I’m trying to give the post–Dan Harmon Community a chance. Really I am.
It’s not a terrible show. But it’s missing that unharmonious Harmon-ian spark of madness, that smiling volatility that made the show exciting (for fans) even when a line or scene or whole episode wasn’t quite working. It’s still a good show, but it doesn’t give me that anticipatory buzz that defines a really great series, that joyous anxiety born from being continually, often delightfully surprised. My colleague Josh Gondelman wrote that in the fourth season premiere, “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.” That’s a typically hilarious line from Gondelman, and man, how I wish I agreed with it.
The Hunger Games fantasy of that episode was past its sell-by date, the Inception stuff — though admittedly very cleverly structured — had a long white beard, and the Muppet Babies an even longer one (made of felt, I guess), but the premiere’s energy must have been off, because never, at any point in Community’s prior history, has the freshness of a reference been even a small factor in my enjoyment of it. Worse, Abed’s three-camera sitcom fantasies struck me as autocritical ass-covering, as if the post–Dan Harmon Community were not-so-cleverly trying to manage fan expectations: Look at how bad the new Community could have been. We’re so much better than that, amirite?
Last week’s Halloween-themed episode was a step up. I loved the eighties bachelor pad “design” of Pierce’s mansion, even though I could’ve done without Jeff Winger’s “like David Lee Roth threw up Miami Vice” characterization of it, and there were some wonderful isolated moments, such as Annie in Ringu costume scuttling on the floor, and Britta dressed in Scout Finch’s ham costume from To Kill a Mockingbird, gyrating triumphantly after tricking Jeff into opening up. (“Analyze this!”) But it still felt off, and without spoiling anything important, I can say that tonight’s episode set at an Inspector Spacetime convention feels off as well; the subject matter feels like preemptive super-duper-meta fan service that’s meant to both tweak and embrace the show’s loyal audience, and jump start chat boards and Twitter feeds that are probably already in progress as you read this.
I’m not digging the Britta-Troy relationship — I get the feeling the writers and actors don’t have any particular opinion on it, either — and too many of the other character touches feel obligatory and not remotely impassioned and hence very awkward. The only season-four aspect that consistently amuses me is the lengths to which Community goes to express contempt for and exhaustion with co-star Chevy Chase, whose raging assholism is better documented than some nation’s histories. The show barely gave Chase’s Pierce any lines in the premiere, and at one point seemed to fantasize replacing the actor. In the second episode, it locked Pierce in his mansion’s panic room, isolated from the other characters and introduced from the point of view of a low-grade surveillance camera. He looked like a prisoner; I’m sure he feels that way, and that everyone who has to work with him feels that way, too. I won’t tell you what they do with him in this episode, except to say that they might as well have had a Voice of God intone, “Run along, Chevy, you bother me.”
Unfortunately, and ironically, the only way a show as self-conscious as Community can find an authentic voice with its creator in absentia is to stop worrying about it, figure out whatever it’s going to be, be that thing, and let the chips fall where they may. It had better hurry, though, because there isn’t much time left. If Community spends the remainder of its truncated fourth season holding up mirrors to mirrors to mirrors, it’s not going to do anyone any favors, because it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s really only one thing worth reflecting here, and it’s the one thing that binds together the knowing/sincere character relationships, the pop-culture riffing, the go-for-broke structural gambits and tonal switcheroos: Dan Harmon’s sensibility. I don’t know if I could ever describe exactly what that sensibility is; hopefully somebody as brilliant as Harmon will come along and take a whack at it someday. But I know it’s not there anymore, and that Community doesn't feel like Community anymore, exactly. What’s replaced it looks and feels like Harmon’s show, but it's really other people’s good-natured approximation of Harmon’s show, affectionate and conscientious but never as cracklingly alive as it should be, given its precedent. Lesser series have survived the departure of founding showrunners without a hiccup, but this is not a lesser series; it is, or was, a work of genius, or at least singular talent.
While watching season four of Community, I keep thinking about the post–Aaron Sorkin West Wing and the post–David Milch NYPD Blue. They were acceptable, at times very good, but they lacked that spark of mad crystalline poetry which proves that TV can be as much an auteur’s medium as cinema. I also think about the end of A.I. The android David’s mother isn’t really his mother; she's a facsimile created by luminous beings who’ve married strands of her DNA to David’s subjective, nostalgic memories, resulting in a creature that looks and sounds like the genuine article but that we know in our bones is something else, superficially close yet fundamentally false, and thus unbearably sad.