In September 2001, when Jay-Z dropped his sixth album, The Blueprint, fans and critics alike wondered whether or not Jay had lost his edge. Other rappers greedily clutched at his King of New York crown. Then we heard the album, which was masterful, and specifically Blueprint’s second track, “Takeover,” in which Jigga addressed his rivals, laying into them with the kind of abandon Texas state troopers save for pulled-over motorists with New York license plates. Now it’s 2013 and Jay-Z is a billionaire businessman married to one of the world’s most beautiful women. Jay-Z is doing okay. “History 101,” the first episode of Community’s fourth season, is the show’s “Takeover.”
It’s an explicit address to the critics who find the show insular and heartless as well as the fans who worry the quality will slip after the ugly departure of creative dynamo and alleged dickhead Dan Harmon. The show doesn’t miss a beat, playing against expectations for both laughs and some unexpectedly poignant moments. Also, lest you were worried, plenty of Dean Pelton costumes and jokes about balls. It also tracks nicely with some of Jay-Z’s most vivid lyrics …
The takeover/The break’s over, n----
The episode sets itself up to be polarizing from moment one. Shot in a grainy nineties multi-camera style, the cold open immediately jars the viewer. There’s a laugh track. Each cast member holds for applause upon entrance. Jeff, especially, Fonzies his way into the scene proclaiming, “Congratulations, it’s me.” Over the sound of the studio audience’s ovation, I could hear a nation full of Community fans whistle like teakettles as steam escaped from their ears. I imagined a million knuckles cracking in unison, ready to unleash a plague of angry Tumblr posts. I envisioned a snarky new Twitter hashtag #fourseasonsandendit springing up in place of #sixseasonsandamovie.
Relax, nerds. It was all a dream. Community didn’t jump the shark. It rode up to the shark on a jet ski, harpooned it, and wore it like a mascot outfit. The first of the show’s many “gotcha” moments delighted me with how gleefully it baited its own fans. The inconspicuous pop-up promos for fake programming (American Sword Chefs, Blind/Blonde) demonstrated that new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port haven’t dropped the show’s subtle visual jokes. Plus, the casting of Fred Willard as Pierce in the world of Abed TV brilliantly toyed with the viewers’ questions about how Chevy Chase would be featured in light of rumors about his impending departure. It also subtly insinuated that Chase must have been a headache on the set, given that they “replaced” him with a comedy legend whose last project was getting arrested for masturbating in public.
Stop with that childish shit/N----, I’m grown
Back in the established Community world, we learn that this hypersitcom is the Happy Place to which Abed retreats in times of stress. Britta, in true psych major fashion, had proposed a babbling brook as Abed’s refuge. Abed instead opts for a pop-culture-soaked version of his own life that lets him stay at Greendale forever.
“Fans of babbling brook will complain, but I found it limiting,” Abed explains.
If this episode of Community were a rapper, this line is where it would grab its crotch derisively and mean mug out at the crowd. Or, in the jargon of Community’s rabid Internet fandom: “Hai haters.” Abed is stuck in the past, but we don’t have to be.
Annie similarly resists change. I’m happy to see her share a subplot with Shirley after she spent last season’s finale cheerleading for Jeff to save the day. But seriously, when she giddily proclaims how many layers are involved in her prank against the dean (an allegory for how nuanced Community itself can be?), I thought: Oh yeah. This is what people hate about this show. It sprains its shoulder patting itself on the back.
Jeff, on the other hand, is ready to graduate. He craves change, and he promises he’s become a New Jeff, which seems to happen nearly every episode. Jeff Winger has plummeted to Chris Brown levels of credibility when reflection and change are at stake. I half expect that next episode he’ll show up with a promise to be friends with the study group forever but also sporting a face tattoo of Britta and Annie Jell-O-wrestling.
It’s like bringing boys to men/How the boys gonna win?
The season premiere also addresses the criticism that the show is a heartless comedy robot with no meaningful connections between characters. Britta and Troy’s relationship has moved forward, finally. They’re holding hands, now, at least, which for someone of Troy’s guilelessness is practically third base.
The twist here is that while Britta and Troy move their romance forward at a glacial, Mormon pace, the Jeff/Dean Pelton emotional tango evolves into a literal tango. I cannot get enough of Jim Rash’s broad (sorry, pun unavoidable) physical comedy. Whether he’s tearing a dress to reveal a sexier dress (I can’t be the only straight guy who felt a brief flicker of: “I’d hit that”) or holding an “ooooooo” for a Family Guy gag length of time, he’s a constant delight. Dean Pelton is the show’s best example of a peripheral character who goes to outlandish extremes without taking the viewer out of the show’s reality. It helps that at no point does he command a militant preteen army. (Sorry. I’m still bitter over last season’s Ken Jeong Un plotline.) Joel McHale neatly rebuffs the dean’s advances without gay-panicking his way through the episode. The joke is that the dean is ridiculous, not that he’s attracted to men.
We bring knives to fistfights/We kill your drama/We kill you motherfucking ants with a sledgehammer
For all its misdirections, the episode’s strongest bit of structural prestidigitation is its musical chairs genre parody. First we get the Abed TV happy place. Then Dean Pelton drags us into the “Hunger Deans,” which seems a little lazy for a show that so successfully nailed its takes on zombies, sci-fi, and video games. What next? “The Vampire Diardeans”? “The Dean With the Dragdean Tattoo”?
Not to worry. The plotline is a red herring. Pushing what would once have been the central conceit of the episode to the margins sidesteps the expectation of a high-concept Hunger Games parody that would beg for comparison to the Harmon-era seasons.
Then, as we dive into the happy-place-within-a-happy-place animated world of Greendale Babies, we get that Muppet Babies send-up that literally no one has been clamoring for over the last twenty years. That too is a feint. It’s not until we see Abed manipulate Jeff’s in-dream speeches that we begin to understand what’s really at play. And as if there were any doubt, Leonard spells it out.
“While they were incepting, I got their balls,” he says, winning the Hunger Deans. But that was never the point. While we were trying to keep track of a young adult thriller, an Ur-sitcom, and a cartoon, we were really watching a riff on Inception.
Drop the mike, Community. Walk off the stage. You killed it.
At times, the episode felt a little kitchen-sink-y. So many styles appear and disappear that it feels a little disjointed. But really, the show didn’t have any other choice but to come out with guns blazing. In 22 madcap minutes, Community addresses its critics and reassures its fans just like Jay-Z did in 2001. You can’t build a career out of responding to your detractors, though. Some rappers never learn that lesson. Hell, some sitcoms never learn it. The third season of Arrested Development couldn’t stop reminding us how much better it was than everything else on television, which of course made it occasionally less enjoyable than many other things on television. I’ll give Community a free pass on self-reference, though, because both supporters and opponents seemed to demand it from the season premiere.
“History 101” pops with goofy cartoon enthusiasm, even the scenes that are not literal cartoons. Every element of the show is heightened in unexpected directions. The highs are higher. The gays are gayer. The autism is … autistic-er. This season, Community came out of the gates like a guy running a four-minute mile to start a marathon. There is no way the pace is sustainable, but it was a lot of fun to watch.
Josh Gondelman is the co-writer of Modern Seinfeld.