up for an unavoidably underwhelming sophomore season. And yet, Greendale, we can’t help but love you anyway. Perhaps that’s exactly the point.
Community‘s themes have always run deceptively deep, and this second season premiere, “Anthropology 101” (which aired 23 September), was no exception. Last we saw the Spanish 101 study group, Jeff (Joel McHale) had just rejected Britta (Gillian Jacobs) after she professed her love for him in front of all of Greendale: a mutually embarrassing moment further complicated by a stolen kiss between Jeff and the half-his-age Annie (Alison Brie) just minutes later. But what might have been a good, old-fashioned love triangle, was still a little rushed, a little sloppy, and, frankly, a little unnecessary.
The problem was addressed just minutes into “Anthropology 101.” Britta wished she could retract her public declaration of love, Annie wished she could make out with Jeff even more, and Jeff wished he could avoid them both entirely and indefinitely. It wasn’t long until Britta began to get high-fived on campus for her emotional bravery (and Jeff ridiculed for his lack of it). In order to humble Britta, and not at all because he meant it, Jeff decided to declare his love for her, too. When she accepted his challenge, she walked into what amounted to a game of chicken.
Watching the two “in love” was like watching a Kasparovian battle of wits. Exhausting and twisted and complex in ways only the players understand, it also allowed the audience to see just what a Britta and Jeff relationship would look like. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s stomach-turning. They made out relentlessly and cooed over one another — not out of affection, but out of competition. Neither wanted to be the one to crack, until Jeff’s indiscretion with Annie was revealed, throwing the whole pantomime into a tailspin. Not only did the two ultimately agree that they were better off unmated, but we also realized that they’re virtually unwatchable together. The trial run was a wholly clever way to sidestep the will-they-or-won’t-they, by making it clear that they-just-shouldn’t. And so everyone could get on with the business of the show.
And what a show. A Wes Anderson-style intro panned past each character’s bedroom as they geared up for a new school year. Now that they’ve passed Spanish, they’ve opted to keep their study group alive by taking Anthro 101 together. They found that the surly Professor Jane Bower (Betty White) teaches her course with applied learning, blowing air darts at insolent students and drinking her own urine (like they did in ancient Turkey). Let’s say that her classroom antics brush up against the boundary of ridiculous.
At one point Professor Bower warned that students in her course are often shocked at discovering the “sister-raping beast from which we came” — and I suspect that very discovery will develop as a running theme throughout the season, as everyone is already poised to learn unpleasant things about themselves. For pop-culture obsessed Abed (Danny Pudi), that may mean admitting that he isn’t the star of the movie in his head. Pierce (Chevy Chase) might have to accept his own complete irrelevance. Whatever each individual’s shortcoming, Greendale appears to be the safest place to work through them.
It was disappointing that this premiere lacked a lot of fun, usually Community‘s strong suit. Still, it reminded us of the distinct joys of the first season, offering cartoonish physical comedy, densely written jokes, and obscure pop culture references. Even when Community isn’t perfect, it’s endearing and always smart. True to its recurring theme — accepting imperfection — when this much-anticipated premiere briefly imploded into a big emotional mess and we could love it all the same, that just might be meta storytelling at its most sophisticated.