03/14/2012 09:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Community' Review: NBC Sitcom Returns, As Demented And Lovable As Ever

It's a good time to be a TV fan: A few weeks ago, "Cougar Town" finally returned after a hiatus that stretched beyond fans' endurance; the long-absent "Mad Men" rewards our epic patience in less than two weeks; and "Game of Thrones" finally comes back April 1, after a completely normal between-seasons gap that felt like an endless stint in one of Robert Baratheon's jails. (OK, so it might have felt that endless had there not been at least two dozen good shows that aired during the "GoT"-free time frame, but in fairness to "Game of Thrones" and the rabid loyalty the HBO drama inspires, none of those other shows featured both zombies and incestuous sex. You can't get that on "The Good Wife.")

But the program that has endured perhaps the most difficult wait of all has only been gone about four months, but it was a long, fraught vigil for those of us who want comedies that are both smart and inventive to thrive on network television. The worry over the fate of "Community" -- which spent much of the last few months in a kind of TV limbo, with fans not even knowing when it would return -- isn't just about the future of the study group at Greendale Community College: It is part of a larger anxiety about whether comedies that are neither broad nor predictable will be able to make it on the biggest networks.

The jury is still out on that; be prepared for many tweets from beneath my desk, which is where I will have assumed the fetal position, should both "Cougar Town" and "Community" come to their respective ends this season. But let's not envision the Darkest Timeline quite yet. And let's face it, the absolute Darkest Timeline would be a scenario in which many smart dramas and smart comedies fail on broadcast networks this season. Goodness knows I love cable, but shouldn't there be such a thing as big-tent (but mildly niche-ified) television? Can't there be shows aimed at the mainstream that feature weirdos, endearing nutballs and Broadway singers? I certainly hope that's the case going forward, but the season NBC is having is making me sweat a little in that regard.

Having said that, we live in a world where both "Chuck" and "Friday Night Lights" -- both NBC properties -- got five seasons, thanks to some well-timed DirectTV financial assistance for "FNL" and some serious wheeling and dealing between the studio that made "Chuck" and the network that aired it. And as TV critic Alan Sepinwall has pointed out, NBC's perilous decade has ensured the survival of shows that would have been quickly canceled had they aired somewhere else. New-ish NBC entertainment president Robert Greenblatt may have righted the ship creatively, but he and the Peacock Network have sailed into a headwind of ever-increased time- and device-shifting (or perhaps, crappier viewer counting by Nielsen, which has yet to prove it can do a bang-up job of finding viewers who aren't watching TV in real time).

So, between NBC's fortunes and various interested parties' desire to save Greendale, some kind of assist might be in the offing for "Community" (returns Thurs., March 15 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC), but that's a possibility to ponder in a month or two. For now, let's just bask in the fact that the show is finally on TV again. Here are a few of my favorite things about Thursday's outing, which isn't necessarily an all-time classic, but should put smiles on the faces of Human Beings across the land (mild spoilers ahoy):

  1. The best story line of the episode would make a great "Afterschool Special" theme, but of course the message being conveyed -- be yourself, don't try to be someone you're not -- is given an appropriately weird and entertaining "Community"-style spin. Tired of being perceived as freaks, Troy and Abed attempt to "pass" as normal people; they wear boring suits, engage in appropriate small talk and banter in bland bro-speak. It's horrifying! Of course, the larger implications aren't hard to define: "Community" itself could change into something more mainstream and familiar, but then the whole point of its existence would probably be lost. If "Community" keeps going, and I certainly hope it does because Troy and Abed need to be on TV for a very long time, let's hope it keeps that freak flag flying and keeps the duo's Dreamatorium stocked with all kinds of goofy insanity.
  2. The other theme of the episode -- that people need to drop their insecurities and baggage and embrace the possibility of change -- isn't quite in the same league as the Troy-Abed material, but I tend to like "Community" episodes that wear their heart on their sleeve, as this one does. With Shirley getting re-engaged to her ex, and both Britta and Jeff making various drunken admissions about their secret fears, it's a fairly emotionally candid episode, as "Community" episodes go. Let's face it, how can I not enjoy an episode of television that begins with a New Jack Swing marriage proposal?
  3. There's a good Jim Belushi joke, a couple of "Inspector Spacetime" mentions and some impressive flower-arranging from a very unlikely corner. There's a Shirley-Pierce story line (and how often do you see those?). And there are some swell lines, like this one: "It's almost too conceptual to follow, but I love it."

Meta much? Maybe a little. But after a long wait, "Community" is allowed to be self-referential, especially because, when it comes to its comeback, the show did not Britta it.

Check out my colleagues Maggie Furlong and Chris Spurlock's fab map of all the "Community" relationships, and take a look at Maggie's interviews with the cast of "Community," whom she talked to as they were making this episode.