Community season five never should have happened. Don’t take that the wrong way – I’m very happy that it did. But that doesn’t change how highly the odds were stacked against it. As I watched the first and second episodes of the new season last night, I couldn’t escape a feeling somewhere between elation and disbelief at the simple fact that I was still watching Community – the eternal underdog, somehow the show had evaded the NBC cancellation axe once again. After all, shows that lack huge stars, draw small ratings and experiment with formula rarely make it past one season. Certainly none of them make it to five.
Community has travelled a particular bumpy road to this season. After three seasons of subversive, innovative oversight, showrunner Dan Harmon was sacked by NBC in 2012 and replaced by Aliens in America co-creators Moses Port and David Guarascio. The only problem was, their season of Community, which aired early in 2013, felt really weird. And not in a good way. In attempting to ape Harmon’s complex satire without involving the guy, they made an unsettling Community clone that lacked the wit or humor of previous seasons. The ratings didn’t change much either, and so, in a surprising but widely applauded decision, NBC helped Harmon back into the saddle and handed him a 13-episode order.
Harmon’s reinstatement isn’t the only shake-up. Gone is series star Chevy Chase, who played curmudgeonly moist-toilette tycoon Pierce Hawthorne, and whose vicious fights with Harmon made waves during the filming of the show’s third season. And more upsetting (for me) is a change that hasn’t even really happened yet – the departure of one half of Trobed, lovable goofball Troy Barnes (Donald Glover). Glover is only in the first five episodes of this season, and then he’s gone.
With all of these changes in mind, watching “Repilot” was a bizarre experience. I can’t blame Harmon for the fact that both episodes on display felt a little shaky – he got majorly screwed. During the time that he was benched, Port and Guarascio graduated Jeff (Joel McHale), fizzled out the Jeff/Annie (Alison Brie) romantic subplot, and ruined Inspector Spacetime, paintball, and The Darkest Timeline for all of us. Coming back, Harmon had some serious course correction to do. And that’s exactly what “Repilot” feels like, as acknowledged by its title (which denotes when a show goes in a different direction midway through its run). It’s unwieldy. However, it’s also the Community I never thought I’d see again – one that’s smart, funny and utterly unafraid to be itself.
“Repilot” finds Jeff working as a Saul Goodman-esque defense lawyer (complete with a cheesy TV ad that paints him as a tight-wearing superhero), three years after graduation. Judging by the repo men who soon come to repossess everything, including his precious alcohol, things aren’t going too well post-Greendale. Enter Alan Connor (Rob Corddry), the skeevy lawyer who got Jeff disbarred before the start of the series. Alan is building a case against Greendale after one of its graduates, an architect, designed a bridge that collapsed. The hook: Greendale doesn’t prepare its students for life after they leave it behind. Alan recruits Jeff to go back into the school to find files and build a case against the school.