Community’s fourth season kicks off tonight, and there’s been a hell of a lot of noise made online about the show this past year, beginning with creator/showrunner Dan Harmon’s firing at the end of the third season and concluding with Chevy Chase leaving the show in November before the cast and crew finished filming the 13-episode run (he’ll still be in the season finale, which was shot out of order). Despite all the backstage turbulence and the replacement of Harmon with new-to-Community showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port, the episodes that were screened for critics – the season’s first and third – find Community feeling like the same strange, genre-bending show it’s been for the past three seasons.
Tonight’s season premiere, entitled “History 101,” sees the Greendale 7 starting their senior year of college. Jeff is hellbent on completing the last few credits he needs to graduate, which requires him to win a series of Hunger Games-esque physical challenges set up by Dean Pelton to win enrollment in a class called “History of Ice Cream.” While that’s the episode’s A-story and official plotline, “History 101” is jam-packed with fun surprises that’ll likely be the main things fans are talking about online (and in real life, maybe) tonight and tomorrow morning. I mean, how could a show like Community have the Dan Harmon thing happen and not acknowledge it?
In addition to all the big storylines and vague fun stuff that I can’t get into, there are a couple of changes to the lives of the main characters that continue to transition Community into a show that can exist without Greendale, something Dan Harmon’s been gradually doing the whole time. In particular, there’s a moment at the end of the premiere – which I also shouldn’t describe so as not to spoil it - that has a lot of potential for future stories and would go towards making Community a show that still works in a hypothetical Greendale-lite Season 5.
With Community’s post-Harmon era, the main fear amongst fans has been that the show would be made more mainstream, dumbed down, and lose all of the weird genre experimentation that fans love; but if anything, “History 101” is an episode that’s desperately trying to prove that this is still the same show. It’s a declaration that, although the showrunner has changed, the tone and spirit of the series has not. If anything, “History 101” is too ambitious, mixing an impressive number of plotlines and meta elements in an attempt to prove to fans that post-Harmon era Community isn’t so different from Harmon era Community. It mostly works – at least for me. Sure, this isn’t the show the way Dan Harmon would have made it because how could it be? Even though Harmon is absent, the whole cast and several core Harmon era writers - including Andy Bobrow, who wrote the premiere, and Megan Ganz - are back. There’s no reason that this season would feel drastically different, even with the departure of the show’s dominant creative voice, because TV is such a collaborative medium and all the key players except Harmon and a few big writers and directors are back for Season 4.
The season’s third episode (and the second produced), “Conventions of Space and Time,” finds the gang attending an Inspector Spacetime convention. While the season premiere is a little flashy and full of exciting stuff to make fans’ long waits worthwhile, the third episode finds Community settling into its normal Season 4 identity. It’s a well-crafted episode that finds interesting stuff for each character to do and takes place almost-entirely off-campus for a nice change of scenery, further proof that the show doesn’t need Greendale to tell compelling stories about these characters.
Some critics and fans will surely look to the Harmon-less Season 4 premiere as an opportunity to claim the show is jumping the shark, but it’s important to remember that TV shows have been switching showrunners midway through their runs for decades now. 20 years ago – or even 10 – the casual TV viewer would have no idea her or his favorite show had lost its showrunner. For example, M*A*S*H and The West Wing each survived the departure of their creators, Larry Gelbart and Aaron Sorkin, respectively, without their fans complaining or even noticing. It’s only because of how the internet allowed Harmon to communicate with viewers and how much attention his firing got in the press that anyone but diehard fans are aware of the behind-the-scenes changes, and I imagine that if this situation occurred in a less internet-saturated era, a lot of people wouldn’t be treating tonight’s premiere any differently than any previous episode of Community. One thing’s for certain: based off these first two episodes, the new Community regime has no interest in drastically changing the show or trying to make it more accessible – and that’s the most important thing in the eyes of a lot of fans.