It’s finally here, the season that almost wasn’t. After three excellent but ratings-underperforming seasons, NBC unceremoniously sacked ‘Community’ creator and show runner Dan Harmon. Many assumed that this meant the end of the show, but amazingly, NBC announced that a fourth season would go into production under new management. No one was entirely sure how the Harmon-less episodes of ‘Community’ would turn out. Then, in a move that was either pure boneheadedness or sheer brilliance, NBC delayed the start of Season 4 until February. Was this yet another vote of no-confidence for the underdog series, or was NBC purposefully trying to shore up anticipation by making fans wait, hoping that their desperation for new material would result in higher ratings?
Whatever the reason, it’s early February and ‘Community’ is finally back on the air. NBC has said that this will be the show’s final season, and the writers know it. Episode ‘History 101′ opens with an acknowledgment that this is the study group’s senior year at Greendale.
Things get off to an appropriately meta start. Abed goes to his happy place at Britta’s insistence. (She “therapizes” him.) He imagines the group in a multi-cam sitcom format, complete with laugh track and guest star Fred Willard replacing Chevy Chase as Pierce. It’s the only nod the show makes to the behind-the-scenes drama and accompanying fan fears, and for the most part it works, certainly better than the plot that takes place in the real world.
Dean Pelton has overbooked the semester’s sole history class, “History of Ice Cream.” In order to get a spot, everyone has to compete in “The Hunger Deans,” a ‘Hunger Games‘-style series of challenges. Jeff secretly took summer classes and now only needs one history credit to graduate, much to the anger of the rest of the group. He’s determined to win all of the games so that he can take the class with all of his friends, otherwise he won’t take it at all.
In previous seasons, a gag like the Hunger Deans would have been a springboard for a series of hilarious set pieces, with Troy and Abed turning it into a fantasy. Instead, it’s simply a pop culture nod here with barely any thought put into it. Much better is the subplot where Annie and Shirley decide to prank the Dean. (A particular setup with his office stapler has a delightful payoff at the end.) However, it’s not developed quite enough. Britta and Troy are almost totally wasted, but not as badly as Pierce, who has so little screen time that I almost wonder if the show was using Chevy Chase’s stand-in.
There are good moments scattered throughout the episode. The highlight is when Abed goes into his own imagination and ends up in a ‘Muppet Babies’ parody, but even this doesn’t coalesce. Of course, ‘Community’ had some rocky episodes even under Dan Harmon, so this could just be a bump in the road. But if the rest of the season turns out to be disappointing, well, we’ll always have Abed’s happy place.