When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher, Ms. Norelli, spent a great deal of time lecturing my class on the writing of William Faulkner. She was a gifted and dedicated instructor, and she held the attention of a room full of seething, hormonal kids with extended musings on shifting points of view, fractured grammar, and the American South. Ms. Norelli led lively discussions that enriched our understanding of the material and our ability to engage critically with a text.
But when I got home and opened my battered copy of As I Lay Dying, I realized I didn’t like Faulkner at all. I found the prose difficult to follow and the characters unpleasant. I enjoyed arguing about the novel, but turning each page was a task as heavy as carrying a coffin a great distance, a thing that may or may not have happened in that book. I really don’t remember. High-school me loved our in-class discussions but hated the source material. The whole experience was strange. It was like finding Chris Hardwick so compelling that you’d watch Talking Dead even though you loathed Walking Dead.
Over the course of Community’s fourth season, I began to see the show in a similar light. Week-to-week viewing was a grind. The show’s quality was all over the map, and it often stuck to the crappy parts of the map. I watched Community for the same reason I slogged my way through Benjy’s oblique narration in The Sound and the Fury; it was an assignment. I liked writing about Community and arguing with my friend about its merits and shortcomings, but I completely lost sight of the fact that anyone would watch the show for fun.
That feeling persisted through “Repilot,” the first episode of season five. The episode was a wink-fueled reboot of the series, full of sly allusions to the show’s offscreen drama for the benefit of die-hard fans. But honestly, who other than those hardy souls is even watching anymore? Troy’s outrage at Zach Braff’s departure from Scrubs is a joke because we all know Donald Glover is about to permanently leave the hallowed halls of Greendale. Abed calls the series a series, which is a callback to a callback. The study space doesn’t feel the same without … Magnitude? Ha. We thought you were going to say Pierce. Jeff, of course, represents Community creator Dan Harmon, returning savior of a thing that may not even be worth saving. (The show’s insinuation, not mine.) The whole thing is overkill. It’s one thing to show how the sausage is made. It’s another to demonstrate said culinary technique while bellowing: “This is how you make sausage! I am an expert sausage-maker! Watch me make sausage!”
“Repilot” reminded me of last season’s premiere, self-conscious but not entirely self-aware. Some of the awkwardness was essential from a continuity point of view. The blunt, explicit recap of Chang’s inane season-four story line was funny and necessary. The rest of it seemed largely clunky and pragmatic, an attempt to directly address the questions and criticisms surrounding the show’s fifth season. It’s all very interesting, but not especially pleasurable.
One moment, however, gave me hope for Community’s future. It was a simple bit of physical comedy, not even the focal point of the shot. As Jeff Winger’s nemesis (whom I will only call Rob Corddry) returns to Greendale to expose Jeff’s plan to take the school down, Abed joins him in a sarcastic slow clap. It’s a perfect gag. It takes place on the periphery, away from the ostensibly more important action, and it furthers Abed’s tendency to treat his life like a movie. When a slow clap starts, you clap along. That’s how movies work. It doesn’t matter if you’re applauding your friend’s nemesis. Those are the rules. And Abed Nadir plays by movie rules. I was pretty excited to see one of the characters onscreen actually being that character as opposed to acting as an avatar for some real-life drama.
“Introduction to Teaching” continues the playful exploration of character. Jeff begins his transition from handsome older student to leering faculty member. Troy tries to make “et tu Brute” happen. Abed realizes that Nic Cage may or may not be Jesus. None of these things matter that much individually, but collectively, the episode was fun to watch. Like, I watched it, and I was entertained the whole time. Which is the goal, but I’d forgotten that long ago. I didn’t roll my eyes at the lesson learning or shake my fist at the presence of Señor Ben “Kevin” Chang. I just smiled and laughed.
“Intro to Teaching” covers a lot of plot without feeling cluttered. Jeff and Annie regain the recaptured and contentious tenderness of their relationship but keep it mercifully free of parasexual tension. Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad’s Mike Ehrmantraut) appears as a teacher who half-asses and half-measures (a phrase every recapper is surely shoehorning into their write-up) his way through class. Danny Pudi has a delightful freak-out as he turns into some kind of Werenicolascage in his film class. Even Shirley, who spent season four being as earnest as a Norman Rockwell painting, has some funny lines.
Most important, the comedy and drama both come from the characters and their stories, rather than feeling draped on top of it. Last season, Jeff wouldn’t have realized he kinda sorta liked teaching without sitting alone in a room drinking Scotch and thinking about his father. Then he would have been weird and moody toward Annie while Troy and Abed went off on their own inconsequential B story that (probably) mostly served to inspire erotic fan fiction. This season seems content to let the characters’ lives drive the action.
Hopefully the rest of this season continues on the path suggested by “Introduction to Teaching.” Fewer goofy capers and mysteries. More community college problems. And, as a slight digression, I hope the deep weird sadness alluded to in both of tonight’s episodes’ tags is explored. Mr. Hickey’s life seems like a nightmare. (Maybe that explains why he’s so quick to bully poor Leonard.) And does Abed really think that Jeff is a bad person who needs to be chewed up and pooped out? This is interesting stuff! I hope it doesn’t go the way of Abed’s girlfriend (remember her?) and disappear as quickly as it cropped up.
I look forward to next week, even though I probably won’t be writing about Community by then — there will be a new recapper. Sorry! This season, my heart and schedule belong to New Girl. Enjoy watching.