When it comes down to it, I don’t want to talk about Dan Harmon, excepting in my saying that I don’t want to talk about him, so let’s move past that notion immediately. Last season saw Community struggle with its identity, trying to move past the departure of its creator. Reverse engineering a product that works and works well is a difficult thing, especially when that product has a bit of someone’s heart in it. It’s hard to put a finger on which part of the first three seasons of Community that the fourth season was missing. It’s likely an amalgamation of many things (editing, storytelling, jokes, etc). Many were certain the fourth season’s lacklustre performance was due to the show just getting old and not necessarily because it was a missing a key ingredient. The hour-long premiere of Season 5 is definitive proof that something was missing and now its back.
With the way Season 4 ended, it was necessary for Community to examine itself and figure out what it wants to be going forward. There was the option of backtracking, but Season 5 bravely pushes forward, which is already a huge checkmark in my book. Everyone has graduated from Greendale and has moved on in various ways. Jeff tried being a legit lawyer, but helping people didn’t work out and his business went under. We open on repo men taking away his office furniture. Alan (Rob Cordry), Jeff’s lawyer nemesis, returns offering him a chance to partner up in a lawsuit against Greendale (suing the school because it gave an architecture degree to a man who wound up designing a bridge that collapsed). This is the inciting incident that sends Jeff back to the school he couldn’t wait to get away from. And this is where we get into the concept of the “Repilot.”
Not only is “Repilot” the name of the first half of the premiere, but it’s a real concept in television. Abed points it out quite well by referencing Season 9 of Scrubs, in which Zach Braff is only in the first six episodes and as a teacher (that son of a bitch). Jeff is in a similar position to the one he was in in the original pilot: he’s arrived at Greendale against his wishes and finds himself dealing with and manipulating the study group for his own gains. It’s a little repetitive, but that’s one of the few faults of the episode. In fact, “Repilot” is remarkably well done as a new starting point for Community. It puts everyone in the same position so they can continue to grow together. If there’s one thing Community used to be good at before Season 4, it was telling human stories in a crazy world. Everyone in the old study group left Greendale and discovered they’d changed. And Jeff sees their change as a weakness, pointing out how, before everyone was at Greendale, they were harder and stronger. But they were also colder and living unhealthy lives.
Ultimately, Jeff comes around to everyone else’s point of view and takes up the task of saving Greendale. His way of saving the school involves becoming a teacher, which is what the second half of the premiere focuses on. “Introduction to Teaching” puts Jeff in a position he never wanted to be in. He doesn’t know how to teach and he doesn’t even know the subject he’s supposed to be teaching. To make things harder, the student body suddenly views him completely different. When he insults Leonard, a student is appalled he would speak to a student like that. In order to learn the ropes, Jeff befriends his officemate, Buzz Hickey (Jonathon Banks). Hickey is going to be a major part of Season 5, so this episode needed him to make a big impression. When you have someone like Banks, it’s hard not to make him a threatening grouch (Hickey has Leonard by the meatballs). Thankfully though, we spend some time seeing his lighter side. He’s got an infectious jovial laugh and draws cartoons in his spare time (a publisher has shown interest). It seems like Hickey is going to be filling the spot left by Pierce – props to everyone involved in keeping Chevy Chase’s cameo a secret! – but he’s a very different character. He’s actually capable of learning a lesson and he and Jeff learn from each other. Jeff learns how to enjoy teaching and Hickey remembers that teachers aren’t fighting against the students.
Meanwhile, Abed takes a class from the returning Professor Garrity (Kevin Corrigan) that studies the work of Nicholas Cage. The assignment is to watch five Nic Cage movies and decide whether he’s a good or a bad actor. Abed gets way too into the subject and watches all of Cage’s movies and essentially becomes Cage, or at least takes on his weird mannerisms. His report to the class, which is comprised mostly of sound effects and Cage quotes, is the most out there joke of the episode, but its made doable by the absolute straight reaction of his audience. Prof. Garrity’s simple statement of “That was brilliant,” was enough to make the oddity of the scene believable. On top of this, the riot scene near the end was terrific, especially Magnitude smashing a window before bellowing his catchphrase. All in all, “Repilot” has more emotional weight to it as the study group sought to move forward in their lives, but “Intro to Teaching” is a lot funnier.
I could never have guessed that Community would come back in such a strong fashion, but I’m glad that it did. This is the Community I sorely missed all last year. Everything feels right. The characters have returned to a place of plausibility and grounded reality that harkens back to the glory days of Season 2. Now, that doesn’t mean this show can’t venture off into a strange homage (in fact, I know it will), but when it does it will do so for good reasons that will bring these characters to new thresholds to cross. None of this is random and pointless, which is how Season 4 often felt. The heart is back in this show and it’s wearing it on its sleeve, right where it belongs.