On tonight’s double-dose of Community, we got the show back in its pre-season 4 form while Jeff became a teacher and the study group welcomed a new member.
Well that was fun.
After what felt like nearly a full year of talking about Community season 5 as a hypothetical concept, we finally were treated to actual episodes of the show. While it was certainly fun to talk about the unprecedented nature of Dan Harmon’s return and commiserate with an entire fandom about Donald Glover’s departure, the quality of Community itself is why we all like to talk about the behind the scenes nonsense.
And the first two episodes of Community season 5 is undeniably a return to the show’s quality self.
The first episode, titled “Repilot,” appropriately begins with Jeff Winger, as the “first” pilot did. At the conclusion of season 4, Jeff got what he wanted: a degree from Greendale and his law career back. So the first thing Dan Harmon does in his return as showrunner is to strip that all away. A happy and accomplished Jeff is not a character that can shoulder an entire season’s worth of storylines.
Jeff had to get back to being miserable, which is what Community is really about at its core: miserable people becoming slightly less miserable through one another.
Rob Corddry returns briefly as Jeff’s partner turned rival, Alan, with a proposition. It turns out that an engineer with a degree from Greendale built a faulty bridge that collapsed. Knowing Greendale’s track record, it’s kind of amazing that this is the first time this has happened. He enlists Jeff to return to his former school to dredge up evidence against it.
The Dean has shredded all documents related to the engineering student, but Jeff decides to rope his five friends (minus the conspicuously absent Pierce) into a class action lawsuit against the school.
In a classic Winger monologue, Jeff lays out all the reasons the Greendale gang has to sue their school: Britta is now a bartender, Abed is doing nothing with his film degree, Annie is pushing pills, Shirley’s marriage has collapsed yet again and Troy…well, it’s not quite clear what Troy is up to. Like all Winger monologues, however, this one is very persuasive, but unlike most Winger monologues, this one doesn’t work. The gang decides that they’d rather return to Greendale to pursue new degrees.
This rather quickly brings back the return of evil Jeff, and no, not “evil Jeff” from the darkest timeline, but rather the actual terrible person that Jeff was capable of being before he attended Greendale and had his heart melted by six lovable rascals.
“You stomped on the grave of a real monster who should have stayed buried. You’re not worth the monologue,” he says.
But the aforementioned six lovable rascals quickly stamp out the darker side of Jeff just like they did four seasons ago. As Abed correctly predicts, Jeff decides to return to Greendale to be a teacher, to help rebuild the school from the inside-out.
One of the more charming aspects of this Community season 5 “repilot” isn’t how much things have changed, but how much they have stayed the same. When Jeff begins to (understandably) take a turn for the cynical, his friends reminds him that Greendale can still be a force for good…give or take a broken bridge disaster here or there.
The biggest surprise of the first episode is undoubtedly Pierce’s appearance as a hologram (though for a moment it seems like he is a ghost). We don’t know exactly how NBC or Dan Harmon convinced Chevy Chase to return for a cameo, and it doesn’t appear like Pierce was compiled from stock footage a la Isaac Hayes’ Chef on South Park. It’s a welcome sight and especially meaningful, as it was Pierce who first gave Jeff a reassuring speech back in season 1.
Of course, it all ends with a lovely montage, this time narrated by Zach Braff from a random Scrubs season 9 episode. For a wild moment it seemed like the producers actually got Braff to record a voiceover, but regardless, it’s still our favorite one-off joke from the first episode.
Episode 2, “Introduction to Teaching,” has a more relaxed pace than the first half hour, which strained a bit to introduce the new concept of season 5. Jeff experiences the first day of teaching, much like he once did the first day as a student. This includes being disrespected by Leonard and his earring, and creeping out some random students for being a creepy “leering” teacher.
Enter new guest star Jonathan Banks as Criminology professor Buzz Hickey. Hickey takes Jeff under his wing and introduces him to the joys of teaching, like the laid-back teachers’ lounge where union rules dictate that Dean Pelton cannot enter.
Jeff quickly falls back into laid-back Winger mode, assigning his new class meaningless group work and naturally drawing the ire of super-student Annie. Annie enrolls in Jeff’s class and basically becomes a law expert overnight, challenging Jeff on his lax teaching style. Strangely enough, that actually inspires Jeff to be a better teacher in a roundabout way when his students are impressed that he is actually able to win an argument against her.
But Annie is too distraught by her “A-” grade from Professor Hickey to really care. Jeff knows from speaking with his new mentor that “A-‘s” are just Hickey’s way of tormenting obsessive students. Jeff tells Annie, who tells the whole school and before you know it, Fat Neil is pushing over a trashcan and Magnitude is throwing a brick through a window. Yet again a Jeff monologue does nothing to help matters.
Side note: In what we hope is a hilarious troll job, The AV Club gave these two episodes of Community an “A-.”
Meanwhile, Danny Pudi gets an opportunity to do his best physical acting yet as Abed slowly falls into madness in a “Nicholas Cage: Good or Bad” class. Reportedly, Dan Harmon has been trying to feature a Nicholas Cage class on the show since season 1, but could never figure out a way to make it work. It’s a little surprising it took this long since the payoff is so stellar. The class feels a little out of place as the “B” plot against Jeff’s learning to teach “A” plot, but it’s still funny, which is never unwelcome in a sitcom.
The first two episodes of Community season 5 are, at the very least, a relief, if not an absolute triumph. In his return to the show, Harmon wisely decided to take the time to meticulously set up what looks to be another excellent season of TV instead of bombastically announcing his return with some sort of “out of the box” episode.
We’ll be back next week with another half-hour of Community at 8 p.m. ET. Until then: Always Be Cageing.