Television shows with cult followings frequently have tumultuous existences, but the season-by-season fight for the continuation of “Community” deserves attention as a phenomenon all its own. From struggling to maintain viewership numbers to secure season renewals from NBC, to recurrent public squabbles amongst certain members of its cast and crew, the fact that the show has even managed to have a fifth season at all, let alone one with controversy-courting creator Dan Harmon returning as writer/show runner, seems nothing short of miraculous. It admittedly has become increasingly difficult to ignore the background drama while trying to appreciate the show on its own merits, but after the ongoing tension throughout season four, the earliest episodes of the fifth season seem to indicate that the show is more than willing to adapt itself to some changes while managing to mitigate the effects of others.
Within the world of the show itself, the graduation of Jeff at the end of the last season presented a problem: How do the main members of the cast remain in the context of community college when they aren’t students anymore? The problem was conveniently, if somewhat unrealistically, solved by having Jeff return as a teacher, and by having everyone else continue taking classes. (It’s not as if anyone is watching “Community” for a realistic depiction of anything anyway.) Outside of the show’s universe though, the departures of certain actors will likely have a more dramatic impact on the season as it progresses. The death of Chevy Chase’s character was announced in the third episode, more or less confirming what everybody had suspected about his future with the show (although he did return for an extremely brief cameo in the first episode). More concerning is Donald Glover’s imminent departure, as Troy is one of the more notable characters, particularly through his interactions with Abed, so the fact that his departure might impact another character’s role in the dynamics of the ensemble is also worth considering. All of this still lies in the future, but the episodes that have recently aired can at least be assessed in the meantime.
“Repilot” functioned essentially as its title suggests—a way to effectively reboot the show for the current season without upsetting the status quo—but it also hinted at the impending changes ahead. The iconic table that the characters sat at was burned and symbolically replaced with a new one at the end of the episode, and much of the meta-commentary revolved around the ninth season of the show “Scrubs,” which was notable primarily for having an almost entirely different cast and location. At least “Community” still seems fundamentally rooted at Greendale, for better or for worse. As this episode indicates, Greendale Community College has almost certainly worsened the lives of all who have set foot in it, but they inevitably seem attached to it and the people they meet there regardless. While Jeff is initially upset after realizing that, as a teacher, he will have to actually teach his students, he soon falls in with the rest of the professors in the second episode (“Introduction to Teaching”) and learns some convenient shortcuts from his similarly lazy co-workers. Jonathan Banks, better known as Mike from “Breaking Bad”, makes a welcome addition to the cast as the comically-named Buzz Hickey, a jaded forensic science teacher who draws cartoons of ducks in his spare time.
A set-up involving Abed and others taking a class on the films of Nicholas Cage initially seemed promising, but wound up being the worst part of the episode, culminating in a lengthy, cringe-inducing impersonation of the, for lack of a better word, infamous actor. The third episode, “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics,” is part riff on crime procedurals, part extended butt joke. I had a hard time warming to it at first, mainly because the main premise was ridiculous even by this show’s standards, but the genre pastiche bits were well done. It was nice to see John Oliver return to the show after several years’ absence, and the guest appearance by Ben Folds was also a pleasant surprise.
I haven’t always been the biggest fan of “Community,” as I find it to frequently be the sort of program that thinks it’s much wittier than it actually is, but I still have to admire the tenacity of everyone involved for hanging in there through all the drama while still maintaining relatively high standards for the show itself. Most sitcoms would’ve crumpled long ago under the pressures this show has faced, and yet, buoyed by an ardent fanbase and a talented cast and crew, it has managed to soldier on and seems in no immediate danger of cancellation. While the loss of central cast members will certainly be felt, the show’s ensemble is large enough that the transition should be handled with relative ease. Still it may be best to withhold judgment on that particular issue until the season has finished.