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.
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