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Looking Back at 'Community' and Moving Forward with Season 5

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Jan 02, 2014 | 2:12pm EST

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After months of waiting, fueled by syndicated reruns and battle cries of "Six Seasons and a Movie!", Community fans will finally be able to escape their own darkest timeline — also known as the dark shadow cast by Season 4 — and celebrate when the show returns for its highly-anticipated fifth season. Along for the ride is the newly-reinstated show runner Dan Harmon, whose long battles with the network and controversial firing seems to have overshadowed the show itself in the press. Overall, fans have been excited by Harmon's return, and early reviews of the new episodes promise that Community finally feels like Community again. However, that doesn't necessarily guarantee that the show will be able to easily return to its former glory, and the deck is stacked pretty highly against them. 

For one thing, even though the Greendale Seven are reuniting at their old college after discovering that the real world isn't as hospitable to epic pillow forts, campus wide paintball wars and Law and Order spoofs as Greendale was, there will be one notable absence: Chevy Chase's Pierce. As with Harmon, Chase's tenure on the show was often clouded by controversy and conflicts (many of them with Harmon himself), and so it came as no surprise that he would decline to return for the fifth season. But Pierce was a significant part of the study group, and his absence is bound to throw things off balance for a little while. As a character, he's either at the forefront of an episode or completely shunted to the background, so it will be interesting to see which direction the writers decide to go when approaching his loss. The worst thing for them to do would be to completely ignore it and therefore the effect that his absence will have on the rest of the group, but since Community has never passed up an opportunity for an in-joke or a meta reference, we're not too worried. 

No, the departure that is truly worrying is that of Donald Glover, who will only be appearing in five episodes this season as Troy. The loss of Troy will probably be more keenly felt than that of Pierce, simply because his friendship with Abed is the show's most important and prominent relationship, and so his impending departure will be hanging heavily over the first few episodes of the season. Although Season 3 laid some of the groundwork for establishing who Troy and Abed are without each other, the show's biggest obstacle this season will be dealing with the loss of one of its most beloved characters. The team has promised that it will be done in a way that makes sense, in terms of both plot and emotional impact, and since the trailer already contains at least one tongue-in-cheek reference to it, it's very likely that Community will be able to deliver in that regard. 

Of course, the show will also have to reconcile the new storylines with all of the changes, developments and regressions that were made in Season 4. Since Harmon has made his feelings on the last season very well known, there's no doubt that he will spend a lot of time fixing, retconning, or explaining away anything that he didn't approve of. This puts the show in danger of becoming all about rectifying what went wrong, and not actually moving forward with new story or character arcs. Harmon is not known for being subtle about his feelings, or for easily letting go of the conflicts he has had with various people and companies over the years. As such, there's a good chance that much of this new season will be about settling scores, to the detriment of any forward movement. Every television season is about moving forward and moving on, and that's the best thing Community can do.

Despite being vehemently hated by fans and generally panned by critics, Season 4 wasn't quite as bad as it is believed to be. It did lose a lot of what made Community feel like Community, and many of its episodes weren't up to par with golden half-hours like "Pillows and Blankets" or "Cooperative Calligraphy," but there were many episodes in the Harmon-led seasons that didn't live up to those either. The biggest problem with Season 4 is that it lacked the proper balance between gimmicky plots and heartfelt character moments, and that's a problem that Season 5 is could have as well — just take a look at all of the guest stars they have lined up. However, Season 4 did a lot with the characters that was necessary in order to move forward with who they were becoming. 

One of the most highly-derided plots of last season was Chang's "Changesia," where he called himself Kevin and acted with genuine kindness and friendship toward the study group members as a ploy to take them all down. While the execution was greatly lacking, the writers desperately needed to find some way to redeem the character of Chang if they wanted to keep him on the show. At the end of Season 3, Chang had taken over Greendale in a dictatorial power grab, only to end up at rock bottom after the gang lead a coup against him. The show had been building toward something like that for some time, with the character slipping further and further into insanity over the course of the second season. There's no way to top the insanity of taking over the college and getting everyone expelled, and so the only place for Chang to go, then, was up. And even though giving him Changnesia was a flimsy excuse, it give force the study group to re-evaluate their relationship with him, and decide to forgive him, which once again gave him a place at Greendale. 

Similarly, the season did its best to return some depth to the character of Britta, after two seasons of her being mercilessly picked on and behaving in increasingly more ditzy and insane ways. With "Herstory of Dance," which tends to be regarded as the best episode of the season, the show acknowledged that Britta had become nothing more than a punchline for the other characters, and returned some of the dignity that had been missing from the character in her victory at the end. However, if Harmon disliked this development, Britta will be shunted right back into being the picked-on joke of a character that lacked a lot of the depth and interesting characteristics that she started the series with. Shirley also gained some depth over the season, especially when the audience got to see how she views the study group as a second, more welcoming family in "Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations," as well as when her competitive nature allowed her to be the focus of several plots over the course of the year. 

Ideally, the new season will recognize the good things that happened in Season 4, like the redemption of Chang or the development of Britta and Shirley, and rather than just focusing on settling a score or retconning all of the forgettable moments of the season, actually build on them and use it to propel the plot forward. If the worst thing that Season 4 did was highlight gimmicks over substance, the worst thing that Season 5 can do is refuse to let go of the past. 

The one thing that Season 5 has in its favor is that most audiences have already made up their minds that it will be a step up from last year. Season 4 definitely had flaws (many of them, in fact), but the thing that hurt it the most was that everyone had decided before the episodes started airing that it was going to be a disaster. Therefore, when the good moments happened, they were largely ignored, and the bad moments were held up as examples of why Community was doomed without Harmon. We predict that something similar will happen this season, which will only be bolstered by Harmon's presence being restored to the universe he created. 

Only time will tell if Harmon's return really does mean a return to the glory days of Greendale. However, the odds and fan opinion are on his side, and if the team can find a way to reconcile Season 4 with what they have planned for the new episodes, it might even be enough to win back some of the old fans who have become bored by the constant drama surrounding the show. In the meantime, though, let's just grab some special drink and settle into our blanket forts and finally enjoy the return of our favorite study group. 

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