If you have not seen this episode yet and don’t wish to be spoiled, don’t continue reading.
What works best in this premiere, even if it isn’t among the funniest hours the show has put out, is that it feels natural. It isn’t trying to hard to reassure us that this is old Community, because it very much is not. A problem discussed back in “Heroic Origins” was how much that season heaped on the references as a means to keep looking backwards, afraid to be anything different after Dan Harmon’s departure even though it was different. But even before the post-Harmon era, season 3 of the show–as good as it was–did find itself very nearly strangled in its own mythology at the end, and continuing down that path may have led to disappointing results with or without Harmon on board. So this fresh start was necessary, and for the first time since season 2 it doesn’t feel like this show is questioning itself or barely clinging to a controversial existence. Instead, it’s a funny-but-smart situation comedy again. There’s a big backdrop and mythology behind it, but the focus is forward. It’s not about “How are these characters going to get back to their glory days?” but rather, “What hijinks are they going to get into next?” That’s what a sitcom needs to be, no matter how much depth and wild creativity it has.
Now, this isn’t a perfect hour, and neither episode is as gut-bustingly funny as the best this show has put out (even though some jokes are very inspired.) But it’s an incredibly entertaining one, and nothing ever feels forced. Everything is treated with respect, too, given the tumultuous time the show’s had. Elements from season 4 are not looked back on with disdain, but instead treated as history, like any other season. There’s a fun “gas leak year” jab, which gives an excuse for the dumbed-downness of last year, but it’s thrown out lightly and doesn’t feel aggressive. Donald Glover hilariously alludes to his impending departure with Troy’s Zach Braff rant, not to mention the jabs at the Scrubs re-piloting. But that’s saved from seeming to harsh, because it gets an homage at the end with Braff’s cameo voiceover.
And then there’s the fact that Chevy-freaking-Chase himself still makes a cameo, albeit one that didn’t require him to be around people on set. That last one is a massive highlight, and a big win considering how public all the problems with he and the show were. It’s funny enough that’s almost teased that Pierce is a ghost, but the (slightly less-weird) reveal that it’s a hologram is clever. That Pierce’s final appearance on the show involves him talking positively about Greendale (while still getting a gay joke in there) is more fitting than how he was treated in his departure last year. And more than that, it was just such a stunning surprise to see Chase back.
There’s a certain level of darkness and cynicism back that was missing from season 4, too, even given its darker moments. It brings a level or realism back, but also sets up the yearning to see these characters happy in spite of their circumstances, which ought to only make us love them more. It’s literally darker in “Repilot”, which dims the Greendale set to a moody blue color until the group forms back together at the end. That said, some of the darker moments do come on a little too strongly. Jeff beating Alan with his tie is fairly overwrought, considering we already know how monstrous Jeff can be without seeing it physically. Shirley’s backstory, with Andre leaving her again, is also sad to see; she could have just had her business go under, but losing her family makes her plight significantly worse than the rest of the group’s. And it seems like Dean Pelton is being treated with much more harshness than normal, though that might be part of reverting back to the roots of the show where he wasn’t so integrated with the group.
Jonathan Banks as Professor Buzz Hickey is as good as expected, even though Banks is pretty much playing the character he’s known for. What’s interesting about Hickey is that he’s already presented with a wealth of quirks and character material. He’s the stone cold masculine hardass, but he still has an interest in doing his job well (to an extent) and…uh…drawing ducks. He’s hardly a caricature or stereotype, and it’s going to be fun to see how he interacts with the rest of the cast throughout the show. As it stands, he’s worthy of sitting in Pierce’s seat.
These first two episodes are extremely plot-heavy, shuffling the board around to set things into place for this rebooted season. But even upon rewatch, things don’t feel forced. In fact, it’s a bit shocking how naturally the pieces shift from place to place to get everyone back at Greendale and Jeff as a teacher with logical reasons. Not only that, but it solves a problem from last season–that Jeff had pretty much completed his journey–by showing that, yes, he does still have the old Jeff in him. No one ever changes completely, and he still has to find a way to justify his place in the world. At this stage, the best way to do that is to keep a place that’s so important to he and his friends intact. Joel McHale slips back into his classic Winger persona quite well, and by the end of “Repilot” he’s regained much of the aggressive edge he’d lost in the previous season.
The best thing about “Repilot” is that it sees the characters as they are, and does a lot to strip away the caricatures they had become. “Flanderization”–which happens when comedic characters become defined by their trademark gags–is inevitable when it comes to sitcoms, and Community is no stranger to it (and in fact benefited from it.) Where it excelled was still keeping a level of depth and growth to the characters even as they were written more broadly. But “Repilot” suggests that the new goal will be a reverse Flanderization; Jeff blames their growing eccentricities on Greendale’s influence. Even though that’s part of his manipulation, it’s not untrue–Britta did become an airhead butt monkey and Troy became completely consumed by Abed only because they spent so much time at Greendale. So now, they’re using Greendale to actually find themselves, and focus on things they actually want to do.
The best thing about “Introduction to Teaching”, on the other hand, is how at home everything feels. As much as this season suggested a reboot, it’s really all about setting the stage to make this feel like the lighter, freer show it once was, no longer bound by its earlier frustrations. The A- riot, and appearances from all our favorite Greendale students (who I guess haven’t graduated or came back too?), and the peak into the surprisingly awesome world of Greendale teachers is lots of fun, and feels old-fashioned in a good way.
The Nicholas Cage plot in “Introduction to Teaching” is a little self-indulgent, having that unnecessarily desperate season 4 feel of “We’re still pop culturally relevant and wacky, aren’t we?!” It also feels like the entire subplot was set-up solely to let Danny Pudi do more impressions, though it certainly doesn’t fail at any of those fronts. There’s plenty of clever lines; the description of the spectrum, with Johnny Depp as “the bad kind of good,” is particularly inspired. And, predictable as it may be, Abed’s breakdown is lots of fun to watch (especially the cat bit), and Pudi nails it as expected. It also leads to a surprisingly insightful discussion of film as a religion between Abed and Shirley, the latter of which has a great monologue and stellar performance from Yvette Nichole Brown.
The good vastly outweighs the bad, though, and any unevenness has more to do with the awkward shuffling of the status quo. The dialogue is snappy and quick-paced, especially when it comes to the whirlwind of arguments that require a second viewing to catch all the smartly written lines. And there are plenty of unexpectedly weird Community moments that have been missing for so long, like the French Excel song at the end. But between the burning and rebuilding of the study room table, Shirley and Abed’s bonding over religion, film and Hellraiser, and the optimistic goals of the new student/teacher alliance, there’s still an ample amount of heart and depth in the show, but without much of baggage that came before. These two episodes are refreshingly funny and packed with just the right amount of jokes and twists to require a rewatch. It’s a great start to the season, and it’s good to be a Community fan again.
Odds & Ends
- If you missed it, we had a list about the good things that came out of season 4. If I had to list an 11th, it would be that without it, we might not be getting a season 5 that’s this good. After all, part of the reason this is all so refreshing is because season 4 made it clear how badly this show was in need of a reboot of sorts.
- It’s going to be hard to not refer to them as the Study Group anymore. Mostly because “The Save Greendale Committee” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
- Was Britta’s comment about lacking Asian-Americans meant to tease Chang being the semi-official replacement for Troy when Donald Glover departs? Or is that too obvious and it’s just meant to be another jab at Chang? Time will tell.
- It’s weird that, considering all the time spent on Troy and the A/C repair school, it’s just kind of dropped. Though, making his goal be to break away from Abed makes sense considering Donald Glover’s impending departure.
- Though an upside to this episode was its distinct lack of copious continuity references, it’s still nice to see the newspaper reference to season 1’s “Debate 109” and the crisis clock from season 3’s “Geography of Global Conflict”. The references to dialogue from the pilot, particularly relating to Abed calling the group together “It’s the coolest…”, is just the right level of nostalgic without pandering.
- Very nice to see Kevin Corrigan back as Professor Garrity.
- “Jeff, I once saw you convince an arson victim that he liked his house better burned.”
- “It just doesn’t feel right doing this without…you know…Magnitude.”
- “I want to kill myself.”
- “If I was in 70 films over 30 years and I spent each one talking at random volumes, I might accidentally win an Oscar.”
- “That’s like blaming owls for why I suck at analogies.”