It should go without saying that season four of Community was the show’s worst. Whether this had to do with the departure of show runner Dan Harmon or just the ware and tare of a show that’s constantly hovered below the threat of cancellation since it began, the fact that the show took a dip in quality is inarguable. What’s also true, though, is that Community’s worst season is pretty much better than most other shows’ best seasons. Of the thirteen episodes this season, I’d argue that four were worthy of high praise, only one was really detestable, and most fell somewhere in the middle. We should also remember that Community has one of the funniest casts on TV this week, even if the writers didn’t quite know what to do with all of the this season. (Mostly thinking of the Troy/Britta relationship and “The Pierce Problem”.) With all that said, let’s consider which episodes worked, and which ones didn’t this year.
13. Episode 9 Intro to Felt Surrogacy
I can’t think of a more divisive episode in the show’s history. Due to a shortened episode order and a smaller budget, Community was short on “event episodes” this season. Obviously, having everybody be puppets for an entire episode (for extremely convoluted reasons) resks of the writers trying to recapture the magic of “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.” The main difference between the two episodes is that one is funny, and one is not. I like Community because it does a good job at balancing the funny with stories of characters I actually care about. But when there’s no funny, the sweetness becomes saccharine and cloying. And there’s nothing more faux-sentimental than having Avenue Q puppets sing about the magic of hot air balloons for no reason. This is literally the only episode of Community I never want to see again.
12. Episode 4 Alternative History of the German Invasion
Umm….what happened in this one? I literally remember nothing. I guess I’ll rewatch it.
(22 minutes later)
Yeah, it was okay. I wish they hadn’t replaced Nick Kroll. The Nazi stuff is a little too on the nose. The speech at the end was boiler plate. Britta’s line about blood wrapped in pig intestine was funny, though.
11. Episode 1 History 101
What could have been a really cool episode was brought down by the growing pains of a newly Harmon-less writing staff. Really, “The Hunger Deans” didn’t resemble The Hunger Games at all, so it was mostly used as name recognition to hook new viewers. The Abed “seeing everything as a sitcom” gag seemed an odd choice to make after four seasons, but ended up having some funny bits. This was a fun way to reintroduce the show, but ultimately suffered from trying too hard to be the show it once was. Because this was the first episode of the season, it set a precedent: this is not going to be the Community of old, but it may one day be a show just as good. Just not today.
10. Episode 6 Advanced Documentary Filmmaking
Community has not only already delved into the documentary well before, it’s already delved into the meta documentary well before, and to much better results. Wheras “Documentary Filming: Redux” played on Heart of Darkness, “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” emulates Capturing the Freidmans (and later, Grizzly Man). Ultimately, this episode doesn’t work because the main conceit turns out to be false. By the end of the episode, Jeff has been shamed by the others for not believing Chang, and for being a general hostile skeptic. But, of course, Chang is faking his Changnesia. So, not only are we expected to believe that six out of the seven study group members would fall for his rather ridiculous story, we also have to accept that Jeff would be ultimately be persuaded to their side. The reveal at the end ultimately disregards the entire episode, forcing us to reassess the intelligence of the entire study group. There are some funny bits along the way (Britta not knowing how cameras work is always good for a solid laugh) but the whole is a lot less than the sum of its parts for this episode.
9. Episode 3 Conventions of Space and Time
Of the three stories in this episode, only one of them sorta works. The less said about the Shirley/Pierce audience testing scenes, the better. There’s some fun with Annie throwing drinks in Jeff’s face, but that plot turns out to just be a rehash of all the will-they-won’t-they stuff I thought we had moved on from. I ended up liking the Troy/Abed/Britta story for a few reasons. Jealous, angry Troy yelling is always funny. We know that Abed would never replace Troy with a new constable Reggie, but the reaffirmation of their friendship is still nice. Also, this was probably the best portrayal of Troy and Britta’s relationship, with Britta simultaneously encouraging Troy to go after Abed, while annoying him with her devotion to Minerva, the only female Inspector Spacetime. (The Minerva stuff is much better commentary than all of the Pierce/Shirley stuff. Abed: “Everybody hates her. Not because they’re sexist, just because she sucks.”)
8. Episode 12 Heroic Origins
One of the few times I’ve thought Abed’s meta-ness didn’t work. There’s no logical reason the group needs to have a shared past just because Abed decides to look for one, especially if it forces the group to completely reassess their history. This is just an excuse to show some flashbacks, which are hit and miss. And the frozen yogurt shop reveal at the end is WAY TOO MUCH. I didn’t hate this episode by any stretch of the imagination, but I watched the entire thing hoping it was better.
7. Episode 7 Academics of Marine Biology
Again, Community is usually better when it sticks to two plots, so this episode suffers from one story too many. (The Troy/Shirley pairing is funny, but ultimately goes nowhere here.) With all the offstage Chevy Chase drama, it’s hard to remember sometimes that Pierce can contribute positively to the show. When the writers choose not to use him as a raging lunatic, Pierce can work very well as a grounding force for Jeff. I very much liked their simple but effective barber shop visit. Back on campus, the Dean is showing around a rich, potential student (a less manic Jack Black type) with the help of Britta and Annie. Neither of them get much to do other than react to the Dean’s increasingly ridiculous ploys to convince him to go to Greendale, but it’s still a decent story. I just wish they had used Alison Brie better this season. Abed’s very small D plot forming Greendale’s only fraternity is fantastic, though.
6. Episode 13 Advanced Introduction to Finality
I have mixed feelings about this one, but I ultimately came around. Considering that Jeff needing to graduate college in order to practice law again was the entire purpose of the series, his actual graduation is treated with far less fanfare than I expected. Having Jeff dream up an elaborate Darkest Timeline plot is extremely farfetched but still silly enough to work. This is ultimately a callback episode though, which it means it doesn’t really work as a standalone episode of TV. I mostly had fun watching it, but anybody watching the show for the first time would be completely lost. (And Community should really be trying to get more viewers if we’re gonna make it to six seasons and a movie.)
5. Episode 10 Intro to Knots
In terms of Christmas episodes, this one has nothing on “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” or “Regional Holiday Music” but it’s still a half decent bottle episode. This is another one that suffers from an unoriginal plot (The gang ties up Prof. Cornwallis when he threatens to give them all failing grades) that’s barely saved by the always funny cast. Actually, I don’t have much to say about this one. As is true with most of these episodes, it’s not as good as 80% of the first three seasons, but it’s still better than most of what’s on TV. Although, Chang is pretty great in this episode, and there’s no Chevy Chase.
4. Episode 2 Paranormal Parentage
Community has a solid record on Halloween episodes, and this one more than lives up to that tradition. I actually like this one better than season three’s “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps,” and I liked that one quite a bit. It’s kinda surprising the show hasn’t gone down the Haunted House/Scooby Doo road before, and exploring Pierce’s house was a good excuse to break out that trope. Again, great give and take with Jeff and Britta, and some good shenanigans all around. I particularly liked Shirley shielding Annie and Troy’s innocence from Pierce’s sex swing, and Abed and Troy playing around with Pierce’s revolving bookcase. Plus: Giancarlo Esposito!
3. Episode 5 Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations
An Abed/Troy/Annie plot is always gold (see “Accounting For Lawyers”), but the Shawshank Redemption plot is a little heavy handed. This is mostly an episode about Jeff finally confronting his daddy issues, to great effect. It’s one of the few times a plot weighs heavier on emotions than humor and still works. The fact that Joel Mchale and Gillian Jacobs have probably the best commentary of the entire cast definitely helps. Minus points for the schmaltzy family Thanksgiving dinner at the end and the casting of Adam Devine as Jeff’s brother, that really doesn’t work.
2. Episode 11 Basic Human Anatomy
The Troy/Britta pairing never really got off the ground, and I’m not really sure why. Donald Glover and Gillian Jacobs have great chemistry as friends, but it never translated as romantic. (This is one case where I’ll blame the writers, who never seemed to know what to do with the couple Harmon left in their laps.) Regardless, this episode took a plot that could have been grating (Troy and Abed pretend to switch bodies so Troy doesn’t have to deal with the fact that his first real relationship is failing) and turned it into a really poignant story. Glover and Pudi have some great fun imitating each other’s characters before things get real, and Troy does the right thing by breaking up with Britta in person. Plus, watching the Dean imitate Jeff for the entire episode is one of the funniest gags the show did all season.
1. Episode 8 Herstory of Dance
Of all the episodes this season, this is the one that felt most anchored to the Harmon era, which is probably why it was my favorite. Instead of three or four plots with varying degrees of success, we got two classic Community stories focused around the same dance that both nailed all the comedic and emotional notes it was trying to hit. Britta, in common Britta fashion, totally Brittas it when she confuses Susan B. Anthony with Sophie B. Hawkins during a rant against Sadie Hawkins dances, only to further commit to her verbal slip-up by throwing a Sophie B. Hawkins protest dance. Meanwhile, Annie and Shirley (a pairing the writers used well all season) set Abed up with two different women, practically forcing him commit to a “on one date with two women” TV trope gag. Some people think Abed’s meta TV commentary has gotten old, but this plot actually comments on his comments in a clever way, AND gives him some sweet moments with Brie Larson. Plus, Pierce is mostly absent, except for the very end, when he shows up to remind Jeff to stop being such a jerk.