TV Club

Community Season 4 recap: In “History 101” it’s senior year.

Community returns, and everyone gets senioritis.

Danny Pudi as Abed.
Danny Pudi as Abed

Photo by Vivian Zink/NBC

In Slate’s Community TV Club, Aisha Harris will IM about each post-Dan Harmon episode with another Community fan. This week, she discusses with Slate contributor Abby Ohlheiser.

Aisha Harris: So Abby, when we last saw the gang at the end of Season 3, a lot of really dark stuff had occurred. The “Greendale Seven” was expelled from Greendale and the college was temporarily run into the ground by a vengeful, dictating Chang and a fake Dean Pelton (a “Deanalgänger”). They were institutionalized, pixilated, and in some cases, sued. They eventually found hope by the last episode, but it seemed pretty clear there was a lot of self-reflection going on, a pondering of what the end could be. This was, of course, particularly resonant for those of us who have been worried about Community’s tenuous relationship with NBC and the departure of creator and showrunner Dan Harmon, as well as several other key creative forces behind the show.

With all that said, Happy Oct. 19! If only for one more season, Community finally returns for the gang’s senior year, and it opens with quite a jolt—a multi-camera segment we return to several times over the course of the episode, called “Abed’s Happy Community College Show.” In that first scene, we are reintroduced to the study group, complete with a broad gag and laugh track.

Abby Ohlheiser: While normally I’d be hesitant to assume that a television show would be so self-reflexive, this is Community we’re talking about. In a huge way, it’s a show about television, and about how television is made. And it just very publicly changed showrunners. The multi-cam stuff felt like a pretty clear riff on the worst fears of its own fan base—will Community become every other show, now that Harmon is gone? So they open with Community playing out like the Two and a Half Men/Big Bang Theory sitcoms that kill it in the ratings.

And then, of course, it turns out to be Abed’s “happy place,” with another big question on fans’ minds at least nudged at in the sequence: What will happen to Pierce, since Chevy Chase left the show before taping was completed?

Harris: Right. I can’t help but wonder if Fred Willard (who makes a cameo in each of the multi-cam segments as Pierce) was always set to play that part, or if that was a matter of having to go back and do something clever to make up for Chase’s leaving the show.

I did find it interesting how different Abed’s various imaginations/states of minds seem to be.

There was “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” which employed stop-motion animation through his warped mind brilliantly. There was the great Dreamatorium episode.

Ohlheiser: Yes! Abed is at his most unsettling when he tips just a little too far into his own world. For me, I think, it didn’t feel quite as off-kilter as it normally does. There was little sense that the consequences of his multi-cam retreat would result in more than him staring off into space.

Harris: Totally agree. So we have three main characters reacting to senior year in their own ways. It seemed like Abed’s inner turmoil over this being the “last first day of school” was contrasted with Annie’s external freak-out over not being ready to graduate as expressed through an excessive desire to prank the Dean. Meanwhile, the only history credit available that semester, and the one they were intending to take (ludicrously, “The History of Ice Cream”), only has a few spaces available, and Dean Pelton enacts a Hunger Games-style competition for the students. Jeff reveals that he intends to graduate early, and wants to win the “Hunger Deans” so that they can all take that last history class together. It’s a continuation of his softer side that was revealed at the end of last season, a balance of doing what’s best for himself, but also including the others in his plans as best he can. I liked that.

Ohlheiser: His desperate attempt to win all the balls (heh) read like him trying to prove that he’d really changed over the past three years.

Harris:  Precisely. I think it’s interesting that the show continues to play with the tropes that the most conventionally handsome character is at the center of the show, as well as the leader. See, for instance, that moment in the first scene when they all enter the room individually and Jeff’s the only one to garner “applause” from the laugh track. And then when Abed’s mind transports him briefly into “Greendale Babies” mode (an animated segment with the group toddler-fied, and which I loved much more than the “Community College Show” bit because I’m a sucker for Muppet Babies) Jeff’s the Kermit, giving his typical “we’re all in this together” rousing speech.

Ohlheiser: You know, it’s interesting that they did an entire episode dedicated to the paralysis of imagining the future, when all I really wanted to see was a show that was moving forward. I felt that the characters we’ve known for three years were somewhat reduced to their most basic elements this episode. I’m used to seeing the characters challenged, or challenging each other, regarding their own self knowledge. And while we had Abed make some progress, this episode didn’t really move us much beyond the idea that the show, and these stories, will continue.

Harris: It seemed like a blatant attempt by the writer (newcomer Ben Wexler) to go balls to the wall and let us know just how aware everyone is that this could be the end. That threat was looming throughout most of last season, but I don’t think it was handled nearly as deftly here. And we fans know that the end is always around the corner; we don’t need to be reminded of it constantly.

Ohlheiser:  YES. Last season, we felt like their world might rip apart at the seams —that unhinged feeling that, at least for me, is one of the things I think Community has done best in the past. This season, I felt like they were just trying to have a group hug about how much this show and its fans have gone through. I also think it’s telling that there’s not much for us to discuss about this episode aside from what it says about the showrunner change. I’m willing to give them that benefit of the doubt, though. Otherwise I’d have to retreat into my own happy place …

Harris: Me too. I’ve gotta say, I’m still loving the commitment Jim Rash is making to the Dean; I loved the moment when Jeff chose him to tango, and his dress ripped off to reveal … yet another, skin-tight dress.

Ohlheiser: I loved every single moment of Jim Rash in that episode.

Harris: We can’t judge the new showrunners too harshly yet, since it’s only been one episode. It didn’t seem like they strayed too far from the show’s core. It just walked a very fine line and stumbled.

Ohlheiser: Will this be Community? Or a fanfic-like Community fan-base salve? That’s the question.