“Wait a minute– something’s changed,” Donald Glover says just moments into the premiere of the (likely) final season of Community , NBC’s rococo and weirdly earnest meta-analysis of the sitcom form. For Glover’s character, the Greendale Community College student Troy Barnes, the thing that’s changed involves the appearance of his old friend Pierce, the avuncular racist grudgingly played by un-avuncular diva Chevy Chase.
For Glover the actor, there’s another change: In this episode’s opening, this single-camera, often cinematic show steeped in a continuity as complex as X-Men comics briefly regresses to a traditional sitcom of canned laughs, set ups, and catch phrases.
And that is a joke about the biggest change, the one faced by Glover the Cult Phenomenon as well as the show’s cast, writers, and intense internet fanbase: Community limps into its final thirteen episodes (premiering February 7) bereft of its creator and guiding spirit, Dan Harmon, a TV auteur canned by NBC for reasons likely having much to do with his piss-poor Chase-wrangling. From the outside, there seems something idiotic about the firing of the show’s most essential creative force because of his feuding with the show’s least. It’s like if George Clinton got tossed out of Parliament because he had beef with that dude in the diaper.
But the show never caught on with viewers, much, despite much critical attention and one of TV’s best (and best looking) ensemble casts, so it was reasonable to assume the network had other reasons, too– especially as the scripts became more dense, more dark, and more likely impenetrable to a free-TV audience. Maybe they were bringing on new producers David Guarascio and Moses Port to make Community accessible.
To their credit– and possible demerit– that’s not what Guarascio and Port did. Once Donald Glover points out that something’s changed, the show charges on as if nothing has. It’s almost defiant in its self-referentiality. The first two episodes (which we received at the Voice last week) are the work of top-flight comedy writers working complex variations on the complex variations Harmon was already working on the sitcom. The result is the funniest, strangest major network show since Harmon’s Community— and also the most unwelcoming. Worse, the show’s high emotional weirdness continues to be overwrought and a little desperate.
The first two episodes center on classic Community premises: First, a full-scale, huge-casted Dean-centric Greendale freakout, in which Jim Rash’s delicious Dean Pelton stages a Hunger Games-inspired competition for students trying to enroll in the college’s lone history credit, a course about ice cream.
That takes place in the standard Community universe, but there’s also action in at least two other possible realities and TV storytelling styles all within the mind of Danny Pudi’s Abed character, who is pretty much an all-grown-up version of the kid revealed to have imagined St. Eligius in the last shot of the last St. Elsewhere. As is forever happening on Community, there’s a danger that Abed will become stuck inside his mind’s own multimedia panic room; as funny as the episode is, it’s disappointing to see the show revisiting a device its already explored so often — and the resolution is an arch, fast-forwarded version of the resolution of almost every previous Community episode.
The second offers a new milieu: A convention for fans of Dr. Space Time, the British-as-feck science-fiction show beloved by Troy and Abed. There’s lots of killer Dr. Who jokes, some ace physical comedy from the invaluable Gillian Jacobs, and excellent suite of solo scenes for the just-as-invaluable Alison Brie. But, other than Brie’s moments, which radiate with human longing, it all feels like fussy, funny business for caricatures– the complexity is in the meta-textual horseplay rather than in the characters themselves.
The central plot, in which Troy and Abed yet again find their friendship tested, builds to a climax that is somehow pat and baffling at once. (I would bitch more specifically, but the fans, a big-hearted bunch, deserve to go into this unspoiled.)
It’s mostly very funny. It’s also self-involved, obscurantist, seemingly designed to alienate a large audience but to flatter its small and passionate one. In its first two seasons, Community balanced its top-flight sitcom storytelling with secret handshakes for attentive fans. Now it’s all handshake. Let’s hope that in writing off hope of greater popularity, Community and NBC aren’t guaranteeing that we won’t see shows this daring on the network again soon.
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