Jan 2, 2014

Community: “Repilot” & “Introduction to Teaching”

By Josh Oakley


You never liked your friend as much as everyone else seemed to. Occasionally she was great, providing some of the most singular and sublime experiences of your life. But other times the two of you would sit on the couch with little to say until she would slink back home. This pattern continued, trending more and more with the negative side of things as the years went on. Then the drug problem. She was a chore to be around that year, not seeming like herself. The worst of her sober days were superior to even the best of this new era. Now she’s back. She had a stint in rehab, lost a limb and is in the process of losing another (fine, I’m as good at analogies as Britta). She’s not what she used to be, at least not yet, but she’s certainly better than she was under the influence.

That right there is what we call a reverse-Abed, using the real life to make sense of pop culture. The real Abed is seen often in these first two episodes of the post-post-Dan Harmon Community. He compares this semi-reboot to the ninth season of Scrubs and discusses faith through the lens of Nicholas Cage. This Abed is more closely aligned to the Abed of yore, the Abed that led what may be this show’s finest half-hour, “Virtual Systems Analysis”. He’s better than last year’s Abed but, like much of the show so far, is still far from his heyday. Many maligned last season as fan-fiction-y, which is fair, but it read more as poor spec script writing to me. Last year was full of unpolished scripts that seemed to stem from writers who had only watched the show but never truly grappled with it (which is factually incorrect, but everything outside of the circle of truth is not a lie).

These two episodes at least manage to feel like episodes of Community. The rhythms, character beats and emotional murkiness is all there. Occasionally it’s quite good, even verging on great. But there still seems to be a layer of dust that returning showrunner Harmon needs to brush off. The first episode has the burden of reestablishing the show’s third-season universe and setting up what is to come. It buckles under the weight and doesn’t have much time for good jokes or proper storytelling. And however much Harmon wants to consider season four “the gas leak year” it still happened, so the immediate joy of seeing these characters reunited has waned.

Community is at its best when the show is able to find the proper blend of cute and dark. Last season leaned too heavily on the former, so even emotional pivots like Jeff’s reuniting with his dad felt too gooey for this kind of show. If “Repilot” does anything it corrects that ship, especially in a startlingly brutal exchange that closes the episode. Harmon remembers that what makes this show more than a charming set of Tumblr gifs is that its wild heart grows out of a deep sadness. The saccharine must be properly balanced with the cold and fragile and “Repilot” manages to do this. That doesn’t mean that Jeff’s reversal of attitude doesn’t feel half-assed, and it doesn’t save the warmed over references the characters throw out on command. But it’s certainly something.

“Introduction to Teaching” is a step up, especially in its introduction of Jonathan Banks as Buzz Hickey, Greendale’s criminology professor. This episode still lacks, but the world-rebuilding done here is much smoother than in “Repilot”. This is the first glimpse we see of Mr. Winger, and the show does a more-than-adequate job of establishing Jeff in this role. His path from giving zero damns to actually caring is well done without going back on what makes Jeff, Jeff. The Nicholas Cage B-plot is a little too silly, but a final scene between Abed and Shirley nicely reins it in and gives it a sweet, measured button. The episode is also quite funny, especially Dean Pelton’s love of Excel and a brilliant closing tag.

I’ve never loved Community as whole-heartedly as its central fan-base, always finding it incredibly uneven, with missteps following masterpieces. So although I didn’t respond to this reintroduction quite as warmly as others did, I’m not all that worried. All these episodes really had to do, in my eyes, was affirm that Harmon’s return meant that the old show was back. “Repilot” and “Introduction to Teaching” are both messy, minor episodes that will hardly find their way into the canon of the show’s best. But they both prove that this season has the potential for something great, the kind of episode like “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” or “Remedial Chaos Theory” that blends the comedic mania and subtle introspection that Community is capable of.

Grades
“Repilot”: C+
“Introduction to Teaching”: B

Miscellaneous:
  • That hopefulness may have an expiration date, as these episodes also prove that Troy is still one of the best things about this show. We’ve only got three episodes left with Donald Glover so I hope a true classic sneaks in there. He will be truly and deeply missed.
  • “I’m much sadder than the rest of you; I’ll figure out why later.”
  • “Johnny Depp, the bad kind of good” – Amen, Abed
  • “Et tu, Brute!? Am I using that right!?” – Seriously, Troy, don’t leave us
  • “I know it’s unrealistic to think we can eliminate riots completely.” – At least we’ll always have Dean

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