Those who would be savvy TV watchers will warn you against looking at any show as one person’s work. TV is a collaborative medium, they’ll note, more so than director-driven movies, and certainly more so than books. TV shows have creators, but they don’t have single authors: there are writers’ rooms, multiple producers and directors, the choices made by a cast of actors, and the multiple ongoing influences of network notes, audience feedback, and ratings pressure. Even the most auteur-centered TV show is a machine, a business, the work of many hands.
Which is true–but then again, look at Community. When creator Dan Harmon was pushed out of the NBC comedy after its brilliant third season, it was kind of a test case for the many-hands theory of TV. Yeah, Harmon conceived the show, wrote much of it, worried over its details with a jewelers’ attention. But the show would keep many of its writers on staff, the cast would still be the same, and the show’s tone and characters were well-enough established. No reason it couldn’t stay basically the same, right?
It was not the same. Nor was it very different, but in some good ways, as sometimes happens when a show’s creative leadership changes. (The West Wing, say, was never the same drama without Aaron Sorkin, yet its final-season election arc was great nonetheless.) Instead, the fourth season was a studied imitation: not awful, but it felt more jarring for its closeness to the original, like the uncanniness of seeing a real person rendered in a videogame or Taiwanese animation. The characters were familiar but the strokes were broader, and the devices–pop-culture references, campus-wide competitions–less original.
Community was and is the work of many talented hands, as Harmon himself has said even as he’s been brought back to run his baby again. But whatever he’s doing in season five, premiering tonight on NBC, it makes a huge difference. In the three episodes sent to critics in advance, Community sounds like itself again. There’s the sharp dialogue and community-college bizarreness, but also the exhilarating sense of everything teetering just on this side of falling apart, but holding together. There’s the referential and meta humor (the final season of Scrubs figures into the show’s return, and Abed takes another film class), but also the darkness and emotion that grounded the show at its best.
There’s some setup work in the first couple of new episodes, as Community returns Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) to Greendale and deals with the problem of extending a show set at a college into its fifth year. (It also introduces Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks, well-used in a supporting role on the Greendale faculty.) But by the fourth episode (the third wasn’t shown to critics), which addresses Chevy Chase’s having been written off the show, Community is melding a screwball premise with genuine heart the way it did in classic episodes like “Digital Estate Planning” and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”
It would not be fair to turn this into too much of an indictment of the fourth season, whose makers only sin was trying to re-create a beloved show a little too smoothly. Part of Community’s appeal has been its risk and rough edges: it is both a show that breaks rules and a show about broken people learning to fix themselves, and at its best, each aspect serves the other. The series’ future is as uncertain as ever, but in its return at least, Community is once again broken in the right places.