Review: “History 101,” Community

It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, but it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped.

It’s almost too difficult to further elucidate my thoughts on “History 101,” the first episode of Community’s fourth season – and the first without eccentric showrunner Dan Harmon at the creative helm. Though the man has inspired fierce devotion and condemnation during the beleaguered sitcom’s run (particularly after the manic and much-debated Season 3), Community was unquestionably Harmon’s baby until NBC and distributor Sony fired him off the show last May.

The general public (myself included) has only been exposed to one episode of Community Season 4 so far, and I don’t presume to judge all 13 on the basis of the first. However, while it’s impossible to watch the show now unaffected by the knowledge of Harmon’s absence, I think it would be evident even in the pre-Internet area that something about the show has changed.

It’s subtle, but certainly noticeable. What’s on display is far from horrible; after all new showrunners Moses Port and David Guarascio are known for their involvement with ABC’s Happy Endings, which I recently named my favorite show of 2012. But there’s something – actually, three things – off about it.

1. Where’s the attention to detail?

When Harmon’s Community staff decided to make an homage, spoof or parody of something, they went all in. Commentaries on Community’s third season reveal a painstaking effort to replicate the exact feel of the genres it was dabbling in, from the maps and voiceovers of Ken Burns documentaries in “Pillows and Blankets” to the camera angles and act structure of Law and Order on “Basic Lupine Urology.”

That loving treatment and deconstruction is absent in “History 101,” much of which is taken up with parodies of two different media elements – “The Hunger Games” and multi-cam sitcoms – that barely qualify as parodies. The multi-cam “satire” seemed toothless, shot in virtually the same way as the show itself but with more obvious jokes and no point of view, and there was nothing remotely like The Hunger Games present in “The Hunger Deans,” Dean Pelton’s latest scheme to get closer to series lead Jeff Winger (for what it’s worth, I like The Hunger Games, but it’s exactly the kind of ephemeral, in-the-moment type fare that Harmon shied away from during his tenure on the show).

2. Where’s the motivation?

There seemed to be a sense that the show had some beats to hit without a sense of why those beats needed to be hit. Dean Pelton in a dress? Check. But why is he in a dress? Previous seasons have showed the motivation behind his weird get-ups, and I think “a desire to look like Effie Trinket” is a stretch in this case. Some of the character actions and the execution of Abed’s metafictional TV shows also felt this way: perfunctory elements to a Harmon-led episode of the show without the spark that made them great.

3. Where are some of these characters?

The dialogue almost turned “History 101” into a proto-pilot episode, as it was immediately clear which characters the writing staff knew how to write for. Jeff, Abed, especially Troy and sometimes Dean Pelton managed to get off some clever zingers and heartfelt moments, but the rest of the cast felt a little off, particularly Annie, who was way too slapstick, and Pierce, who had approximately one joke that dragged on throughout the entire episode. If the writers can’t start coming up with solid characterization for those two, Britta, and Shirley, the show will be down four solid resources in coming episodes.

All that being said, there was still some good stuff here. Donald Glover had some great moments as Troy that will likely become part of the Community fandom’s lexicon (a brief exchange between him and Abed about spelling is particularly funny), there are some nice scenes between Joel McHale’s Jeff and Jim Rash’s Dean, the reveal of Ken Jeong’s Chang at episode’s end was a brilliant beginning to whatever story lies ahead for him this year and the Fred Willard guest star turn was an inspired gag. It was a diverting half hour of television, to be sure, and I hope the seeds of good that are here take root while the trouble elements are weeded out, to be remembered as nothing more than the bumps in the road that come with every creative transition.

Ultimately, “History 101” is disappointing not so much for its content as it is for the knowledge of what it could be.


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