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'Community' Recap: History 101

Jeremy Fuster |
February 8, 2013 | 2:11 a.m. PST

Executive Producer

Something's changed.

That's a catchphrase used many times by Abed over the past three seasons of NBC's maligned cult masterpiece, "Community", and it's a phrase that pretty much sums up everything that's been happening within and around the show.

Fans have been waiting a long time for "Community" to come, and it came with much anxiety. First, there's the fact that this is the beginning of a season that has been shortened to 13 episodes by NBC.  Second, there's the fact that it's the first episode we will see that hasn't been helmed by the show's creator and original show runner, Dan Harmon, who was fired by the network and has been replaced by David Guarascio and Moses Port, creators of the short-lived CW sitcom "Aliens in America".  Then there's the fact that the show has seen its air dates get knocked around constantly.  First it was moved to the Friday night death slot.  Then it was moved back to it's old slot, but pushed to midseason (again), with tonight's premiere originally slated to air on October 19.  And finally, there's the news that this season will see the Greendale study group's cantankerous elder, Pierce Hawthorne, take a sudden exit, as it was announced in November that Chevy Chase will be leaving "Community" after years of frustration with his character's direction.

So yeah, there hasn't been much to celebrate for hardcore "Community" fans -- unless, like me, you go to USC, in which case you got to see Donald Glover perform as Childish Gambino.  Be jealous. But now the wait is over, season four and the post-Harmon era have finally arrived, and its first offering, "History 101" is…just OK?

After months and months of waiting for a new episode, I really wanted to be blown away by "History 101," but while the episode did have some laughs and genuinely memorable moments, it still just felt like it was trying to do too much in 22 minutes and ultimately spread itself thin.  

In this episode, the Greendale Seven reunite for their fourth and final year at community college, and Abed is feeling nervous that the group he has grown to call his family will soon go their separate ways. Upon encouragement from Britta, Abed enters his "happy place," in which his life takes the form of a traditional laugh-track sitcom on "Abed TV," where the study group never has to graduate and -- in a twist that works in ways the writers never could have imagined when they thought of it -- Pierce is played by Fred Willard.

In the real world, Jeff Winger is only one history class away from finally graduating from Greendale, and is fighting for a spot in the insanely popular History of Ice Cream class. To decide who gets in the class, Dean Pelton announces an athletic competition called "The Hunger Deans." When the rest of the group becomes put off by the fact that Jeff is working so hard to leave Greendale, he puts it on himself to win enough competitions to earn spots for everyone in the group.

But WAIT, there's even more in this episode! There's Troy and Britta trying to develop their romance, though it quickly gets rocky when it becomes clear that Troy's entire social life centers around the weird little world he has created with Abed that doesn't mesh with anyone else. And then there's Annie, who goes off with Shirley to do some senior pranks in an attempt to cope with her own fears of graduation. Pierce, on the other hand, continues to suffer what I call "Pointless Pierce Syndrome." The plot has nothing for him, he just sits on the sidelines next to Abed thinking up the perfect joke for the pink balls Jeff is trying to win to earn the group a spot in their history class.  This is why Chase left, people.

With all these different plot points, there's just way too much ground the episode needs to cover, and  a lot of it doesn't work.  Annie and Shirley's senior prank never gets going. It's quickly established in between Jeff and Abed's story lines, gets two half-baked scenes, and then falls flat on its face. Annie and Shirley have gone off on their own little adventures in previous episodes, like when they attempted to be tough campus cops similar to that of a buddy cop film. Those worked because the scenes allowed the audience to settle in and watch the events play out. Annie's prank to turn the Dean's car into a giant popcorn kettle has such a rushed pace and is filled with so much dialogue that nothing about it stands out. It's just a throwaway gag that can give these two characters something to do since they have no place in the primary story lines.

Troy and Britta's romance doesn't have to worry about establishing itself, since it's a plot point that has carried over from last season.  It also does a better job using the one scene it is given in the script to show that Troy still doesn't know how to have meaningful one-on-one moments with people who aren't interested in dreamatoriums and Inspector Spacetime and lists of weird rules like Abed is.  But what it does have a problem with is how it ends. After Troy and Britta end up soaking wet and angry after fighting over the rules of using a wishing well, Troy suddenly announces he has learned his lesson at the end of the episode, saying that Britta has taught him a new rule: "no rules." How can Troy go from being angry towards Britta to suddenly understanding her? It's pretty clear that the Troy-Abed-Britta love triangle will become a major part of this season, so why pretend that the issue is resolved when it will rise again in future episodes?

By far, the strongest element of this storyline hydra of an episode is Jeff's quest to win the Dean's games for his study group, and this is owed in large part to the performances put in by Joel McHale and Jim Rash. While some running gags have gone stale, seeing the Dean come out in ridiculous outfits and use puns to connect the outfit to some announcement he wants to make to the study group has never gotten old. Rash delivers all of his lines with infectious energy and perfect comedic delivery. The best part of the episode is the dramatic gasp the Dean makes when Jeff declares without a single bit of hesitation that he will tango with him for a spot in the history class. The Dean then rips off his tight pink dress to reveal…a tight green dress, and the two proceed to light up the dance floor.

McHale, meanwhile, knows his character through and through, and the personal transformation Jeff has taken during his time at Greendale can be seen here.  Jeff is still the schemer he was at the start of the series, and he is still determined to graduate from Greendale and get back to being a lawyer, but now his plans aren't just for himself.  His plans take the entire study group into account, and he wants to spend his last class at Greendale with them because he truly cares for all of them, even Pierce.  And when the others are skeptical of this change of heart, it only inspires him even more to succeed for them and to prove that he is truly "New Jeff." While the reference to 'The Hunger Games' and the over-the-top competitions are hardly dwelled upon, Jeff and the Dean are still incredibly fun to watch, and the chemistry McHale and Rash have created together over the past three seasons is on full display here.

But the centerpiece of "History 101," Abed's sitcom happy place, is sadly lacking. It is clear that the point of this parody of traditional sitcoms is to show viewers that season four will not see "Community" turn into a traditional "live studio audience" show in a desperate attempt to match the ratings of its time slot competitor and hated rival, 'The Big Bang Theory.'  But while Guarascio and Port succeed in getting this message across, they fail in turning this parody into a brilliant deconstruction of the sitcom the way Dan Harmon deconstructed so many forms of pop culture in the past. When 'Community' depicted a school-wide pillow fight through the lens of a Ken Burns-style documentary, it poked fun at the specific elements and cinematic styles that make Ken Burns' films so distinctive, such as the voiceovers of quotes, the close-up sweeps of photographs, and the narration by Keith David. When we first see Abed's sitcom, the excessive use of laugh tracks is a great potshot at 'The Big Bang Theory,' and the use of Fred Willard as Pierce is hilarious, especially considering that it can't be said for certain that this strange casting change was used in reference to Chase's departure from the show. But beyond that, the episode never goes deeper into the concept of what "Community" would be like if it were like every other sitcom out there, and the use of laugh tracks loses its comedic luster quickly. It's not until the end of the episode's second act, when Abed creates a happy place within his happy place in the form of an animated show called 'Greendale Babies,' that we begin to see even a glimmer of the old, ultra-meta spirit that "Community" has come to be known for.

The "Community" that I and so many other fans have come to love can still be found here and there in "History 101," but not all of my worries have been reassured. Will Pierce spend his final episodes mired in irrelevance before suddenly dropping out of sight? Will the show ever have another one of those brilliant genre study episodes ever again or simply settle for broad references? How will the show deal with any story arcs it wants to create for this abridged season knowing the fact that it may also have to provide a satisfying ending if this season turns out to be its last (season five is possible, but not guaranteed, as seen by the title of this season's final episode, "Advanced Introduction to Finality.") The new bosses of "Community" have proven that losing Dan Harmon doesn't mean the show has lost its ability to make audiences laugh or to present complex characters played by a talented ensemble cast, but they still have yet to prove that they can keep alive the creative fire that makes Greendale Community College the most unique and original place on television.

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