For a show with a title that suggested people pulling together, the NBC sitcom Community has had a rocky run during its first four seasons. While critics largely praised creator Dan Harmon’s sharply written comedy set at a downscale community college, mainstream audiences never flocked to the show, despite its knockout ensemble cast that included Joel McHale (The Soup) and Saturday Night Live veteran Chevy Chase.
To make matters worse, Harmon and Chase – whose character, bored millionaire Pierce Hawthorne, was hardly a fan favorite – had a fairly tense working relationship that occasionally spilled over into social media. After three seasons, Harmon was unceremoniously removed as show runner for Community. Season 4, during which Chase finally quit, was just so-so without Harmon’s lunatic vision and ended with all the remaining members of the main cast graduating from Greendale Community College.
Season 5, which begins tonight with two back-to-back episodes, finds Harmon back at the helm, and as a result, Community feels once again as subversive and funny as it did in its first two (and best) seasons. The season premiere opens in a dark place, as Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) watches his career as a crusading attorney crashing and burning. Jeff is so depressed that he’s easy prey for his sleazy courtroom nemesis, Alan Connor (guest star Rob Corddry), who urges Jeff to reconnect with his inner shark and assist Alan in a devastating lawsuit against Greendale. “Jeff, I once saw you convince an arson victim that he liked his home better burnt!” Alan reminds him.
When Jeff shows up on the campus of Greendale (motto: “Ranked America’s Number 2 Community College by Greendalecollege.com”), the smitten Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) instantly jumps to the conclusion that Jeff has returned to save the day and, shortly thereafter, Jeff’s study buddies rush to his side to help, not aware that he is working a secret agenda. We soon learn that, like Jeff, the rest of the group also has seen their dreams denied in the months since they graduated.
Tonight’s first half hour is called “Repilot,” and in the show’s self-referential style, Abed (Danny Pudi) explicitly comments on how it’s a reboot of the series (“This could be like Scrubs, Season 9!”). By the time the first half-hour is over, Harmon and co-writer Chris McKenna have come up with a comical and fairly credible way to keep Jeff and his former study group at Greendale for another 13-episode season (although Donald Glover’s Troy is being written out for several episodes to allow the actor to focus on a new project for FX). An upcoming – and absolutely hilarious – episode scheduled for Jan. 16 also explains why Chase’s character will not be returning to the show.
Although Harmon has worked a near-miracle in resuscitating his beloved sitcom, it seems likely this fifth season will be the show’s last hurrah. Then again, even the most ardent among us fans never truly expected to get a fifth season of a show that seemed to be wrapping itself up very efficiently with last season’s graduation-themed finale. If there’s one thing this dementedly funny show has taught us when it’s at its best, it’s that we never should assume anything where Community is concerned.