One of the tenants of Community was that Greendale College was a school for the overlooked. Every misfit student ended up there because no other school would accept them. Greendale accepted and celebrated their flaws, creating a community (see that?) that they could thrive in. In episode after episode, the students of Greendale have banded together to celebrate and protect the school that they love. For four seasons, Community has tried to make the case that this school was one worth fighting for.
The first episode of season five doesn’t try to dismantle that tenant as much as it requires the study group to reevaluate it. What has Greendale done for them? It’s provided them with life-long friends, taught them valuable lessons about themselves, taken them on exciting adventures, and generally put back together a series of people who seemed to be falling by the wayside of society. Our main characters when we met them were a former A-student with a penitent for popping pills, a disbarred lawyer, a divorced mom of two with no income, an anarchist without direction, an athlete who couldn’t take the pressure of playing college ball, and an autistic film obsessive. By finding each other, they were able to find the courage to attempt to fix the wrongs in their lives.
But what has Greendale done for them? These people could have met in any variety of places. Greendale as an institution brought them together, but that’s not what Greendale is supposed to do. It’s supposed to educate people so that they can go out into the world and earn a living. After four years, the study group may be happier in some respects, but they’re no closer to achieving their dreams. Greendale has failed at the most basic metric a school can be judged by.
This should not come as a surprise to any of the members of the study group. If the first tenant of Greendale is that it’s a school that brings together misfits, the second tenant is that it’s an incredibly poorly run school. The Dean spends more times putting together dances than overseeing his basic duties. The only college that turns a profit is the Air Conditioning Repair School. It was voted second best community college by GreendaleCommunityCollege.com. Chang was fired for not having any teaching qualifications, rehired as a security guard after being caught living in the air vents, fired after he staged a hostile takeover of the school using preteen soldiers, pretended to have “Chang-nesia,” and was then re-hired as a math teacher with no teaching qualifications. The fact that Jeff’s law firm failed, Britta’s been forced into bartending, and Shirley’s business failed should come as no surprise to any of them.
A common mantra throughout the show’s first four seasons was “Greendale has done so much for us; we should give back to Greendale.” Now, the mantra is, “Let’s fix Greendale for everybody, but especially us.” If Abed doesn’t become a renowned film director, if Annie doesn’t become a hospital administrator, if Shirley can’t open her own business, who cares about the school? “Re-Pilot” is Dan Harmon’s thesis statement, one more powerful because of the year he’s had off to reconsider the show he created. The episode puts everybody where they need to be, albeit in an awfully convoluted way. But what would Community be, if not beautifully convoluted? Everybody has returned (minus Pierce) to do things right this time. That goes for Dan Harmon as well.
None of this would matter if the jokes weren’t funny. Season four jokes felt like the types of jokes that would be written by somebody who watched Community. Everything felt like a re-tread or a desperate appeal to audiences. “We promise this is the Community that you love. Here is everything we think you want.” If Dan Harmon’s presence is felt anywhere, in it’s in the absolute lack of desperation in the joke telling. He gets in his requisite knock on season four (“That was a Gas Leak Year.”) and Chevy Chase (“You guys feel weird about doing this without…Magnitude?”) and the cliché of having Jeff come back as a teacher, (“Damn you, Abed.”) and then moves on from there. The first episode takes its time setting up the stakes for season five while the second episode introduces the obstacle of dealing with Greendale’s staff. There is exposition, but Harmon has enough confidence in his direction that he doesn’t feel the need to drive home his themes. This allows for more jokes, both pertinent to the plot (“Minuses are made up!”) and standalone (“I’m dying because he’s not learning Excel.”)
There are parts of the first two episodes that are just plain weird, something Community was too afraid to be last season. I’m talking specifically about “Nicholas Cage: Good or Bad.” This was the type of story we got a lot of in seasons one and two: one or more of the study group members would take a weird class with seemingly no logical reason to exist that would end up teaching them a valuable lesson. Abed is the main focus in this story, as he often is in these plots. The end lesson is one Abed has learned before (maybe all the answers don’t exist in television and film, and maybe people don’t come in easily definable shades of good and evil) but the journey to get there is incredibly fun, complete with an Abed breakdown in which he turns into Nicholas Cage. The story stands on its own merits, next to the A-story of Jeff’s journey becoming a teacher. I fully expect Jeff to be the main focus of this season, and matching his teaching plots with individual stories from the other study group members will hopefully continue to create a perfect harmony.
Based on these two episodes, I believe Community season five is going to be great. Dan Harmon’s had enough time off and hopefully gained enough perspective to figure out how to get his show to a sixth season and a movie.