Review: 'Community' returns for Season 4... but is it still streets ahead?
“Community” fans were ready to high-five Annie’s Boobs (hey, that’s the monkey’s name!) when NBC announced in May they’d be renewing the offbeat college comedy for a fourth season. After all, when it comes to little-watched cult comedies, every renewal is cause for celebration.
But then the darkest timeline came to pass: Just days later, the network announced that Dan Harmon, “Community’s” creator and mad-scientist visionary, was out as showrunner as part of NBC’s effort to make “Community,” for lack of a better term, less weird. Never mind the fact that “Community’s” weirdness is precisely why we fell in love with the show in the first place; if we wanted a cookie-cutter sitcom with canned laughter, we’d go watch CBS.
So now, after months of delays, Season 4 of “Community” (the first without Harmon at the helm) is finally ready to see the light of day. Fans are understandably wary: Will the new episodes still have that free-wheeling oddball spark that hooked us in the first place? Or have all of “Community’s” rough edges been smoothed out in the hopes of winning a new audience? After screening two of the upcoming episodes, we can reassure you: This is still the “Community” you know and love. In fact, if anything, Season 4 might be trying a little too hard at first to convince you that the Greendale gang is just as wild and wacky as ever.
We have to tread lightly when talking about this week’s Season 4 premiere, “History 101,” since the screener sent to critics comes with a laundry list of plot points we’re not allowed to reveal. What we can tell you (we think) is that right off the bat, the show addresses fans’ fears head-on with a knowing wink to all the behind-the-scenes drama. It’s vintage “Community,” but maybe a little too much so: By immersing itself so thoroughly in inside jokes and meta nods to its core audience, “Community” runs the risk of alienating anyone who just wants to tune in and laugh without knowing the whole backstory. We already had to watch the great “Arrested Development” get mired in a self-referential feedback loop over its final episodes; we don’t want to see that happen to “Community,” too.
"History 101” finds the study group returning from summer break and ready to start their final year together -- only Abed’s not ready for the group to go their separate ways. The impending separation anxiety leads Abed to once again take refuge in his own little mental wonderland. Quick side note: Are we the only ones who aren’t fans of “Community’s” attempts to delve into Abed’s psyche? It seems that anytime the writers try to explain what’s really going on in the pop-culture savant’s brain, the laughs come to a screeching halt. Did “Seinfeld” ever try to explain why Kramer was Kramer? Can’t we just let Abed be Abed?
Anyway, the group has their fall class together all picked out: the very scrumptious-sounding History of Ice Cream. Unfortunately, the rest of Greendale thought it sounded scrumptious, too, and the class is severely overbooked. So Dean Pelton (and we’re so happy to see Jim Rash back in drag again) sets up a cutthroat “Hunger Games”-style competition to determine who gets the coveted seats. But after two epic paintball wars, it’s a bit of a letdown that we only get to see flashes of the actual games here. We are treated to a memorable dance sequence of Jeff and Dean Pelton performing a wicked tango, though. (Anytime there’s homoerotic innuendo between Jeff and the Dean, sign us up.) And the Dean’s role looks to be increasing this season -- a move we wholeheartedly endorse.