In its first return to the study room, Season 5 of ‘Community’ is something simultaneously new and old, familiar and foreign. We’ve been here before, and we know everyone, but we’re taking a big breath and pause before we take a first step. We’re going in a new direction, almost resetting (I’m sure there is a word for it…), but not before getting our footing in a spot we’ve been before – thanks to creator Dan Harmon.
Jeff Winger is down and out, failing as a lawyer and finding his way to Greendale College with a plan for salvation that involves scheming and swindling for selfish gain. Just like the pilot, Season 5’s ‘Repilot’ (there it is), which picks up months after graduation, features a Jeff change of heart due to the earnestness of a group of idealists who are all struggling to get by. Before his realization, though, he continues to enter and leave the study room amid wanting, eager eyes with manufactured excuses while he ponders what to do next, as he did the first time we met him.
Just like the pilot, after he gives a convincing speech, he steps outside only to encounter Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase, as a hologram, making a curious appearance after quitting the show and falling out with Harmon), at once a beacon of insight and a selfish old bigot. And of course, just like the pilot, the group comes together on the steps of Greendale in a warm embrace.
That was re-piloting. The second episode, as part of the hour-long showcase, finished off the new alignment, as Jeff fell into place as a teacher at Greendale, and Jonathan Banks’ Buzz Hickey character was introduced and slotted in as the group’s "old-guy" slot. Abed too went off on his own escapade, a brilliant exploration of the work of Nicolas Cage, going to expected places that were hilariously executed.
In unprecedented fashion, Harmon has returned to the show from which he was fired. ‘Community’ survived to a fourth season, but suffered a major letdown, as it was panned by critics, loathed by fans, and shrugged off by the cast. In typical Harmon fashion, ‘Repilot’ references itself and maintains its meta-ness, but Harmon goes further, alluding not-so-subtly to all the backstage drama.
“What have they done to our home?” said Shirley when the group returned to a cluttered, almost graveyard-like study room; Harmon is too much of a perfectionist and too smart for this not to be attacking Season 4. There is also a few references to a mysterious "gas leak" year that everyone is choosing to forget – not hard to figure what that means either.
What’s more, while Troy makes an aside about the departed Pierce, the most telling dialogue comes when Ben Chang appears, having been jailed, house-arrested, and employed as a math teacher at Greendale. Harmon offers jabs, well, maybe throws haymakers, at NBC and Sony (and possibly a couple at himself), paralleling the chastisement, firing, and then rehiring of Chang by Greendale with his own path. Chang did after all refuse authority before being exiled.
"Insane," "irresponsible," and "evil" are some of the words thrown around by the characters, and not by accident. So while Harmon was humbled by being fired and infuriated by seeing his show in the hands of others, he has his chance at redemption, though it doesn’t seem like he will ever be content.
It’s easy to say that Harmon’s return to the show has made it instantly better, but it’s hard to deny, and it’s near-impossible for loyal fans of the show (six seasons and a movie!) not to get excited about what is in store now. Sure, the reasons the group is getting back together after four years of community college are contrived, as Harmon has admitted, but the ship has been righted, the characters are on board, and there is smooth sailing ahead – for the most part (Donald Glover will be departing after five episodes).
It’s there at the end of the second episode: the first time that all the stray ends come together and the septet takes their seats with purpose at the study table (the Mark II), with Buzz assuming the spot of the departed Pierce. It’s a simple, remarkable sight, acknowledging past changes and nodding to those in the future.
That’s what happens at Greendale though – things change. The show is not the same one that is was, but it can’t be. The study group as it was is gone; but for now, the Student Teacher Save Greendale Community is here.