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TV Tonight: Community Is Back. Or Is It?

In the new, post-Dan Harmon episodes, this once-brilliant community college sitcom now looks like a Cliff's Notes version of itself.

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Vivian Zink/NBC

Would that I had a magic die. Before I watched the new episodes of Community, I could have tossed it into the air and created two separate timelines.

In one timeline, I would have watched the new episodes knowing that they were made after the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, was forced out of the unique comedy he crafted like an obsessive jeweler. I would have known that the comedy was turned over to David Guarascio and Moses Port–experienced sitcom producers, but not the creators of what was a very personal, idiosyncratic vision–and that they were tasked with imitating the tone and style of what was as close to a piece of auteur art as broadcast TV allows.

In the other timeline, I would not have known any of this. I would just have known I was watching two new episodes of Community.

I have no magic die. I watched the episodes knowing about Harmon’s ouster, and I cannot un-know that. Which means I can’t know the extent to which I was influenced by that knowledge. Had I not known, maybe I would have simply thought that I watched, respectively, a disappointing episode of Community (tonight’s) and an OK episode of Community (airing in two weeks).

Instead, I saw… well, a disappointing and an OK episode of Community. On the surface, anyway. The new episodes pick up where you’d have expected last year: the study group is in their fourth year at Greendale and starting to anticipate graduating, which is already starting to produce separation anxiety. They’re considering the future and life apart, which is making making for self-doubt and friction: all of which would be fertile ground for the weird but heartfelt series that Harmon had made the show into over three years.

The new episodes, though, play like they were created by very talented writers who prepared by reading Community’s IMDB description. Community made some famous paintball episodes–so the return installment features a similar campus-wide competition to get into a coveted class. Community does a lot of parodies–so the first episode involves a Hunger Games parody. Community has complicated framing devices–so one new episode includes an imaginary TV show within an imaginary TV show within Community. Community loves nerd culture, so an upcoming episode is set at an Inspector Spacetime convention.

It’s not terribly executed–the Inspector Spacetime episode, at least, is funny and finds its way to a heartfelt conclusion. And Guarascio and Port seem very conscious of concerns they might screw the series up, to the extent that the new season opens with a meta joke—another thing Community does—that tweaks just that fear.

I won’t spoil the joke. It’s a funny one! But it’s also telling: these episodes feel like someone doing an imitation of a mimic. They’re simple and untaxing. To extend the college metaphor, they’re the Cliff’s Notes of Community.

Actually, the new episodes might not have been totally out of place in the first or second seasons of Community, when the show was intensely interested in parodies and meta jokes but hadn’t quite managed to mesh them with its broken-geek heart. The show was funny then, but it often felt cold, a sitcom about sitcom characters who half-knew they were sitcom characters (except for Abed, who fully knew, and whose TV-centric worldview was the show’s answer key).

Somewhere in its second year–maybe around the stop-motion Christmas special–it hit another gear and found the heart to match its stunts. By season three, it became the kind of show that could make an episode about Pierce getting his father’s will in the form of an 8-bit videogame, and could make you laugh until you cried, then cry until you laughed again.

The new episodes don’t have that: they feel like very accomplished imitations,. The characters do things like we’ve seen them do in the past. They react emotionally to situations the way they have before, but they’re now drawn more broadly, defined by their most joke-friendly neuroses: Annie’s insecurity, Abed’s resistance to change and pop-culture obsession.

So the new episodes don’t have the old complexity, messiness and poignance. They don’t inspire the wild excitement of having no idea what’s going to come on the screen next. They don’t have that electric sense of experimenting on the fly. And they don’t seem to do what Harmon had them do, what Community itself did, which is: grow.

As much as I love auteuristic TV shows—Louie, Girls—it’s possible to take a show created by a singular voice and make it great in a different way. TV series are not just artworks but small businesses; their structure is designed to survive the loss of any part, often even the original creative force. The West Wing lost Aaron Sorkin after four seasons, but its last election arc was one of the best things the show ever did.

And it would be hugely unfair to expect the new producers to capture Harmon’s personal vision. You can’t do that; that’s why it’s personal. The problem–so far–is that Community’s new bosses don’t seem to have anything to replace it with. Judging by two episodes, we might expect a season 4 of Community heavy on pop-culture-referential episodes and Dean Pelton weirdness, all leading to little climaxes of sentiment–but not the kind of weird, probing detours the show made in episodes like “Critical Film Studies.”

Of course, two episodes is not a lot to judge by. Maybe the new management wanted to assuage fans by putting their most familiar work forward first. Maybe they have their own ideas for the characters–as they should, or why run the show at all? Maybe I, like Abed, am forcing the new Community into a readymade TV frame set up in my head.

Maybe. Would that I had a magic die. All I can be sure of is that it would be deeply sad if Community’s last act was to become a well-executed parody of itself.