After creator Dan Harmon was unceremoniously dismissed from his role as showrunner at the end of Season 3, Community‘s loyal fans feared its departure would plunge the show into what Abed Nadir would surely call “the darkest timeline.” But despite our concerns, we hold out hope that the new showrunners and their stable of writers are able to make the best of this worst possible role of the dice. In our first “Darkest Timeline Update,” we evaluate the Hunger Games-themed Community Season 4 premiere, “History 101.”
Seeing as Community was originally supposed to begin airing in October, there’s no way this episode’s writer, Andy Bobrow, could have realized how much mileage he’d get out of its opening line: “Troy and Abed back from summer!” But Bobrow must have known the significance of the words that come shortly after: “Wait a minute — something’s changed.” For all the Dan Harmon loyalists out there (and really, is there any other kind of Community fan?), it was an acknowledgment that the most self-aware show on television knows its viewers are on the lookout for any inconsistencies.
In fact, that seemed to be the point of the alternate reality Britta inadvertently plunges Abed into when encouraging him to escape his anxieties about graduating by going to his “happy place.” For Abed, this place is, of course, TV — a dumbed-down sitcom version of his life at Greendale, where Fred Willard stands in for Chevy Chase as Pierce, cross-dressing is an “antic” that could drive an entire episode, and the silly jokes are rendered even lamer by the addition of a laugh track. Most importantly, on “Abed TV,” a wacky mix-up leaves the study group with no choice but to repeat their previous three years at Greendale, alleviating Abed’s deep-seated fear of losing the people and place he’s come to love.
The problem here isn’t that the “History 101″ storyline is unworthy of Harmon; it’s that the clichéd sitcom world Abed dreams up — a blandest-case-scenario version of the Greendale we know, and another sly way of addressing fans’ worries that Community will turn formulaic and un-funny in Harmon’s absence — isn’t appreciably less compelling than what happens in the “real world” of the study group on this episode.
That Hunger Games tribute that’s been advertised for months turns out to be Dean Pelton’s solution to an overbooked course on the History of Ice Cream. With far too many students enrolled, the dean — dressed as Effie Trinket and flanked by shirtless muscle dudes dressed in spandex and unicorn horns, in one of this episode’s few great moments — orchestrates a series of competitions he calls “The Hunger Deans” to select the 35 students who will be allowed to remain in the class. Of course, as we learn when Jeff leads the dean in a climactic waltz, it’s all a ruse to make sure Pelton’s crush can’t get the one history credit he needs to graduate and leave Greendale forever.
Knowing that Jeff never gives anything his full effort, the dean assumes he’ll simply sit out the competition, resigning himself to an extra semester at Greendale. What he doesn’t realize is that Jeff has turned over a new leaf, continuing the transformation we glimpsed in last year’s season finale. Transforming into a community college Katniss, he begins picking off competitors, winning enough challenges to earn not only himself but the entire study group a place in the History of Ice Cream. Of course, chaos eventually wins out (thanks, Pierce), but it’s the character development that counts.
This isn’t a bad storyline for Jeff and Dean Pelton — who, we find out, now happens to be Jeff’s next-door neighbor. But everyone else regresses to the one-dimensional types Harmon and Community spent three seasons deconstructing. Abed TV (and that show’s very own “happy place,” the animated Greendale Babies) is a convenient framing device, but Abed’s retreat into his own mind negates the progress he made in the last half of Season 3, in episodes that were among the most psychologically realistic and empathetic in the show’s history. Although his role was small this week, Pierce didn’t seem like the same character at all; instead of a bigoted, out-of-touch dick, we got a bumbling old man.
Even the pop-culture parody felt thin. For a show that has found insightful humor in everything from Law & Order to My Dinner With Andre to the documentaries of Ken Burns, it should have been easy to spoof The Hunger Games. But the interaction between the actual film and Bobrow’s script didn’t really go beyond the Effie Trinket gag. In fact, the failure to effectively use The Hunger Games only further convinced me of something I’ve thought for a while — that The Hunger Games spoof should have been a paintball episode.
Andy Bobrow isn’t new to Community. He’s been writing episodes since Season 2, and actually contributed a few of the best: last year’s “Pillows and Blankets” and Season 2′s “Basic Rocket Science” (which you might remember as the episode that gave us the Greendale sphincter logo). What his season premiere demonstrates, more than anything, is that Community has always been much more than its quick dialogue, cultural references, animated segments, and self-aware critiques of the sitcom form. All of those were present in “History 101.” But what didn’t come across — and what Dan Harmon clearly brought to every script he wrote or even oversaw — was a deep understanding of or compassion for all seven of the show’s main characters, a scrupulous attention to the way they have grown and changed together over the course of three school years. Harmon, it turns out, wasn’t just the genius behind Community; he was its heart, too.