It isn’t often I get to acknowledge this, perhaps because I was so in awe I couldn’t clearly see it, but I was wrong about Season 3 of Community. I couldn’t help but get sucked into the frenzy that was the darkest timeline – or more accurately, an extended trip into Dan Harmon’s mind. I love Season 3. It tickled my fancy in ways I didn’t even know were possible. It challenged me and my perception of what a sitcom should be like. But it also went too far. In Community’s first two seasons – though mostly Season 1 – there was magic to Greendale and the stories told within its walls. It was a place where crazy adventures were undertaken every week, but it always saw the light. If you ever listen to the commentaries from the first season, you’ll hear Harmon explain one of his goals was to, in a sense, destroy cynicism within the sitcom format. Go back and watch Season 1 and you will see a strange optimism that was almost entirely absent from Season 3.
You could argue the darkness of Season 3 eventually make the light brighter and was a necessary pit stop in Harmon’s version of this show. Structurally that makes sense, but you can see it didn’t entirely work out in practice. Audiences were certainly turned off by the dark timeline while others were enthralled by it. Harmon was making the show he wanted, regardless of how inaccessible it was. He left the show in a big mess and the new showrunners did their best to pull Community out from the darkness. And that’s my main point after viewing “Heroic Origins.” Season 4 hasn’t been the best season of Community, but it put the show back on the path toward optimism. It’s a return to Harmon’s original vision, before his self-indulgences were emboldened by critical acclaim.
Season 1 has been at the forefront of my mind for much of Season 4, but it has never been more relevant than with “Heroic Origins.” So much of the show’s past is in play, as Abed attempts to link the group’s pasts together. Little bits of information about these characters from Season 1 resurface – many taken from the pilot – and it feels right. I can’t help but feel if Harmon had continued making Community the way he made Season 1, before concept episodes took over, before the darkest timeline, this show would have had much more success and still have been just as critically acclaimed. It might not have as been creatively bold as Season 2 or as intellectually challenging as Season 3, but it would have been a fun sitcom to watch. Season 4 feels like this is as close as we’ll ever get to that idea. We could’ve still had creative episodes and Community has always had a soft heart at its center, but it would’ve been more controlled.
I know this is a lot of what ifs and longing for the past and has very little to do with the episode I’m allegedly reviewing, but it’s hard not to sit through “Heroic Origins” and not think about where we came from. That is, after all, the whole point of the episode; looking at and tracing how we got to where we are. In order to satisfy those who just want to know how I felt about the episode by itself, all I can really say is it was good. It was a solid episode that didn’t offend me in anyway, brought plenty of smiles to my face, and made me nostalgic for the old days. This version of Community is catering to me, the long-term fan, and it succeeds a lot of the time, especially in the second half of this season. Drawing from Season 1 has been the best thing to happen to Community in a long time. It isn’t Season 1, obviously, but they share the same DNA and I like that. I want to go back to simpler times when it was surprising and fun when Community did something out of the ordinary, instead of an obligation. Should there be a Season 5 – and let’s be clear, it really is a possibility – I would hope things continue down this path toward optimism. It suits Community better than the darkness Harmon’s era became known for.