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‘Community’ Review: “History 101″

Community Season 4 Trailer History 101
NBC

So just how different is ‘Community‘ without show runner and creator Dan Harmon around? Not that different, actually, though the fourth season premiere seems intent on reminding you what you liked about the show when Harmon was around.

“History 101″ is the first episode from new show runners David Guarascio and Moses Port (with regular writers Megan Ganz and Andy Bobrow promoted to series producers and Bobrow credited with penning this week’s episode), and it proves that ‘Community’ is still highly invested in the meta aspects of the show, from Abed retreating to his happy place, and then retreating to the happy place within his happy place, and then there’s the obvious symbolism of this being the crew’s final year together before graduation — except Jeff took some online courses and all he’s lacking is one history credit before he can graduate.

The final class he wants to take with his friends is History of Ice Cream, but the obviously popular class has been overbooked, leading the Dean to create a series of small athletic battles dubbed “The Hunger Deans.” Annie, annoyed by Jeff’s imminent departure, decides to go off with Shirley to pull some weird pranks, while Pierce and Abed sit on the sidelines — Abed off in his happy place and Pierce spending the bulk of the episode trying to come up with the perfect joke about balls, which seems about right. Meanwhile, Britta and Troy go off to a fountain to engage in Troy and Abed’s annual tradition of making wishes, but Troy discovers Britta isn’t really a suitable Abed stand-in.

There are a few issues with the episode, but I want to talk about what really works: Dean Pelton is, as always, incredible, with the best lines and comedic timing of the episode (and the best dresses). Abed’s happy place is a multi-cam sitcom, which calls to mind episodes like “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” and “Dreamatorium,” where Abed continually uses the comfort of his encyclopedic television knowledge to retreat into his head when things get tough. Not only is he dealing with the study group’s final year together, but he has Jeff’s early departure and Troy’s relationship with Britta added to the mix. And while Abed seems fine letting Britta step in for the fountain ritual because he can just go to his happy place and forget about it, Troy seems to be struggling with the idea of having a girlfriend, not realizing that he doesn’t need to use her as a stand-in for Abed — he can have a friend and a girlfriend.

But while all these elements are great, they also seem to just be repeats of what we’ve seen on the show before — wacky, high-concept, meta comedy and Abed using his imagination to escape real life, while Jeff learns the value of friendship and Annie struggles with whether or not she’s made the right choices regarding her future. And Pierce sitting there like a senile old man, confused about what everyone else is doing while he’s trying to come up with ball jokes. It’s great that the new show runners want to let us know that the show isn’t changing too much, but it’s also a little (a little — I’ll reserve full judgment here) disconcerting that “History 101″ seems to be hitting the old recycling machine a little too hard.

The episode didn’t really click into place for me until the third act, and I laughed the most when Dean showed up at Jeff’s door before revealing that he’s purchased the condo next door. Their interactions were, by far, the highlight of the episode. I’m trying to imagine a scenario in which we had no idea Dan Harmon had been replaced — would we notice that something was different? Do the very public issues the show has faced behind the scenes have an affect on the way we digest these episodes? I think so. Last season had so much meta commentary on the criticism Harmon was facing and the struggles endured behind the curtain, and without our knowledge of those situations, some of the episodes might not have resonated so much.

Here we have a different situation because with Harmon out of the picture, I think we all sort of expect the show to be worse, to be lacking a magical ingredient. But there are so many other people involved with making this show that saying Harmon is the sole reason why ‘Community’ is good would be unfair. I don’t know how the rest of this season will go, but the premiere episode is about a B- in my book. It’s a little too familiarly plotted and the jokes don’t really get going until the latter half, but perhaps these guys are just easing us into the transition — we’ll find out next week.

Oh, and for the record, I would watch the crap out of “Greendale Babies.”

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