“Repiloting can be intense,” announces Community’s culture whiz Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) in the first moments of the show’s new fifth season. “New people show up, regulars shift roles or even fall away.”
Rarely have shows ever been so honest about their own situation than Community. After an abrupt benching by NBC in 2011 followed by a soulless reboot the year after, creator Dan Harmon is finally at the helm after a bitter break, trying to piece together a re-pilot out of the rubble. It’s not an easy task: like Abed tells us, there are old stars to phase out (Chevy Chase and Donald Glover), new faces to add (Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks, Arrested Development’s David Cross), and of course, network tycoons to please.
And yet, the first two episodes that aired Thursday night weren’t so much “intense” as reassuring. It’s been ages since things were right at Greendale Community College, but Community has already hit its stride and looks primed for a fifth season that’s at worst pleasant and at best zany and hilarious. While other sitcoms this long-lasting forced some big change-ups to keep the shows fresh — think Michael Scott leaving The Office or Family Guy killing off and then resurrecting Brian — Community seems content to rely on the formula that made the show so successful.
That formula is creating bizarre college situations, writing in witty one-liners, and letting the diverse, uproarious cast go to work. As usual, Pudi’s Abed and Joel McHale’s Jeff Winger carried most of the weight. McHale is an excellent straight man that often keeps the show grounded, but it’s always fun to see him get nasty, as he does here against his legal arch-nemesis Alan (Rob Corddry). And Abed is thankfully back at the heart of the show with his meta-awareness and absurd pop-culture obsession. 2014 may only be three days old, but his Nic Cage-style freakout basically justified the show’s return and should be on every must-watch list of 2014.
On top of the core cast, throughout the show's run Harmon has recruited a who’s who list of comedic stars to roll through the set: Jack Black, Betty White, LeVar Burton and countless others have delivered incredible blink-and-you-miss-it cameos that once made the show astounding every single week. Season 5 will try to recapture that synergy, especially with triple-threat Donald Glover seriously reducing his role (of course, the show tackles this issue right away, with Glover’s character Troy calling Zack Braff a “son of a bitch” for deserting Scrubs). This season’s cameos have been excellent so far, with Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine) as nimble and sneering as ever, and the formerly menacing, murderous Banks as a cranky old teacher drawing cartoon ducks. With Oliver, Cross, Brie Larson, Vince Gilligan, and Mitch Hurwitz set to come to campus soon, the 11 remaining episodes suddenly have formidable potential.
College only lasts four years, and given how uneven senior year was for the Greendale Six, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the cast and crew of Community had up and graduated to other projects. After all, the show is famous for its obscure pop culture references and its gimmickry, both of which are usually fleeting. But Thursday night’s episodes showcased the show's most important element: it’s damn funny, and any show that’s as funny as this deserves to be on air. Dan Harmon’s back, and while there may be nothing new about Community in 2014, the same old routine is cool, cool, cool, by me.