‘Community’ Experiences Senioritis in Harmon’s Absence

Returning for its fourth and potentially last season, Community fell short of matching its success under Dan Harmon’s rule.

The poorly rated but critically acclaimed NBC sitcom kicked off the season last Thursday after the network postponed the premiere, which was originally scheduled for the fall. Due to the pushed back airing of this season, a Halloween special will air on Valentine’s Day tonight.

In addition to delaying fans’ reunion with Greendale College’s beloved group of misfits, NBC ridded the show of Harmon, its masterful and perhaps equally insane visionary. After growing tired of Harmon’s refusal to cooperate with the network’s requests to turn the notch down a few levels on the weird scale, NBC replaced him with Moses Port and David Guarascio, who both worked on ABC’s Happy Endings.

Harmon’s spat with Chevy Chase-the most recognizable name on the cast who plays an old racist with a knack for saying the worst thing at the most inopportune time-likely contributed to his departure as well. Harmon publicly shared a voicemail sent to him by Chase vulgarly chastising the show’s creator. But Chase later quit anyway after shooting most of the episodes of season four.

All these factors are harbingers of NBC closing down Greendale at the conclusion of this shortened 13-episode season. After watching the first episode, it’s apparent that the staff notices the writing on the wall.

Erin Mulligan, a junior Resident Assistant, hosted an airing of the episode in the Laurel Hall Screening Room. Mulligan, who has screened fellow NBC comedy Parks and Recreation, realized the challenge of getting students who usually don’t show up to events to file the theater for a show with a limited fan base.

“You normally don’t get a big crowd no matter what you do,” Mulligan said.

The 15 or so people who occupied the Laurel theater saw their worst fears tauntingly hashed out in the beginning of “History 101.” The study group gathers around to deliver corny, telegraphed punch lines accompanied by a laugh track. This is not the new reality of Community, but rather an indicator of the show’s acute sense of self-awareness. After seeing how long it takes before fans riot, it is eventually revealed that the scene takes place in the mind of Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), a TV and film buff with clear signs of Asperger’s Syndrome.

Like Community fans, Abed is petrified of impending change. And just like us, Abed fears life without the Greendale Seven.

Unfortunately, many of these worries are not put to bed as the show progresses. Besides Abed’s impending mental meltdown, every other character goes through the motions as they wait for the writers to hand them something interesting to do.

Studious, uptight Annie Edison (Allison Brie) declares that she will loosen up and let senioritis consume her during her final year at Greendale. She breaks into Dean Pelton’s office (thinking that act alone was the prank) before being advised to load his car with popcorn.

That’s it. Nothing else happens with this storyline (which seems fit for Abed TV anyway) after that.

Previous episodes devoted the entire half hour to satirizing whatever TV or movie genre Harmon felt like lampooning that day. The same cannot be said about last week’s half-haphazard attempt to parody The Hunger Games. Protagonist Jeff Winger-a disgraced lawyer forced to enroll at the school to regain his license-competes in the “Hunger Deans” competition, with spots in a highly sought-after History of Ice Cream class at stake.

With Harmon at the helm, the episode would have assumed the feel of the popular book and movie, perhaps turning the school into a grandiose battle arena while all the characters broke off into competing districts. Maybe Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) realigns with the sinister air conditioning repair unit from last season in order to protect Abed or Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) from the dangerous faction.

Instead, they decided that creating a contest with the word “hunger” in it was good enough. Mulligan summed up the episode well when she said it was “meta for the sake of being meta.”

From a show that transformed a campus-wide pillow fight into a gripping History Channel-style war documentary (Mulligan’s favorite episode) and depicted Greendale as a post-apocalyptic wasteland ravished by a savage paintball battle, “History 101” underwhelmed.

It was not their intention, but Community embraced the zombie theme again in the season four premiere by having all its character sleepwalk through the episode. Usually a show crammed with so many jokes that tweeting one of them (under the six seasons and a movie hashtag, of course) would cause you to miss a dozen more, the past episode slowed down the pace to a grinding halt. Perhaps a golden age of fast-paced, intelligent comedies has spoiled TV viewers now expecting 30 minutes of brilliance each week. Past episodes of Community as well as the completed 30 Rock delivered rapid-fire jokes that delighted comedy fans who were willing to keep up.

In that regard, this season opener fell short. The stream of bizarre quips and pop culture references that cemented its place as a cult-favorite vanished under Harmon’s absence. This new version of Community is far from the darkest timeline presented last season, but it’s also nowhere near the brightest. Mulligan saw differences in how the scenes were quickly cut and felt they “oversold” Dean Pelton’s wackiness, but she overall was not disappointed.

“It was definitely different, but it wasn’t bad,” Mulligan said.

Fans who fell in love with the zaniness and insanity Community offered at its finest will have to wince to recognize this lobotomized update. While still a passable, above-average comedy, Community no longer sparkles enough to earn a “cool, cool cool cool” from Abed. Maybe one cool at best.

A show that formerly operated “streets ahead” of the competition has now moved onto the block, condemning its past uniqueness and accepting its fate as another show catering to those who prefer Abed’s whitewashed imagination to the real thing. As hard as the new showrunners tried to sustain its presence as a meta-comedy, Community now appears far too normal for its own good.