Watch NBC's 'Epic' promo for tonight's episode and tune in at 8 to the season 4 premiere of Community. Your life will be better for it. I promise.
And if anyone is so inclined, Joel McHale will be doing an AMA on Reddit starting at 2pm today (that's in about an hour). It'll probably be in r/community.
The community writers did an AMA yesterday.
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One of the many reasons to watch the first three seasons of “Community,” the fiercely quirky and unapologetically smart NBC sitcom, was that you actually had to watch it. Every offhand remark, every reaction shot, every bit of physical business communicated something (usually something funny). More than any other show in prime time it demanded that you pay attention.
The sad simulacrum of “Community” that checks in Thursday for Season 4 makes no such claim on your concentration. Send a few e-mails, look at the television, order a pizza, look back at the TV. You won’t miss anything important, because there’s nothing important to miss.
Dan Harmon, the man who created “Community” and its misfit collection of community-college study partners, was cut loose after last season, a victim of low ratings — the series averaged four million viewers and finished 144th among prime-time shows — and of having a reputation for being difficult to work with. Rather than cancel the show, which finished a more encouraging 102nd in the crucial 18-to-49 demographic, NBC handed it to a new pair of producers, David Guarascio and Moses Port. Replacing an original show runner has been in vogue lately, and it’s not by definition a bad thing. “The Walking Dead” did fine when Frank Darabont was replaced by Glen Mazzara (who has since been replaced as well), and the jury is still out on “Smash” after Theresa Rebeck’s departure. But with “Community” the drop-off looks startling.
The show has been dumbed down, its humor broadened past recognition, and the two episodes provided for review — Thursday’s season premiere, “History 101,” and the Feb. 21 entry, “Conventions of Space and Time” — have fewer laughs between them than a single good scene from the old “Community.” (If you’re not already a fan of Seasons 1, 2 and 3, you can see for yourself online at Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes or Vudu.)
“History 101,” reintroducing the series after the highly publicized contentiousness surrounding Mr. Harmon’s departure, is busy enough to distract you for a while from the new lack of substance. The study group arrives to start its final year in school, and the high-strung Abed (Danny Pudi) is so freaked out by events that he keeps retreating into his mind, where he imagines several alternate TV shows starring his friends.
There’s a metaphor here for the tribulations of “Community” itself — we’re told that “Abed was having some anxiety about all the changes this year” — and when one of the shows Abed imagines is a lamebrained laugh-track sitcom, it reads as Mr. Guarascio and Mr. Port’s winking assurance to the audience that it’s not as bad as all that.
It’s not good, though. Exactly one line in the episode — when the louche college dean played by Jim Rash is told he smells like the floor of a movie theater and he replies, “Yeah, but not for the usual reasons” — sneaks up on you the way the old show’s writing always did.
A tossed-off sendup of “The Hunger Games” evokes Mr. Harmon’s fondness for pop-culture homage but is otherwise pointless. The new show is also louder (Mr. Harmon’s version was surprisingly quiet for a sitcom) and visually blander, with a heavy reliance on close-ups.
The title “History 101” ties the episode to the Season 3 opener, “Biology 101,” but that’s not a comparison the show’s new minders should be encouraging. Like them Mr. Harmon had a statement to make: Flouting criticism that his humor was too obscurantist and pop culture obsessed, he began the season with a hilarious — as well as dynamic and tuneful — production number that proclaimed, “We’re going to have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined.” Fortunately, he didn’t mean it.
“Biology 101” was also the episode in which Britta (Gillian Jacobs) introduced Abed to “Inspector Spacetime” (a thinly veiled copy of “Doctor Who”), telling him, “It’s a British sci-fi show that’s been on the air since 1962.” So fans of the old “Community” may be puzzled by the Feb. 21 episode, largely set at an “Inspector Spacetime” convention, in which Britta seems to be learning about the show for the first time, asking, “Wow, there are 50 years of these, huh?”
It’s a small detail, but those matter in a show like “Community,” and not remembering or caring is another break of faith.
Which comes back to the idea of paying attention. The world of libraries and classrooms and off-campus apartments that Mr. Harmon created was highly detailed and fully realized, as were the crackpots and misanthropes who inhabited it. They might have been nut cases who negotiated reality through bad puns and movie references, but they were substantial and complex nut cases. In the new season they’ve been flattened and, especially in a story line in which Annie (Alison Brie) imagines marrying the bad boy Jeff (Joel McHale), sentimentalized. Also, they’re just not very funny.
There’s no reason Mr. Guarascio and Mr. Port should be expected to reproduce Mr. Harmon’s style or sensibility. And their assignment wasn’t easy. Taking over a quirky comedy like “Community” is probably more difficult than taking over a more formulaic drama — hourlong shows from “NYPD Blue” to “NCIS” to “The Walking Dead” have survived changes in show runners, and even thrived. Being asked to take a show with a distinctive, delicate chemistry and increase its audience is definitely a more difficult proposition than being asked to maintain an already highly rated franchise.
But the changes in “Community” feel like a total surrender. What the new episodes often resemble is the type of post-“Friends” sitcom that is defined by a jokey solipsism, in which the humor comes not from anything we’d recognize as real life but from the barely distinguishable characters’ constant battle to one-up one another. As it happens, Mr. Guarascio and Mr. Port worked together on one of those shows, “Happy Endings.”
The self-reflexiveness of the season premiere, with its “changes” theme, continues in the Feb. 21 episode, which includes an odd sequence in which Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and the contrarian Pierce (Chevy Chase, who has said this is his last season) are in a focus group discussing an American remake of “Inspector Spacetime.” Pierce favors dumbing down, saying, “It’s funny because it’s clear.” Given Mr. Chase’s public unhappiness in the past with his character and the show in general, that’s some sort of in joke, though it’s not clear who’s the target.
Shirley, meanwhile, argues for sensitivity: “It’s smart, complicated and doesn’t talk down to its audience, so if you’d like to make a really good American version, you should stay true to that.” How should a “Community” fan read that: apology or taunt?
Apparently the new producers know what we want, but they won’t, or can’t, give it to us.
I'm still excited for the premiere, but I don't think anyone expected the show to be the same after Dan Harmon left. After all, he was forced out for a reason.