When last we saw the members of Greendale Community College's most insular study group, they had all overcome great (and not so great) odds to achieve some small measure of happiness. Jeff literally had his day in court, giving him back his legal swagger and the impetus to ace his biology final; Troy ended the reign of terror within Greendale's Air Conditioning Repair Annex; Abed gave in to the dark side (a.k.a. Evil Abed) but found his inner goodness and felt brave enough to dismantle his Dreamatorioum; Britta put her fledgling psychoanalytic skills to the test; Annie... continued to look really cute; and Shirley and Pierce managed to open a sandwich shop in the Greendale cafeteria without killing each other first.
Honestly -- despite all the #sixseasonsandamovie talk -- that was a perfectly satisfying way to wrap up the series, especially once it became clear that the show's original creator, the irascible Dan Harmon, wouldn't be involved in its future. But, with the thought of that magic 100-episode syndication number in mind, NBC and Sony Pictures Television decided to forge ahead anyway, committing to a 13-episode, Harmon-free fourth year (Moses Port and David Guarascio are taking over showrunning duties), which started -- following a protracted delay -- tonight. So how is the gang (and the show) fairing after their extended hiatus and under new management? Here's our Season 4 status report.
Where He's At: Ready to get the hell out of Greendale already, Jeff spent his summer taking classes online and now has only one history credit standing between him and his community college diploma. Naturally, this act of supposed selfishness upsets the rest of the group (Annie in particular), but it's kinda hard to see things their way: Jeff should be moving on. Don't let them hold you back, Winger.
Best Premiere Moment: Recognizing that he hated the more selfless New Jeff he was attempting to become.
Worst Premiere Moment: Competing in the "Hunger Deans" games. Then again, nobody could have made that lame Hunger Games parody work.
Funniest Line: "Like an ice cream cone melting in the sun, our time here can't last forever. That was part of the speech I was writing!"
Where He's At: Freaked out at the thought of the group entering their senior year, Abed vanishes into his mental "happy place" -- a version of Greendale that's straight out of the kind of broad, upbeat sitcom that would have aired as part of ABC's TGIF line-up back in the day. Of all the characters, Abed feels the most like himself throughout the course of the episode; his pop culture-addled brain is still intact, as is his social anxiety. But (and this is a big but) what's missing -- at least so far -- is the deep well of sadness that Harmon often brought to the fore.
Best Premiere Moment: Replacing Chevy Chase with Fred Willard as Pierce Hawthorne in his fantasy version of the show. Any chance we could make that change permanent?
Worst Premiere Moment: Flashing to the Muppet Babies send-up Greendale Babies cartoon, a forced attempt to replicate the genius of the stop-motion Christmas episode, not to mention the anime-influenced foosball game from last season.
Funniest Line: "Abed's Happy Community College Show is filmed before a live audience inside of my head."
Where She's At: Suddenly dubious about the career path she's chosen (hospital administrator), Annie appears to be weighing her scholastic options, even seriously considering Abed's advice to take a Forensics class. Also, the summer away has dimmed her attraction to Jeff, which she had seemed to have gotten over by the end of last season. Can't say I'm entirely thrilled that it's back (the show needs to put them together or split them up already), but Brie and McHale remain above average flirters.
Best Premiere Moment: Designing the dorkiest prank ever (moving everything on his desk over an inch, minus the stapler) as a way of sticking it to the Dean.
Worst Premiere Moment: The "popcorn in the car" prank was deliberately lame, but the awkwardness of her freak-out during said prank wasn't intended to be. Annie was moving in a really interesting, mature direction last year -- hopefully she won't regress under the new regime.
Funniest Line: "I've decided I'm going to do Senioritis this year. You know, just hangin' out, blowin' off classes, playin' pranks, not sayin' my G's."
Where She's At: Taking baby steps in her burgeoning relationship with Troy and continuing to use Abed as her psychiatric test dummy.
Best Premiere Moment: Unwishing the penny wishes that Troy tosses into the Greendale fountain. That's so Britta.
Worst Premiere Moment: Nothing really jumps out, but there was a sense that the writers were perhaps erring on the side of making Britta too obnoxious and oblivious. She's always been aggressively self-absorbed, yes, but it typically comes from a place of righteousness, not meanness.
Funniest Line: "Here's the deal, Jessica Biel."
Where He's At: Taking baby steps in his burgeoning relationship with Britta. Also, he seems to have severed ties with the AC repair school for good.
Best Premiere Moment: Clasping Britta's hand when they walk into the "History of Ice Cream" classroom together. Awwwwww.
Worst Premiere Moment: Again, can't think of one. But as with Britta, it's also hard to get a read on whether the new writers really understand his voice. Putting these two together could prove to be a miscalculation as the characters strangely seem more ordinary together then they ever were apart.
Funniest Line: "Just like real ice cream."
Where He's At: Still hanging around. That's about it.
Best Premiere Moment: Any scene where he was played by Fred Willard. Sorry to be so down on the guy, but knowing that Chase walked off the show before shooting wrapped makes it hard to watch the Pierce scenes with any real enthusiasm.
Worst Premiere Moment: Fondling all of Jeff's red balls while mad with power and trying to think of a clever one-liner. Naturally, the best one he can come up with is "Gay balls."
Funniest Line: "If you want something bad, you have to work for it. Or use a spell."
Where She's At: Still running her sandwich shop and, most likely, still going home to Andre and the kids... not that we heard anything about them.
Best Premiere Moment: Volunteering to become Annie's partner-in-pranks, when Annie really would have preferred Jeff.
Worst Premiere Moment: That "popcorn in the car" scene again; it just wasn't a strong piece of writing.
Funniest Line: "Poor Abed. Is he in his imagination emporium?"
Where He's At: Still madly in love with Jeff, to the point where he's not even pretending to hide his feelings anymore. Guess you can chalk it up to Jeff's impending graduation, but still, his abject desperation came off as creepy rather than funny.
Best Premiere Moment: Explaining to an angry mob of aspiring "History of Ice Cream" students how Greendale's admission system came to be hacked: someone "hacked" into the supply closet and counterfeited admission cards to the most popular history course on campus.
Worst Premiere Moment: Organizing the first-ever "Hunger Deans" competition as a way of resolving the overbooked-class snafu. Usually the Dean (as well as the writing staff) has been much more graceful and savvy about incorporating pop culture parodies than this.
Funniest Line: "All right, simmer dean, simmer dean!"
The Show Itself
Where It's At: Was it just me or did something seem... off about the entire episode? It was great seeing the cast and the campus again, but from the opening scene, the rhythms were stiff and strange, as if the director shot the dry run rather than the actual performance. Maybe the behind-the-scenes stuff involving Harmon was weighing too heavily on my mind, but the more the incoming writers tried to keep the show the same, the more different it seemed. Part of the problem is that Harmon always avoided giving Community a specific house style; if anything, the show was primarily defined by his very specific, very unpredictable comic voice. That forces Port and Guarascio into the almost impossible position of trying to match a voice rather than a style if they want to keep Community feeling like Community. And while the actors are doing what they can to make the transition smooth, this episode indicates just how much their performances have been shaped by Harmon's words and presence on set. I'd like to think that Community will recover from this awkward beginning and find a new rhythm going forward. If not, at least I know to stop with the Season 3 finale whenever I go back and re-watch the series... just as I rarely venture beyond "The Gift" in Buffy marathons.
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