Well, it’s finally happened. After losing showrunner Dan Harmon, being shuffled around the prime time programming block, delayed until mid-season, and then also losing co-lead Chevy Chase, “Community” was finally back on the air in its original time slot, Thursdays at 8pm on NBC. While much has changed in the world since we last saw the Greendale Seven - “Arrow” turned out not to suck and we elected our second black President, y’all! - Jeff, Abed, Troy, Britta, Annie, Shirley, and Pierce are all back and as dysfunctional as ever. Joel McHale, Danny Pudi, Donald Glover, Gillian Jacobs, Yvette Nicole Brown, and the aforementioned Chase bring it like the champs we know and love for tonight’s fourth season premiere. It’s almost like nothing behind the scenes even happened. Almost.
Jeff is still the group’s apprehensive leader, but he’s softened enough to actually cherish these knuckleheads he never had any intention of knowing. Abed and Troy are still adorably weird and meta. Britta is still the worst, which makes her the best. Annie still has boobs and Shirley’s still Christian. And Pierce, well, I guess six months off screen is enough time for anybody who sundowns as often as he does to forget all the maturation he supposedly experienced a year ago. But don’t let that distract you because Dean Pelton still wears outlandish gender-bending outfits and Chang can’t not get delightfully under your skin, burrowing inside like a syphilitic mouse until it nibbles away at your defenseless funny bone. Fat Neil, Annie Kim, Magntiude, and Leonard (oh, sweet, sweet Leonard) are all here, too, and they remain well calibrated for maximum hilarity with minimal effort, especially if you’ve obsessively watched every single episode of this show’s first three seasons.
But there’s a certain hollowness, a faintly false ring under all that familiarity, as the story of registering for History 101 — the last class Jeff needs to graduate and return to practicing law, and also this episode’s title — unfolds as little more than a parody of Sony’s recent blockbuster hit, The Hunger Games. The desperate grab for attention and money-spending eyeballs is nearly as farcical as the games themselves, more like the “American Gladiators” meets “The Real World/Road Rules Challenge” than anything Katniss Everdeen had to contend with. It’s almost as though the idea was generated backward from the question of How to make the season premiere of this cult and critical hit as marketable — as broad — as possible? Something that synergistic could only come directly from the studio and network brass. It’s enough to make one wonder just how many times Jim Rash was forced to gleefully shout “the Hunger Deans!!!!” before he wanted to melt down his Oscar and drown in the liquified gold.
Of course, the series riffed on pop culture before. That’s almost entirely how it reached the heights of adoration from the fan community who don’t understand why the show isn’t more popular, anyway. The study group quickly became a clique all the fans wanted to join, and then they started a gang to control chicken fingers. And then they played paintball. Soon enough the show rode a rocket bus and an extended “Doctor Who” running gag into so many (of so few) hearts forever.
With the exception of the latter, which wasn’t a single episode, did you notice how none of those references could be responsibly labeled the Die Hard Parody, or the Apollo 13 Parody, or the Goodfellas Parody? Despite those movies being obvious antecedents for many jokes and some overall plot structures, those episodes also mined heavily from the films of John Woo and James Cameron, The Right Stuff and Space Camp, Godfather, Donnie Brasco, and many, many others. The reason they’re more easily categorized as the Action Movie Parody, the Space Movie Parody, and the Mob Movie Parody because those episodes were about the characters, not the gimmick. The same was/is true for Inspector Spacetime, who only exists to more fully flesh out Abed.
When Dan Harmon told Sony and NBC that he needed to cover every single one of the show’s sets in paint again for the two-part paintball sequel, they probably didn’t see mega dollar signs since there was no easy tie-in to promote. Or, when Harmon said they were doing Pulp Fiction but really meant My Dinner with Andre? It’s reasonable to expect the studio or the network loved the idea of a zombie episode until Harmon demanded they use an actual ABBA song, which he paid for out of his own wallet. As well, both the Ken Burns Pillow Fight and the “Law & Order” episode were done because they were cheap and they were both supremely dedicated to parodying those properties exactly; so much so that “Basic Lupine Urology” is easily the best installment of “SVU” ever. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” may have gotten some Emmy love, but just ask Judd Apatow and Tina Fey how often that translates to bigger audiences and larger budgets.
So why would the executive not only agree to pay for another expensive lampoon for a barely watched sitcom that is probably on its way out the network door? The best answer is to accept that they’re willing to “Community” go out on its own absurd accord. But when that company-owned and audience-approved parody is also incessantly trumpeted in real life television ads that the show rarely received in the past? The attempt to shoehorn illogical context into the proceedings belies the answer. Since when has the Dean been capable of organizing such an epic endeavor, or when was it in his character to favor turning the school into a post-apocalyptic mess over less destructive measures? He’s a goof and a fool, but he isn’t that clever. That was the whole point of the
Apocalypse Now Hearts of Darkness episode.
Sadly, “The Hunger Deans” is exactly what it looks like: a last desperate attempt to squeeze as much possible profits out of “Community” before NBC finally cancels it after burning off the fourth season. Apparently, this happened even though rumor has it the new season itself may not be the dead-eyed, soulless husk this season premiere resembled. According to comments left on the AV Club by the actor who plays Garrett, Erik Christian Nielsen, season four of “Community” won’t be the absolute sh*tshow the suits want us to think it is. Or, maybe it will be?
But don’t take my word — and definitely don’t take Sony’s or NBC’s word — for it. After all, the new “Community” hasn’t actually aired yet and I don’t even get screeners. Do some homework and then watch the premiere yourself tonight. It’s the only way to be sure.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He may be worried about the new season, but he is also cautiously optimistic despite their best efforts.