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With season 4 of Community just past its halfway point, and approaching the only week off in its 13-episode schedule, it’s time to look back on some of the most divisive episodes of the TV season.

Almost no art or culture can exist in a vacuum. To a certain extent everything owes a little to what came before it. On television, some shows do their best to keep their influencers hidden or to present as singular a vision as possible. Community was never one of these shows. Dan Harmon and the other writers of the show’s first three seasons decided to acknowledge that pop culture played such an integral role in their own and their characters lives that it would futile not to acknowledge it.

They started doing episodes that were direct homages to other art (“Contemporary American Poultry” and Goodfellas), then they moved on “doing” different genres (“Modern Warfare” and all testosterone-soaked action films). And throughout it all they had at least one character (almost always Abed) aloofly pointing out the sitcom conventions in their day-to-day lives.

Acknowledging that the show could not exist in a pop cultural vacuum is part of what made it so watchable and occasionally great in the first place, but it also might be what is curbing some fans’ enjoyment of it in this post-Harmon, soon-to-be post-Chevy Chase season.

Life outside of context: all the behind-the-scenes drama, the departures, the rehirings and reshuffling would do very well for season 4 of Community. But Community fans are too culturally-savvy and perhaps too invested in the inner-workings of the show to be able to watch it without context.

Community taught its fans to watch the show very closely for three seasons: for easter eggs, running jokes and pop cultural homages. And now those fans are watching season 4 so closely that can’t help but notice subtle differences. Maybe the Dean is just 2% more flamboyant or Jeff Winger’s speeches feel 3% less inspiring or the Troy and Abed relationship is 1% less authentic. But those small differences can feel enormous when you watch something so analytically while also loving it so dearly.

And it’s a shame because these seven episodes have not only had their excellent moments but have also been very invested in preserving all of the qualities that Dan Harmon instilled in the show: off-the-wall humor, cultural consciousness and true ambition. It’s noticeably not the Community of old, but it’s also not exactly a pale comparison.

It’s also worth noting that it took Community more than seven episodes initially to develop all of those qualities that we now hold dear. Late season 1 and seasons 2 and 3 are usually what comes to mind when we think of Community‘s brilliant moments. If anything season 4 seems most similar in tone to early season 1 of the show, with more stories revolving around the school itself and the machinations of the study group. It’s missing the manic touch that Harmon was able to bring to the show’s later episodes, but it’s not for lack of trying.

Sadly, we can never know what it would be like to watch season 4 out of context. As helpful as it would be to lock a TV critic and fan in a dungeon for a year then let them emerge to watch season 4, not knowing that anything changed behind the scenes, it would also be highly illegal. It would also be helpful if we could bend space and time to have season 4 immediately air after season 1 to a test audience and see if they noticed a dramatic difference. But obviously we can’t do that either (and if you could bend space and time, please be sensible and kill Hitler first, rearrange Community seasons later).

New showrunners Moses Port and David Guarascio deserve fair praise for turning in something close to Community. But until we can watch season 4 in another timeline, it’s always going to feel a little like a bodysnatcher.

  • Yani Clovers

    That’s exactly what I was thinking. I would love to get people who’ve never heard of Community to watch all the episodes out of context and give their views. I feel like people were expecting disappointment and that’s what they’ve taken away from season 4. I personally though the Alternative History of the German Invasion was quite entertaining.

  • season 3 was painful

    you basically just outlined why it was better than seasons 2 and 3. Those seasons were too unbelievable and the characters had become really childish. By putting the focus back on the school we have something similar to season one, which is much more believable and intelligent than subsequent seasons.

    • humanbeing

      Eh, believability is overrated sometimes. Dan Harmon knew how to take the show to absurd levels but still have the audience invested in the characters (mostly because he knew how to take advantage of characters like Abed who could comment on the mayhem…it’s the Han Solo effect; if there’s a character who is able to make remarks about some of the sillier aspects of a story, it actually makes the whole thing more tolerable…it’s my opinion that the lack of a Han Solo-type is one of the things that made the prequel Star Wars films so wanting). To be honest, whether the show goes back to more realistic roots or subverts itself completely into silliness, it’s the fact that the storylines remain shallow without Harmon’s deft touch, and that’s why Season 4 of Community is suffering. It’s revisiting old plots instead of inventing new ones, trying too hard to cater to the “average” viewer, and losing its weirdness, the best thing about the show. It’s like some television executive watched the musical number at the beginning of Season Three and didn’t catch the inherent irony in all the lyrics (which are really about how shows are asked to dumb themselves down and resort to tired old tropes in order to have mass appeal).

    • Abed

      You just now: “I’m gonna go ahead and say it. He’s the new Spielberg.”

      My response: *slams fork on table* “I have to go…You’re a bad person. You’re a bad person…”

  • LooKat

    “It’s noticeably not the Community of old, but it’s also not exactly a pale comparison.” Well said.

  • Topaz

    I started watching Community a couple of weeks ago, marathoned it from the start, fell totally in love with it, and I find watching season 4 is just weird. It’s like reading fan fiction for a show that’s already finished. I don’t feel like I’m watching Community anymore, it’s just someone speculating that a certain thing would be cool if it had happened, but at the same time knowing that it didn’t. It’s better than not having the show around at all, but really it’s all just make believe.

    I’m not picking through the fine details of the show to see what’s changed. The thing that seems to be obviously absent now is someone behind the scenes killing themselves and shedding actual tears and going through desperate fights with the studio to protect the integrity of the show and the characters, as Dan Harmon described himself doing in multiple interviews and commentaries. And the total absence of hack-work on screen, especially in season 2 and 3, was testament to that. Season 4 looks like a show that is being delivered on time, within budget, and where notes from the network and studio largely get followed. Where the letter of the show’s conventions get followed, but not the spirit. It’s paint by numbers Community. I still laugh occasionally, but I don’t feel moved, I don’t feel inspired and I don’t anticipate what they’re going to come up with next. Those characters had been so lovingly developed they had started to feel real. Now they’ve gone back to being pretend.

    • FunniestCast

      At least you are laughing. I’ve just smiled or downright rolled my eyes, which is a shame as I love the cast and was willing to see the show with fresh eyes, no expectations.

  • AW

    Fantastic article. You’ve given voice to my thoughts exactly

  • Edo

    Episode every episode it becomes clearer: season 4 is a different series. It’s a bad photograph of a real good picture.
    Community S1-S3, that’s where it ended.

  • Edo

    Community S4, isn’t the same show as S1-S3. It is milking everything that was created in S1-S3 till it’s not funny anymore, it’s story lines are way to eager to please fans, it sucks. To be clear S1-S3 was my favorite sitcom ever.

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