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Community: Heroes Reborn

by Ethan Alter January 3, 2014 6:00 am
<i>Community</i>: Heroes Reborn

Our long national nightmare is over: Dan Harmon has returned to Community to right the various wrongs perpetrated against the students and teachers at Greendale Community College during the fourth season. And yet, the first two episodes of Season 5 -- "Repilot" and "Introduction to Teaching" -- weren't so much a triumphant return, as they were a prolonged sigh of relief. The show has been -- and likely will be -- funnier than either of these installments, but at least Community sounds like Community again, and that's something to be thankful for.

In a head-to-head match-up, I'd pick "Introduction" as the better episode, primarily because it had fewer expositional hoops to jump through in terms of getting the study group back on campus. At the same time, however, "Repilot" provided a potent reminder of what made Harmon's version of the show so distinctive and difficult to emulate -- that odd, but effective combination of outrageous humor and dark emotional pathos. The unlucky showrunners tasked with shepherding Community through its fourth season mostly abandoned the latter element in a last-ditch attempt to widen the show's viewership.

Since that approach went over like a lead balloon, Harmon has been restored along with his original vision. "Repilot" was a muted, ungainly premiere, but that's appropriate for a show (and a creator) that's finding its footing again after so much upheaval. While "Introduction" more closely resembled classic Community -- what with the Nic Cage-dedicated movie class and Jeff's introduction to the (minor) benefits of being a Greendale faculty member -- it was rather hesitant on a narrative and formal level compared to Harmon's boldest flights of fancy. (Think the My Dinner with Andre episode as well as those Paintball extravaganzas.) But, hey, good things often come to those who wait and we have a feeling that Harmon has plenty of great ideas in store as he readjusts to his role as Community's parent. While we wait to see what the third episode brings us, here's how each character has been reborn since Season 4, as well as their best lines from last night's back-to-back episodes.

Jeff
How He's Been Reborn: The way Harmon always intended... as a failure. Having graduated Greendale at the end of Season 4 to resume his legal career, Jeff's firm is already old news as the premiere begins, leaving him broken and bitter. In other words, at his funniest. One of the many mistakes that the new showrunners made last season was writing Jeff as a mere crank; Harmon, in contrast, instinctively knows how to tap into the well of anger and self-loathing that exist just below the guy's surface. Probably because "Jeff Winger" is, at heart, just a fitter, handsomer, better-coiffed version of Dan Harmon. Even Jeff's re-entry into Greendale as a teacher reflects some of the feelings that Harmon must have felt as he took back the reins of the show he created: regret, and no small amount of awkwardness.
Long Term Goals: First off, he should scrub any memory he might have of meeting his father. That's a storyline that Harmon likely never intended to resolve, because again, it's central to Jeff's identity as a failure. (Maybe James Brolin can be revealed as a Life Model Decoy. Hey, it worked for Spider-Man!) Also, be sure to maintain that strange friendship with Jonathan Banks's grizzled professor and aspiring cartoonist. As cranky old guys go, he's much, much funnier than Chevy Chase.
Best "Repilot" Line: "Don't blame it all on a gas leak year."
Best "Introduction to Teaching" Line: "We just went through an entire week of meatball lunches without even blinking!"

Britta
How She's Been Reborn: Simply put, she's crazy again! Under the Season 4 regime, Britta was neutered to the point of irrelevance, defined primarily by her (forced) romance with Troy. (That was a problem that afflicted all the female character last year to be honest; it's as if the writers didn't understand who they were outside of who they were attracted to.) In last night's episodes, she was back to her stridently militant and super-contradictory self, espousing viewpoints that made next to no sense in ways that made even less sense. But the key to understanding Britta doesn't lie in what she's saying -- it's the passion and feeling with which she says it. She's so committed to her brand of crazy, if you don't listen too closely, she almost starts making sense.
Long Term Goals: Keep on dedicating herself to fruitless causes that have little to no chance of success. Also, keep making analogies because, as you'll see below, the results are golden.
Best "Repilot" Line: "He's the one making bad bridges. That's like me blaming owls for how much I suck at analogies."
Best "Introduction to Teaching" Line: "The whole world is watching this! Oh… wait, I'm out of data minutes. The whole world will be watching this on the first of next month!"

Abed
How He's Been Reborn: Out of the core ensemble, Abed suffered the least during the previous cycle, as his brand of pop culture humor is more easily understood and imitated than, say, Jeff's self-hatred streak. But in last night's second episode in particular -- when Abed OD'd on Nic Cage movies (allowing Danny Pudi to offer up a Cage impression that ranks right up there with his Bale Batman) -- Harmon revived the character's latent psychotic side that had previously fueled such memorable half-hours as "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" and "Virtual Systems Analysis." Harmon understands that while Abed's many and varied media obsessions may seem harmless, they actually have the capacity to harm others… and himself. Long Term Goals: Prepare for LAT (Life After Troy) and find a fresh outlet for his psychosis that doesn't involve the return of the played-out Evil Abed.
Best "Repilot" Line: "The same reason I never returned Time Bandits to Blockbuster. Nobody else deserves it."
Best "Introduction to Teaching" Line: "Nicolas Cage, good or bad? A challenge certainly, but not unsolvable, because all actors have distinct values, which I used to find answers. Enough! I watched enough to find the answers. Because this is my reality, this is how I learned to be, and my being doesn't allow for Nicolas frickin' Cage, okay! Aw yeah. Oh! Oooooooooooooohhhhhhh! I'm a cat, I'm a sexy cat. Huh, hah, hauuuuuuuuuuh!!!!"

Annie
How She's Been Reborn: As with Britta, too much of Annie's screen time last season was devoted to her lingering romantic feelings for Jeff. Based on these first two episodes anyway, those feelings have thankfully gone from lingering to non-existent. Whereas last year her freak-out about Jeff's lax teaching methods probably would have been motivated by his failings as a potential life partner, under Harmon's pen it's tied into Annie's long-established hatred of laziness and cutting corners in any form. Put another way, last year, Annie's main dream seemed to be becoming Mrs. Jeff Winger. This year, she's dreaming so much bigger.
Long Term Goals: Avoid any other showmances (Alison Brie may be too much of a knockout to be believably single, but Annie works best as a more eccentric Mary Richards) and never stop irritating authority with her perfectionist ways.
Best "Repilot" Line: "Okay, maybe we should brainstorm fundraising ideas -- that aren't bake sales or opening a zoo where the humans are in cages and the animals come to visit."
Best "Introduction to Teaching" Line: "You were late, you clearly had no idea what tort reform meant and when I asked up to explain the sixth amendment, you plead the fifth!"

Troy
How He's Been Reborn: Well, the full extent of Troy's rebirth won't become clear until the fourth episode, which sets the stage for Donald Glover's exit from the show. But these two episodes did remind us of the character's many idiosyncrasies (which didn't register as strongly last season, when Glover's attention seemed elsewhere) as well as his general uncertainty about what he wants from the future… a subject that will take center stage two weeks from now.
Long Term Goals: Make a graceful exit and avoid breaking Abed's heart, because we're seriously worried about what that dude might do without Troy's calming influence.
Best "Repilot" Line: "That son of a bitch. After everything Scrubs did for him?!"
Best "Introduction to Teaching" Line: "Nicolas Cage is so weird. I mean, he seems scared to smell that flower, but happy to get shot?"

Shirley
How She's Been Reborn: By switching Shirley's on-again/off-again relationship with Theo Huxtable Andre to the off-again position, Harmon has dealt the character an emotional blow that puts her on the same emotional footing as Jeff… the person she's secretly the most like, all appearances to the contrary. Where Jeff uses cynicism as an escape from his failings, Shirley relies on her faith, but it's a refuge that never completely keeps the demon of self-doubt at bay. Though she likes to think that she's the least emotionally damaged of this group, Harmon (unlike his temporary replacements) isn't fooled by that façade.
Long Term Goals: Relaunching Shirley's Sandwiches as a national chain that gives Potbelly a run for their money and upgrading from Theo to the significantly cooler Dwayne Wayne.
Best "Repilot" Line: "He took the boys, he took the dog, he took the DVR. 166 episodes of Bones just gone."
Best "Introduction to Teaching" Line: "I don't know -- if I was in 70 films over 30 years and I spent each one talking at random volumes, I might accidentally win an Oscar."

Pierce
How He's Been Reborn: As a hologram, thus ensuring that Harmon won't feel compelled to take a swing at him for being so disagreeable.
Long Term Goals: Staying as far away from Greendale as possible… a goal that will become easier after the events of fourth episode.
Best "Repilot" Line: "The museum and this hologram were donated in compliance with a court order I'm not allowed to discuss."
Best "Introduction to Teaching" Line: N/A

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