This is not a review I’ve been looking forward to writing. To say that I was disappointed with Community’s first post-Harmon outing would be an exercise in understatement. If Community is, as Andy Greenwald says in his recent editorial, a demolition derby, then last night’s History 101 was a NASCAR race with the odd explosion of comedy. Without Harmon at the helm, the essential je ne sais qua of Community has vanished into the ether. After twenty-two minutes, I don’t know what has replaced it. Let’s start with Abed (Danny Pudi) and his happy place.

I fully expected a foray into three camera sitcom land as a cold opening gag. Addressing the biggest concern of Community fans in a throw away joke would have been the best way to manage half a year’s worth of speculation and oh-god-they’re-going-to-ruin-it anxiety. Turning the one-off into a recurring gimmick was as unexpected as it was unpleasant.

If Dan Harmon demonstrated anything in the first three seasons of Community it’s that meta ends where repetition begins. In the mad scientist’s formula that is Harmonesque introspection a fast catalyst is the key to a comedic reaction. Drop a reference to The Last Starfighter and move on. Who cares if Starfighter doesn’t land because thirty seconds later you hit the audience with a Farscape reference. It’s not winking at the audience as much as it is drawing them into the scenario through common knowledge. When Abed was in his happy place, History 101 was winking at me so much I wondered if show was having a stroke.

The happy place itself is also problematic in the way it handles Abed’s psychological regression. While Community is rarely subtle in its delivery, it is always gradual in terms of character growth. It took Abed all of season three, a season which included a holodeck malfunction episode, to go from Abed to Evil Abed. If the idea of graduation is enough to make Abed Inception himself, where does the character go from there? It’s too far, too fast, leaving nothing believable for tomorrow. I’ll invoke Tropic Thunder when I say the writers have gone full retard with Abed.

Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has described Abed as both a Shaman and a God. Abed knows himself in a way few people do. His aloofness is not a weakness but an absolute confidence which doesn’t mesh into social interactions driven by shame and insecurity. Where did that Abed go? Who is this new neurotic mess? Perhaps Britta’s (Gillian Jacobs) meddling is to blame. The theory is plasuable but doubtful given Abed’s proven ability to use Sherlockian observation to get into anybody’s head. I don’t think Britta, now a student of Ian Duncan (John Oliver), has the analytical tools to break Abed in such a way.

Oh, and Leonard gets the Inception joke? Leonard? Not Troy (Donald Glover), but Leonard. Fine, whatever, what do I know?

 

Let’s talk about Chevy. Pierce Hawthorne spent the entire episode saying balls as if it was the “Meow” game from Super Troopers. Meanwhile, incepted Abed recasts Pierce as Fred Willard in his fantasy sequence. Does this reflect Chevy Chase’s phoning it in on a show he would quit mid-season, or were the writers’ marginalizing Pierce from the outset? Were I in Chase’s place and found out that famed public masturbator Fred Willard was upstaging me on my own show, I too might get a little sour and acrimonious.

Say nothing for the dishonesty to established character we saw from Chevy-Pierce and his balls. Pierce Hawthorne’s racism and sexism engenders endless tension within the study group. How then does it come to pass that he is silent on Britta and Troy’s relationship? Jeff and Troy now have carnal knowledge of the same woman; there’s a gold mine of Pierce material in that.

“Hey, it looks like Britta finally discovered affirmative action.”

“Back in my day sharing the same woman was a stone’s throw from having gay sex with each other.”

“Does the ‘Banged Britta Club’ come with secret decoder rings?”

“Why does Britta keep having sex with men if she’s a lesbian?”

How are the writers not ringing that bell?

Then there’s Annie (Alison Bree). Did Annie do anything other than wallow in self-loathing and regress about fifteen IQ points? What happened to the Annie from the end of last season? We’ve seen Annie doubt the course she’s set for herself, but never in such a vapid and incipit way. Were the writers trying to be meta with Annie’s lines in the Dean’s office; wherein Annie commented on the spooky feeling of knowing somebody has been intruding in your personal space. Are the writers throwing in the towel and admitting they are intruders into our world? And is popcorning the Dean’s car supposed to be an apology for said intrusion? Pair this with Jim Rash’s not-so-subtle line about change being good, and the arcing meta story starts to feel a little condescending.

Don’t tell me things are going to be okay, Community. This show has always been a dialogue with its fans; a turn toward the didactic is most unwelcome. We are not Greendale Babies, do not presume to speak to your audience as such.

In the episode’s defence, Jim Rash as Dean Craig Pelton was on his game. If only the writing was doing something more than putting him in a dress and double timing Dean puns to make up for the absence of Chang puns. But hey, what do I know, Community netted 4 million viewers last night, 35% more from where it ended in season 3.

So here I am, post-Harmon plus one episode with a foul taste in my mouth. Characters with 72 episodes of back story appear to be watered down into simpler tropes. Machine gun referential humour has been replaced with fodder more suitable for the non-pop culture obsessed. Tempting as it is to write the whole show off and embark on a Quixotic “Bring back Dan” campaign, I’ll give David Guarasico and Moses Port a few more episodes to win me over. I’m not expecting them to replace Harmon. Rather, I want this creative team to show me, as both a fan and a critic, that they understand the study group as well as Community’s audience does.