With NBC's Community coming back for a fifth season this week, there's much to be said about its predecessor--the one which didn't include the involvement of the creator, was delayed for months, featured the departure of a core cast member, and was overall mixed and divisive.
Season 5 will be premiering with quite a lot under its belt, with creator Dan Harmon back on board to pick up the pieces of a season that attempted to change the status quo, but ultimately only imitated it. It's already been established by the cast and crew and in the trailers that season 4 won't be ignored, even with the time skip and the "Repilot" title suggesting a reboot. So, with that in mind, here are some things season 4 accomplished and excelled at, even among its hurdles and problems.
(Keep in mind that any list like this is purely subjective, especially for a show with some many angles like Community. This is simply a positive argument for a divisive season!)
1) Abed's Happy Community College Show
The much-feared premiere of season 4 was a mixed bag. "History 101" wasn't a terrible episode by a long shot, but the humor was predictably broader and the plot far too dense--a problem nearly every episode had in the season. But these structural problems were nothing compared to what fans were dreading: that the new showrunners who'd penned Just Shoot Me would turn Community into the very sitcom it always subverted.
Luckily, we were treated with a deliciously self-aware and downright hilarious parody of this very fear in the opening. With Fred Willard replacing Chevy Chase, a multi-cam shooting style and a laugh track, the new showrunners established that Community would still attempt to be the antithesis to the typical sitcom. The main highlight is the opening credits sequence, packed with references to pretty much every fan-favorite aspect from the past three seasons (paintball, Annie's Boobs, the Darkest Timeline, etc.) and boiled them down to the most one-dimensional aspects, like Troy in his letterman jacket and Jeff and Britta kissing. The gag promised that the new showrunners were fully aware of the show's history and were going to do everything in their power to keep the show as weird and fun as usual. However things turned out in the long run, the opening accomplished its goal of quelling our fears for the time being.
2) The Pairings
Most episodes of season 4 suffered from being too crammed with subplots, but a good thing that came out of it was that they could experiment with the group dynamics. The show had become comfortable with pairing up the likes of Jeff and Annie and Troy and Abed, but many episodes of season 4 played with some lesser-seen pairings. Troy and Shirley hadn't been paired together in the entire history of the show, for example, and when it finally happened in "Paranormal Parentage" and "Economics of Marine Biology", they got lots of mileage out of their wide contrast in maturity. The latter of those episodes also saw Annie, Britta and Dean Pelton in one subplot and Jeff and Pierce in another, pairings that hadn't been seen in quite a long time.
But it's Jeff and Britta that takes the cake, oddly enough. Season 4 excels at presenting the two as close friends who hate to admit they're friends, quite a feat considering the entire show began because Jeff wanted to sleep with the hot blonde. Throughout the season, Britta convinces Jeff to call his father, and she's there when he bares his soul to him. In turn, Jeff acknowledges multiple times that she's not totally awful, and confides in her at multiple points. Jeff and Britta's relationship has evolved to be a wonderful platonic one, where they seem to know one another better than anyone else in the study group, and their openness turned out to be one of the better quiet developments.
3) Jeff's Scar
"Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations", the first Thanksgiving episode of the show, suffers from this season's problem of being way too overstuffed. Between introducing Jeff's father and never-before-mentioned half-brother, and shoehorning in the other characters in a Shirley storyline, one of the biggest developments in the history of the show turned out sorely underwhelming for the most part.
But the episode pulled out a secret weapon by way of crafting one of the darkest and most poignant moments of the series. When Jeff finally gets the opportunity to tell his dad off for his failure as a father, he instead chooses to examine his own brokenness as a human being. In the process, Jeff reveals a shocking moment of self-mutilation as a child, and the responsibility put on his father for this is a much worse punishment than any direct insult. While the speech itself is a bit heavy-handed (the texting line doesn't help), Joel McHale knocks it out of the park, and solidifies his own hero status within the cast. And all this happens is in the midst of a season that already established itself as much lighter and softer than its predecessors. Season 4 may go down as the least funny season of the show, but it certainly didn't skimp on the pathos.
In spite of everything that happened with Chevy Chase behind the scenes, Pierce Hawthorne the character was always meant to be more than just the old man comic relief. It's ironic that this is the season in which Chase left, because season 4 cycled back and attempted to show his character significantly more respect. After bouts of villainy and generally being tossed by the wayside, this season cycled back to the early days of the show, with a substantial focus on Jeff and Pierce's complex father/son relationship. "Economics of Marine Biology" directly addresses how the group still pre-emptively leaves Pierce out of the antics despite everything they'd been through together, but does so without undermining Pierce's less-admirable (but important) qualities. Even when Chase is absent or has limited screentime, he's noted as spending quality time with his half-brother Gilbert, or in one case, saves the group's entire project offscreen. The finale admittedly falters at giving Pierce due respect, which is especially frustrating considering it's his last episode, but for the most part this is the first time since season 1 that Pierce is never presented as an antagonist at some point.
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