'Community' Season 5 Kicks It Old School Thanks to Return of Creator Dan Harmon: 'He Really Outdid Himself'

Back in early December, the "Community" set on the Paramount lot radiated with an overall sense of positivity and cheerfulness despite it being late on a Friday night that was arctic by Los Angeles standards and despite staring down a shooting schedule so packed that the cast and crew would undoubtedly be working into the wee hours of Saturday morning.

But a surprise screening of the season opener, which premieres Jan. 2 on NBC and contains a fantastic and shocking cameo kept secret from most of the team, had the "Community" team smiling and snickering. "I, like everyone else who works here, am a big fan of the show and when I found out we were going to see the first episode at lunch, I was like, 'Yes. This day just got way better,'" Ken Jeong (Chang) told Yahoo TV exclusively in his trailer just after the screening. "And to have it turn out as good as we thought it would and to have a guest star I wasn't expecting in a million years and didn't know about made me even more excited for people to see what I think is arguably our best season."

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Jeong, much like everyone interviewed for this article, believes that the best-season-ever status was achieved thanks to the return to the helm of series creator, writer, and executive producer Dan Harmon, who had exited after Season 3 amid creative differences and friction with certain cast members. "His return means everything because there isn't some magic formula to follow that results in something as genius as what he creates. Dan is the show and the show is him and he really outdid himself."

Joel McHale (Jeff) went as far as calling Harmon's return "life or death" for the sitcom. "After the end of last season, everyone — me, the cast, fans, critics, the studio — knew the show was not what it was or could be. If Dan could be lured back, I knew the show could go on, and if it had continued the way it did last year, then the show would have meant the end. Jim Rash [Dean Pelton] and I had a meeting with Dan's right-hand man, Chris McKenna. After we got the pickup, I had a bunch of meetings with Sony and NBC and they were all about getting Dan back. Luckily, everyone including Dan was open to it, and I could not be more thrilled. I skip to work. For fans, it will be like breathing fresh air again. If they are disappointed, they can write me personally and tell me exactly what they think the problem is."

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More important than Harmon's setting foot on stage 32 was his strategy for returning "Community" to its brightest timeline. It was a plan he called repiloting, according to Danny Pudi (Abed). "It isn't a do-over, but we needed a regrounding, a return to the basics," Pudi explained via phone a week after the set visit. "It's going back to the initial things that drove our characters and our show, reflecting and moving forward. We give people the character growth that they have probably been expecting for a while, especially in terms of Abed, who sees more change in 13 episodes than in the last four years. Our show has become known for the outlandish genre-themed episodes, but in order for all those to work, at the core, it needs to be about the study group and what makes them tick."

Harmon kicked off his fix-it scheme in the season's first episode, appropriately named "Repilot," which picks up around a year after graduation. Jeff's practice is in trouble when his old frenemy Alan Connor (Rob Corddry) tries to persuade him to use his Greendale connections to build a case against his alma mater. When the dean mistakenly thinks Jeff is there to help his side, he reunites the ol' study group to help. "But none of the characters have ended up where they thought they would in terms of career, romance, or family life, and they have found themselves at a crossroads," Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley) said. "They all come back to right some wrongs."

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Along their journey to save the school, the study buddies will meet "the most eclectic, cool bunch of guest stars," according to Alison Brie (Annie). "Dan is great for mining this industry for the most interesting people to pop by." Some of the recognizable folks dropping by the hallowed halls of higher learning in 2014 include Nathan Fillion (a custodian who befriends Jeff), Brie Larson (who returns as an Abed love interest), Chris Elliott (the eccentric founder of the college), David Cross, Robert Patrick, showrunners Mitch Hurwitz ("Arrested Development") and Vince Gilligan ("Breaking Bad"), and John Oliver, who reprises his role as professor Duncan for six episodes. Jeff eventually joins the staff and shares an office with ornery criminology professor Buzz Hickey, played by "Breaking Bad" vet Jonathan Banks, who Brie believed was the group's "greatest asset this season. I had so much fun working with him, learned so much from him, and maybe was even a little scared of him. You take everything a little more seriously when Jonathan is around, and everyone's performances become better. Annie is in his class, and we have a great episode where we go on an adventure together and they are both stubborn about which way is the best way to accomplish something at school. They end up forming a bond."

Banks, who was thankful "for the employment and compensation" and the chance to "do an absurdist comedy after finishing something as serious and dark as 'Breaking Bad,'" described his character as an ex-cop tough guy turned teacher who gets roped into study group high jinks. "Over the course of the season, we discover that however much these kids may irritate him and however dour and cynical he may be, he develops a real affection for them and a protection towards them."

McHale appreciated that the process did not include ignoring last season. "It would have been really easy to ignore Season 4 or make it all a dream, but instead [Harmon] dealt with all the pieces lying around like Chevy [Chase] leaving." It did mean scaling back on some regular gimmicks that were verging on overused, like holiday-themed shows and outrageous Dean Pelton costumes. But don't worry, McHale swore that they revisit a few fan favorites, like Dungeons & Dragons, animation, and paintball, and continue to experiment with the kinds of high-concept ideas they have become known for. "I guarantee there are things we'll do this season that have never been done on television."

Harmon also had to determine a plausible and creative way to deal with the planned exit of Donald Glover (Troy) after five episodes, which Pudi admitted was especially bittersweet. "Donald and I have been really close from the beginning, so personally there was a sadness when he left, but you also want to see your friends do great things. His departure also hit my character the hardest because their dynamic together is one of the series' cornerstones. After he left, there were so many times that we thought of great and funny ideas for Troy and Abed to do. We lost some silliness, like walking around with a briefcase full of tacos wasn't going to happen anymore," Pudi said. "But on the bright side, it forced us to see where else Abed could go and explore his relationships with other people. We embraced that as a challenge. And he could be back. I've stopped being shocked by what happens."

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Gillian Jacobs (Britta) teased a wide variety of unused possibilities, like interstellar space travel, shrinking down to a microscopic level, a black-and-white episode, shooting live or with full multicam, or doing a telenovela genre episode should the show return for Season 6 or beyond. "We haven't left Paramount in three years, so maybe it would be nice to do a location shoot," Jacobs joked. "We're too poor for Hawaii. That's where successful shows get to go. We would probably get Reno, or we could afford a very special episode in the City of Commerce."

She wasn't the only cast member dreaming of carrying on next fall. Jim Rash said his "renewed sense of pride and passion" for his day job has him hoping "we all get to see another chapter. Besides, a sixth year seems like a prophecy because we put the idea of six seasons and a movie on our vision board. We put that mantra out there, so we might as well do it and be able to say that we did what we set out to do. And even if they want a seventh season, we should then say, 'No. The deal was six and a movie. No more, no less. You don't want to screw with destiny.'"

Watch a preview:

"Community" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBC. The fifth season starts Jan. 2.