Community, S4 E1 – History 101

The road to Community‘s fourth season premiere has been a rough one.

First it was announced that while the show would return for a shortened season, creator and showrunner Dan Harmon would not, leaving the show in new hands. Then, NBC moved Community to the infamous “Friday night death slot.” Its premiere was delayed and rescheduled and then delayed again. Rumours and reports swirled about behind-the-scenes tension in the cast, culminating in Chevy Chase’s late-game decision to leave the show.

For fans, these changes meant a host of anxieties. Would the new writers be able to capture the show’s unique tone? Would the characters still feel like themselves? What about Pierce?

In true Community fashion, the show addresses each of these fears head-on.

“History 101” focuses on change, and specifically the natural human tendency to fear change. We open with Troy and Abed in the study room being greeted by an uncharacteristic laugh track as Troy mentions that “something’s changed,” a nod to fan fears that the new showrunners would bring with them the outdated sitcom trappings Community has always scorned. When the study group assembles, Pierce is played not by Chevy Chase but by Fred Willard — surely a nod to the complications with Chase behind the scenes, and likely also a nod at the common fan suggestion that Community recast the role, daytime soap style, rather than write out the character.

The title card and theme song this week were replaced by Abed's fantasy sitcom, "Abed's Happy Community".

The title card and theme song this week were replaced by Abed’s fantasy sitcom, “Abed’s Happy Community.”

This unusual cold open turns out to be a mere fantasy of TV-fanatic Abed, his “happy place” that Britta has encouraged him to seek solace in whenever he feels stressed about beginning senior year. As the group reunites in reality at Greendale for their joint class, “History of Ice Cream,” more changes arise. We learn that Troy and Britta’s relationship has “progressed” — “it hasn’t progressed-progressed, it’s progressive,” Britta explains. Annie proudly announces that she plans to embrace senioritis this year, but later reveals to Shirley that she’s anxious about graduating and letting “the sad slow march towards death begin.” And for perhaps the biggest change of all, Jeff tells the group that he’s taken summer classes and only needs one more history course to graduate.

Ostensibly, the rest of the episode follows Jeff’s quest to prove he’s a changed, selfless man by winning “The Hunger Deans” to earn the study group enrollment in the coveted “History of Ice Cream” class.  Various scenes provide laughs and the genre-subversion fun that Community is known for, and the basis for future conflicts, such as Annie’s feelings for Jeff, is established. More importantly, though, the episode repeatedly filters through “Abed TV,” Abed’s sitcom and later animated fantasy world where he dreams of the group being forced to repeat the first three years.

This works, as it should, on two levels. In the simplest terms it works for the characters; as a group of friends formed initially as a study group, anxiety over what those friendships will become after graduation is only natural. Perhaps more importantly, this also functions as the show reaching through the screen to say “it’s going to be okay.” There’s an air of nostalgia, too, a sense that this is the beginning of the end, as the study group nears graduation and the show begins what is widely speculated to be its final season.

Ultimately, Community fans should be glad to see their show back on the air, and “History 101” should reassure them that, while things may have changed, the show — like the study group itself — is strong enough to withstand change.

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