Community 103: Reintroduction to Beloved Fictional Characters

This is the third in a series of blog posts about the wonderful American sitcom Community, which recently returned for its fifth season. Here’s the first blog post, which is a general introduction to the show and its characters. Here’s the second blog post, which is a list of the series’ best episodes so far. This post is a review of the first four episodes of season five.

So. It’s back.

As anyone with an interest in the show knows, there’s been plenty of cautious optimism and weary anticipation towards the critically-acclaimed comedy’s new season. The creator of the show is back (Yay!), but one of the show’s main actors has quit (Boo!). There’s a lot of great guest stars on the way (Yay!), but another of the show’s main actors is leaving soon (Boo!). Will this be any good? How will the show go on in the aftermath of the controversial fourth season? How will it deal with not one, but two main cast members leaving?

Well, judging by the episodes that have aired so far, things are looking good.

Community - Season 5

REPILOT

First, Jeff returned to Greendale and so did the rest of the study group, but it took a while for things to go back to normal. Jeff, after graduating from Greendale as a more mature, more sincere and a generally better person, went back to being a lawyer, but this time he tried his best to be honest and helpful.

A year or so later, we meet him in his office, homeless and skint, when he is offered a chance to make money. But to do this, he’ll have to regress to his pre-Greendale ways and become a manipulative, selfish jerk again to get his way.

When he bumps into his friends during a brief visit to Greendale, he finds that their careers have been going just as badly as his. Annie’s promoting pills, Britta’s a bartender, Shirley’s business failed, which caused her husband to leave her, Troy is aimlessly waiting for Abed to make money so he can piggyback off his success, and Abed’s film dreams have crashed and burned.

It’s quite a dark episode, metaphorically and literally – the lighting is dim and gloomy –  and the group’s first meeting around the study table turns into a heated argument after each member reveals how much their lives have sucked since they left the community college.

The group’s mood swings between supporting Greendale and hating it. Jeff points out how they’ve all changed since coming to the school, arguably for the worse, pointing out several problems that fans (including me) and critics have had with the characters becoming too cartoony. Season 4 is hastily written off as a period where a year-long gas leak caused everyone to act differently, which is a great, cheeky dig.

The group re-enrol at Greendale, but Jeff attempts to turn their underlying resentment of the school into a lawsuit. Fortunately, he has a change of heart after hearing some surprising advice from Pierce (!) who has an unexpected cameo as a hologram, inadvertently dealing out Obi Wan wisdom to Jeff.

Meanwhile, Abed is, of course, comparing Jeff’s return to Greendale to the plot of a TV show. Abed compares Jeff’s role to JD in the ninth season of Scrubs, where JD returned to Sacred Heart to teach instead of learn. Jeff laughs this off – a teacher? Jeff? Oh, please – and Troy criticises JD’s actor for leaving 6 episodes into that season*.

*(Troy’s actor is leaving five episodes into this season. Foreshadowing meta-ness! Ah, it’s good to have you back, Community).

Any reference to Scrubs is going to make me smile like an idiot, even if it is referencing the terrible ninth season (are the writers self-deprecatingly suggesting that this season of Community is going to be as bad as that one?), but this joke has a brilliant punchline later on. JD himself, Zach Braff, narrates the end of the episode using one of his old Scrubs monologues – a monologue from season nine, no less! For a few seconds, my old favourite comedy crossed over with my new favourite comedy, and it was just THE BEST.

Anyway, the rest of the group, still miserable and hateful towards the school, decide to burn the study room table. Jeff stops them and they decide to take new courses. Jeff ends up accidentally burning the table anyway, and reluctantly accepts a job as a teacher at Greendale. It’s a new era, a new start, a new table, a new Community that is an awful lot like the old Community. Hooray!

To read about the other three episodes, click ‘Read More’!

community buzz hickey

INTRODUCTION TO TEACHING

Abed decides to take a film class which focuses around the question of whether Nicolas Cage is a good actor or not. Troy, Britta and Shirley join him. Jeff wants to take the class, but can’t, as he’s now a teacher and has to quickly learn how to teach, while Annie stubbornly offers advice to Jeff about his new role in the school.

Abed becomes obsessed with figuring out Nicolas Cage’s career and acting ability, leading to a mild breakdown and a startlingly funny and impressive Nic Cage impression. Jeff meets his new co-workers in the teachers lounge, including Chang (now a maths teacher and slightly more sane) and, most notably, Professor Buzz Hickey.

Professor Hickey is incredible. Before the opening credits even roll, he quickly makes a big impression and effortlessly becomes one of the best characters on the show. Played by Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad’s grizzled, old badass Mike), he has a gruff intensity that is quite shocking (his treatment of Leonard in this episode is fantastically nasty), and it makes him very, very funny. By the end of the episode, he’s clearly lined up to become the replacement-Pierce, and I honestly don’t mind. His appearance in the end-credits tag is the best part of the episode. More Buzz, please!

There’s not really much else to say about this one, compared to ‘Repilot’, which had a difficult task of giving everyone a new goal, a reason to come back to Greendale, and tell viewers new and old what everyone’s been up to.

This is simply a really fun to watch, really enjoyable, really reassuring episode of Community. The dialogue crackles with wit, the back-and-forth around the study room table is as sharp as ever – this was also true in ‘Repilot’, as even during the angry arguing, there were some great one-liners – the show is goofy and odd while still staying fairly grounded- and the laughs! Good God, I haven’t laughed that much at an episode of this show since… I don’t know, early 2012?

The editing is also much, much better, after being slightly off during season four. Bad editing can kill a great joke, and it can make a bad one so much worse. Good editing can make a half-decent joke good, and a great joke amazing. Thankfully, the editing is perfect. The writing’s better, the lighting is better, and nothing feels forced or like the show is trying too hard.

It’s back! It’s great! Everyone relax. There’s only one thing to worry about now…

BASIC INTERGLUTEAL NUMISMATICS

Community - Season 5

…Troy’s leaving soon. Really soon. One of the funniest characters on the show, a key member of the best, closest on-screen friendship since JD and Turk, is gonna be gone after episode 5. Donald Glover wanted to leave, and he has. Maybe he thought the show would have been cancelled by now and there’d be more room in his schedule for the other stuff he wants to do, like his rap career and his own comedy show, and that’s completely fine and understandable. No-one expected Community to last this long and if he wants to do other things, great. All the best, etc.

Still…it’s gonna be difficult seeing another empty spot at the table. Troy always gets some of the best lines, and Glover’s delivery often makes them even better. He makes crying side-splittingly funny, and has improvised some great stuff over the years. He’ll be thoroughly missed, and his absence will affect the show significantly.

But, since he’s going to go, he might as well go out on top form. And he is on top, top form. In these four episodes, he’s had some fantastic scenes and instantly-quotable new dialogue, and here he gets another chance to show off his comedic chops before he leaves the campus forever*, as he becomes the victim of an infamous Greendale prankster.

*(Hopefully not forever. Maybe he’ll be back for a bit in the sixth season, if there is one? If there’s a movie, he’d definitely come back…right? Maybe?)

This episode is an odd mish-mash of parodies and references revolving around the reappearance of a mysterious prankster known as the Ass-Crack Bandit, terrorising Greendale students by putting coins down their butt-cracks when they least suspect it. Apparently that’s a thing in America.

Because this is Greendale, this minor prank is treated incredibly seriously by the Dean and everyone panics as they wonder when this bandit will strike next. And, because this is Community, this becomes the basis for a high-concept parody, seemingly about grim detective dramas about serial killers. I say ‘seemingly’ because I didn’t always understand what the show was trying to do. The parodies of detective-drama cliches are mixed with references to David Fincher films, but there seemed to be a far more specific thing the episode was referencing that I just didn’t get. Maybe Zodiac, a David Fincher film about serial killers, which I haven’t seen.

Nevertheless, it was still really enjoyable, and really funny. Treating the investigation of the ‘bandit’ as seriously as an investigation into a disturbed killer led to plenty of absurd jokes and jabs at cop-show tropes.

Also, Professor Duncan’s back! Hooray! And Starburns! Hooray! The former returns with a minimum of fuss, seamlessly reintegrating back into the show, and the latter becomes a prime suspect after he is caught hiding in Greendale’s stables (“We have stables?”, the Dean wonders). But in the end, no-one is caught, and everyone is a suspect, as the episode closes with a montage of characters acting suspicious.

Oh yeah, and Pierce is dead.

This startling bit of news is dropped right into the climax of the episode, just as the investigation was reaching a conclusion. The absurd, hysterical insanity of the episode is brought crashing back down to earth as Shirley abruptly tells Jeff and Annie that their friend has died. Everything stops, the silliness is pushed to one side, while the study group members look sad and Neil gives a brief eulogy.

Then, just as abruptly, everyone goes back to what they were doing, the investigation is wrapped up and the episode ends.

What.

I wasn’t sure what to think of this after I first watched it. I liked it, I think. I laughed a lot – especially at the closing song – and Pierce’s death was surprising in its abruptness, but I understood the point the show was trying to make with it. However, I thought that the quick eulogy and return to the investigation was a bit too fast, and if that had been all that the show did with Pierce’s death, I would have been very annoyed.

Fortunately, a week later, this happened.

COOPERATIVE POLYGRAPHY

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Pierce Hawthorne gets a brilliant, emotional, perfect, incredibly funny send-off, as the group fulfil his last wish via Mr Stone (Walton Goggins, of Justified and The Shield), who orders them to take a lie detector test to determine if any of them killed Pierce.

The test is really a reason for Pierce to play mind games with the group one last time and bequeath his possessions to them, like he did in the first documentary-style episode. The episode is a cross between that episode and season two’s ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ (it even has a similar title), where the group revealed embarrassing secrets, damaged their trust in each other, argued a lot and discovered that they’re all quite terrible people, really.

It was also one of the funniest episodes that the show ever did, and this episode, the spiritual sequel to ‘Calligraphy’, is no different. It might even be better. Shocking revelations are mixed with laugh-out-loud jokes as, once again, the group’s seemingly-unbreakable friendship is pushed to breaking point, only for them to overcome their issues and come back together stronger.

Last season the show introduced dark moments seemingly because it felt it had to, not because they were organic or genuine. The episode where they all reveal secrets via puppets had some bafflingly out-of-character admissions from the group (Troy started a forest fire? Annie let a teacher give her a foot massage to improve her grades – what?!), which the show then ignored and didn’t do anything with -the other characters barely even reacted to these ‘big reveals’, and they were quickly forgotten.

In this episode, and, to a lesser extent, in ‘Repilot’, things are different. Characters discuss their problems, other characters react realistically, and it just feels right. The reveals are surprising, but they make sense. Pierce’s questions, and the tension of being connected to a lie detector, cause the characters to show a side of themselves that they’d prefer to keep hidden.

Things come to a head when the group confronts Mr Stone and hears Pierce’s final set of questions. From beyond the grave, Pierce proves once and for all that he was actually a sweet, kind person deep down, under all the manipulating and accidental racism, when he bequeaths thoughtful gifts to his friends and tells them how he really felt about them. It’s surprisingly sweet.

He also gives Troy all of his Hawthorne Wipes fortune, with the catch that Troy must leave Greendale and go on a world trip to be deemed worth of receiving it. To everyone’s surprise, Troy agrees to go, and the group has to suddenly confront what we’ve known for months – Troy is leaving, there’s nothing anyone can do about it, and it’s gonna be really, really sad.

It’s a touching final act, though the show never gets too sentimental. Pierce’s final thoughts, read out by Mr Stone, are both typically – and humourously- inappropriate as well as heartfelt, and Pierce’s gifts are accompanied by an unwelcome container of his sperm, in a gross running gag that just gets funnier and funnier.

This instant classic has everything you could possibly want from an episode of Community. Goggins is great as Mr Stone – his dry delivery of Pierce’s ridiculous questions is so funny, as is his drunken excitement at the restaurant during the end credits, where he insists to the miserable study group that he’s actually a really fun guy.

This is getting a bit long, so I’ll wrap this up by saying that these episodes show a dramatic return to form for Community. It’s a big relief to say that the show is really back to its hilarious, heart-warming best, and I’m optimistic that the rest of the season, including Troy’s goodbye episode this week, will be just as great.

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