Everyone, Dan Harmon included, is probably sick of hearing about Dan Harmon. But if there’s one area where Harmon’s influence and importance can’t be overstated, it’s the fifth season of the ongoing NBC sitcom he created. Countless words have been expended about NBC firing him after the third season, the tumultuous fourth season that garnered a mixed reception from critics, his surprise re-hiring and proclivity for putting his foot in his mouth since then. Forget all that. Harmon belongs in the Community writers’ room, and the impact of his return is so immediate and clear that it should dash all other thoughts.
Community’s fourth season was difficult to watch for a number of reasons, although its writers (many of whom had worked under Harmon) made valiant efforts and showed some progress through the year. What started out like Community fan-fiction (written by devoted fans, no doubt, but missing the anxious, raw, jittery energy of the earlier seasons) had a handful of half-interesting episodes by the end of its run. But it ended on a bum note, and the exciting news of Harmon’s return was dulled by the announcement of Donald Glover’s pending departure. The loss of Chevy Chase in season four was one thing, but Troy? Of Troy and Abed? Could the show really recover?
Every season of Community, Harmon-run or not, has had a slow first episode, and this season is no different, as “Repilot” works to clean up the mess of “Advanced Introduction To Finality.” Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), who had supposedly graduated and moved on from Greendale Community College, must come back somehow and get the gang back together. The question of how to sustain a show set at a college is one of Community’s long-standing bugbears, but also one of its least interesting. This is a television show—a half-hour comedy, no less. There are a million ways to write around such problems, and Harmon and Chris McKenna (who co-wrote the fifth-season premiere) quickly figure out a good one.
Still, the first episode is caught up in getting all that business sorted out. There’s the necessary fourth-wall-breaking reference to Scrubs’ awful ninth season, in which Zach Braff was a teacher and only appeared in six episodes, but that’s an unfairly self-deprecating comparison for the show to make. Things haven’t been ruined beyond repair—instead, the early episodes of season five feel like the show gathering itself together and dusting itself off after an off year. The situation is far from dire, and the remedy is quick and easy. Best of all, new cast member Jonathan Banks (who is in the second episode and apparently many more this year) slides right into the ensemble, never feeling like a hastily added bit of stunt casting, as some of the show’s third-season celebrity guests did.
The loss of Pierce Hawthorne is not too deeply felt, partly because the show doesn’t just sweep him under the rug. While there are plenty of jabs at some of the wackier plotlines of the fourth season (“Changnesia” is quickly put to bed), Harmon isn’t one to let the loss of Chase go to waste, and makes it the focus of the fourth episode of the season, “Cooperative Polygraphy,” easily the best of the batch provided to critics.
The episode deals with Pierce’s absence by acknowledging his (often negative, but nonetheless crucial) influence on the group and celebrating it for one last time before finally putting it to rest. It busts out some audacious plot twists like they’re nothing and manages not only to get away with being so flip, but to have it come off as absolutely the right approach. Things get a little meta without seeming derivative. Every character gets a moment in the sun. The entire episode pretty much takes place around the study-room table. Does this all sound familiar? That’s because this episode in particular looks back to the show’s glory days, and certainly proves that Harmon hasn’t really lost a step during his time in the wilderness.
The show’s future, as ever, remains uncertain. Will it reach the hoped-for sixth season before the fabled movie? Will Harmon manage to keep things on budget without imploding? Will the ratings be enough for the show to carry on, especially since it’s already been sold into syndication? It’s best not to worry about the future for now. The amazing and exciting truth is that Community has steered out of the skid, against all odds. If this strong start is anything to go by, the show is going to produce an interesting, challenging, and hilarious batch of episodes for its fifth season. That’s reason enough to rejoice for now.
Created by: Dan Harmon
Starring: Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Yvette Nicole Brown, Donald Glover, Alison Brie, Danny Pudi, Ken Jeong, Jim Rash
Airs: Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern on NBC
Format: Half-hour single-camera sitcom
Three season-five episodes watched for review