It's appropriate that a show that likes to play around with metaphors and meta-narratives has to spend much of its Season 4 premiere contending with an offscreen development that is theoretically unconnected to the realities of life at Greendale Community College. The show's creator, Dan Harmon, left (or was fired from) "Community" in a storm of acrimony last year, and rather than let the show ride off into the sunset as a "gone too soon" legend, a new pair of showrunners were recruited to keep the study group's adventures going.
This is the best! No, wait! This is the worst! Two realities at once -- so confusing! Won't someone break the fourth wall and tell us how to feel about it?
That's unlikely to happen, so the "gift" of a fourth season will likely remain a conundrum for the show's hardcore fans for some time to come. I feel like something of an interloper in that world, given that it took until the third season for the show to truly work its magic on me ("Remedial Chaos Theory" was my gateway drug). Still, as I wrote here, I can understand wanting to keep Harmon's version of this world going; his version of the show was inconsistent but brilliant when its playful attitude toward structure and metaphor merged brilliantly with the show's subtexts about loneliness, self-sabotage and the difficulty of connection.
But there are still laughs to be wrought from the adventures of the Greendale gang, and new executive producers Moses Port and David Guarascio do a reasonable job of extracting the kinds of comedy "Community" fans have come to expect. There's no doubt they've been handed an impossible task: How can anyone satisfy the kind of obsessive fandom that left more than 100,000 comments on a single "Community" review? "Community" fans have used their love for the show to create their own ferocious community, and you don't just move on to their street and expect a welcoming block party. The new neighbors will have to prove themselves.
In the two episodes NBC sent for review, Port and Guarascio are respectful to what came before -- actually, too respectful, but the desire to not rock the boat is understandable. As was the case with "Cougar Town," this new version of "Community" is acceptable and amusing, but it's also flatter and less surreal than the old-school version of the show.
It remains to be seen if Port and Guarascio can bring the edge of unpredictability and whimsical pathos that often informed the best episodes of the show -- or if they can impose their own vision on Greendale -- but the study group remains recognizable and there aren't any significant blunders so far. It's not the same show, and it's not yet their show; you might say the show takes place in an alternate reality that is "Community"-esque. We'll just have to see if they have something new, entertaining or even profound to say with this group of characters.
So until we have sampled more of the products of the new school, here are a few random (and non-spoilery) thoughts about the episodes NBC sent out for review (the season premiere and the Feb. 21 outing, which finds the gang at an "Inspector Spacetime" convention):
1. The new showrunners know that everyone is waiting for them to screw up "Community," so the season premiere foregrounds a story that acknowledges the viewers' fears about the kind of hacky show the NBC comedy could turn into in more conventional hands. To describe that plot in any detail would take away from the fun of it, but it's a reasonably funny satire of certain comedy conventions.
2. Watch the lowest quarter of the screen during the first episode for more laffs.
3. The characters' annoyance with Pierce (Chevy Chase) is so pointed in these two episodes that it barely qualifies as a running joke anymore. As most viewers know, Chase left the show under acrimonious circumstances before the fourth season ended, and the subtext of almost every interaction between a pre-departure Chase and other characters is, "Why won't this guy just leave already!" Show of hands from those who will miss Pierce Hawthorne?
4. As Dean Pelton, Jim Rash is on his A-game in the season premiere, which involves a parody of a famous pop-culture property.
5. Matt Lucas of "Little Britain" does a fine guest turn in the "Inspector Spacetime" episode; he plays a very Abed-like Brit who is intensely fascinated by the long-running sci-fi show (which is clearly and lovingly modeled on "Doctor Who"). I love both fan conventions and sci-fi TV, and perhaps because I feel protective of both, I didn't love this episode as much as I wanted to. An Annie subplot feels unoriginal, and it's not a great use of Alison Brie. The nerd convention storyline has been done with more imagination and heart elsewhere. The episode contains quite a few lazy, expected "jokes" (sci-fi fans are socially awkward types -- mostly males -- who are incapable of getting laid; network executives who want to make American versions of imported shows inevitably dumb them down; etc.), and a running joke about a hated female character in the "Inspector Spacetime" universe felt gratuitous and vaguely icky. However, there's a good cameo from "Battlestar Galactica" actor Tricia Helfer, Troy and Abed's love of "Inspector Spacetime" is real and sweet, and we get to see what a "quantum spanner" looks like, so there's that.
"Community" returns on Thursday, February 7 at 8 p.m. EST on NBC.