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New-munity: Community Redux

Watershed Down

If a television series is particularly successful, a spinoff is all but guaranteed. Spinoffs are created to capitalize on the goodwill your average television viewer gives to the shows they watch. Dropping a fan-favorite character into a new situation is an easy way to plug a hole in a network’s broadcast schedule and have a built-in viewership from the first episode.

But for every successful spinoff like “Frasier” or “Laverne and Shirley” you’re going to be trapped with “The Tortellis” or “Joanie Loves Chachi.” But sometimes a network tries to pull a fast one and reinvent a television series so suddenly that it doesn’t have time to change its name even if the entire cast has been substituted for younger and cheaper alternatives.

I have previously mentioned my love for “Community” in this column. I love “Community.” “Community” might just be my favorite sitcom ever at this point. Its first three seasons are consistently smart, endlessly re-watchable, and pay tribute to their sitcom forbearers even as they intelligently deconstruct the very nature of episodic television.

But I don’t like New-munity. New-munity is “Community’s” spinoff that has been on air for the past few months and it is terrible. Like the final season of “Scrubs,” it keeps the name of its predecessor while transforming into a different, altogether unfamiliar show. But unlike the final season of “Scrubs,” which featured a brand-new cast, this New-munity kept virtually all of its actors and most of its creative team intact. Just what has gone wrong?

The popularity of franchise shows like “CSI,” “Law and Order,” and “NCIS” shows that a compelling format can triumph over middling characters who are replaceable if the need arises. But Community has always relied on the strength of its characters to ground its mixture of traditional and high-concept formats that can wildly fluctuate between episodes.

In our first episode back, New-munity presented a Hunger Games parody spliced with a Muppet Babies homage and scenes filmed in the style of multiple camera sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory.” These high-concept ideas are great if they mesh well with the story and feel unforced. But these first episodes back are just poorly executed. And these early episodes of the fourth season were crafted by members of the old writing team that should understand who these characters are and how they can exist organically in the cartoonish world the series has spent three years building up.

The most obvious change to account for the difference in quality between this and last season is the much publicized departure of series creator Dan Harmon. Harmon is difficult to work with. He admits this.

But Harmon’s pen is responsible for some kind of demented spark that has elevated previous episodes. Several of the most recent episodes have disappointed in ways that Harmon wouldn’t have allowed. Taking New-munity’s characters to an Inspector Spacetime convention should have created a classic episode of television.

Inspector Spacetime – the “Community” universe’s analogue to the classic BBC science-fiction series “Doctor Who” – is a multilayered show-within-a-show, built up over the last two seasons and responsible for many well-crafted jokes on fan culture. And somehow, the writers shoved three plots together so clumsily that the estates of the “Three Stooges” are demanding royalty checks. Harmon knows to not underestimate his viewers. And by kicking out the series’ greatest promoter, it is quite possible that NBC has destroyed whatever leniency fans have given to this new set of disappointments.

“Community” is a demanding and ambitious show. New-munity is willing to settle for mediocrity and phone in whatever part of the episode comes after thinking of a clever theme, like dialogue and story structure.

I’m still a bit reluctant to discuss “Community” at this point because its last two episodes have been suggesting some level of improvement. Characters are speaking as they once did. The plots suggest some level of actual character development, an issue with the last two seasons.

But this recent string of episodes is in line with the most mediocre of the show’s previous output and nowhere near the transcendent brilliance of its best stories. New-munity is a doppelganger of its formal self. There are still sparks of creativity, but someone has smashed the jars needed to contain that energy. “Community” will be cancelled long before its writers will ever be able to recapture lightning in those bottles again.

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