Perhaps the strangest departure from the original show is the “New Jeff”, no longer compulsively callous but now, more thoughtful, even selfless.
As the first episode without creator Dan Harmon as showrunner, Community's fourth season premiere has been highly anticipated by fans, perhaps particularly by fans with doubts. Reading Harmon's replacements, veteran sitcom producers David Guarascio and Moses Port, as a sign of NBC's effort to lift the show from cult favorite with subpar ratings to full-blown hit, these fans have made no secret of their wariness.
It turns out they had good reason. The new episode, airing 7 February, ends with a general nod to fans' concerns when Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) announces, “I don’t know why I was so worried about change; this year is gonna be great!” But the episode that precedes, while mostly maintaining the zany antics and genre-bending tendencies so characteristic of the show, seems subdued and ultimately fails to give reason for the dean’s prediction.
Titled “History 101”, the episode begins with an ominous question, “You ready for our last first day of school?”, one that might apply as much to the new showrunners as the study group members embarking on their senior year. The increasingly unstable Abed (Danny Pudi) responds by regressing into his imagination, finding his “happy place” whenever reminded of the imminent changes the group will face. As in the second season’s Christmas episode, we enter his TV-saturated mind, continuing Community’s experimentation with different television genres. This time, though, instead of a claymation special à la Rudolph, we get “Abed’s Happy Community College Show”, a classic sitcom complete with a laugh track, in which the study group is forced to stay at Greendale. The episode even goes “incepting”, taking us to Abed’s happy place within a happy place, “Greendale Babies”, an animated kids show in which they are transformed into infants sharing a nursery.
While this foray into alternative television formats recalls what Harmon used to do, it also seems somewhat strained. Not only is it odd that Abed’s deeper happy place is a cartoon about babies, a type of show that, while mirroring Abed's regression, is a far cry from his standard science fiction and sitcom favorites, but these segments also lack the most essential element of their precursors: self-reflexivity. While the claymation episode drew direct attention to the shift in medium through clever references and asides, this episode simply transports the characters into other formats, without the benefit of such witty commentary.
But perhaps the strangest departure from the original show is the “New Jeff”. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has long been a classic narcissist and womanizer, his habitual cynicism and arrogance usually manifested in biting but hilarious remarks. Yet in this episode, he selflessly competes in the “Hunger Deans” on behalf of his friends (disappointingly without shouting "I volunteer!") to get them all into the coveted “History of Ice Cream” class, and so “New Jeff” is deprived of the typical sleaziness that was so essential to his character. One can only hope that in the future this quest for self-betterment will present a far more significant or at least humorous struggle for the once compulsively callous Jeff.
That said, the “Hunger Deans” do provide some of the wackiness we know and love, especially Dean Pelton's grand entrance. In fact, the episode may have been more successful if it dedicated more time to the ludicrous games, most of which are only displayed in a montage of short clips. The sheer passion we saw in the great “Pillows and Blankets” battle of season three could have heightened the humor here, emphasizing just how seriously the Greendale students take the “Hunger Deans”.
Instead, the potential for humor outside of the Games is repeatedly squashed by scattered and uneventful side stories. The majority of the episode consists of discrete subplots, including Troy’s (Donald Glover) blossoming romance with Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and his incipient estrangement from Abed, and Annie’s (Alison Brie) feigned senioritis and prankster partnership with Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown). Pierce spends the whole episode doing literally nothing, his failure to devise a joke about “balls” serving as filler. While all of these side stories do make small contributions to the episode's overarching theme -- change -- they reduce the complexity we have grown to expect from Community.
Community has been an underappreciated gem for the past three years, but its fourth season premiere is sadly lackluster. But if the Dean’s episode-ending prediction isn't entirely convincing, it could be that Guarascio and Port just need more time. Although “History 101” dulls the former sharpness of the series, it retains some remnants of its essential nature. If the new showrunners can capitalize on the old show's best tendencies, they may just have a shot at guiding us through “Six Seasons and a Movie”.