Community used to be a show about a community college: Seven lovable misfits got together to study Spanish at a school that suffers the occasional chaos of Paintball Assassin, and they became a family. The series has undergone some heavy behind-the-scenes drama and shifts in quality over the past few years, but it is still worth watching. Season five premiered this January, but the show is taking a month off due to NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage—plenty of time to catch up before it returns Feb. 27.
Season five represents a notable improvement as Community bounces back after suffering the season four loss of creator Dan Harmon as showrunner, as well as other writers and producers. Although Harmon is back for season five, the cast and crew have shuffled again. The departure of Community veteran Megan Ganz and other female writers left the staff predominantly male, an issue that too many shows fail to address.
The lack of women in the writers’ room may have caused failures of representations, like when, earlier this year, Harmon admitted to entertainment website IGN that he “absolutely forgot to have woman teachers.” Viewers need to see more women in positions of power on screen, or TV starts looking like a boys club. Equality and variety in media representation are important steps in combating oppressive societal structures. Community should know better.
The Harmon-less fourth season of Community received mixed reviews from critics and fans alike. I was pleasantly surprised by how funny and heartwarming the series could still be, but the comedy was broader and a bit too heavy-handed, and the characters often felt like caricatures of their former selves. Still, Community was enjoyable enough to survive a drop in quality.
With Harmon back at the wheel for season five, the show doesn’t have to try so hard to be itself. It’s funny without having to rely on callbacks. The characters have gone back to their roots—trying to find themselves at Greendale after not quite succeeding in the real world.
Jeff (Joel McHale), now too soft to be the ruthless lawyer he once was, teaches law—and he’s actually quite good at it. I’d like to see more of Jeff actually teaching students instead of hanging around the teachers’ lounge bitching about his failed career. The others, now fifth-year seniors, join Jeff on the Save Greendale Committee. Britta (Gillian Jacobs), who grew more air-headed and over the top as the show progressed, gets back to psychology and helping people.
Annie (Alison Brie) has a personality again. She spent the bulk of season four pining for Jeff—a crush that has felt mutual since “Debate 10” but still hasn’t gone anywhere. I ship it, but there’s certainly more to Annie than that. She returns to her type-A self, scolding Jeff for sloppy teaching and making shady deals left and right in order to put up a bulletin board. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and Abed (Danny Pudi) haven’t changed much; while Abed’s stoic referential humor is a staple of Community, Shirley has been underutilized this season. I’d like to see more growth, but I’m thrilled with what I’ve seen so far.
Season five of Community also draws on a rich supporting cast, filling the holes left by Chevy Chase (as Pierce Hawthorne) and Donald Glover (Troy Barnes). Chase quit the show at the end of last season after a very public feud with Harmon, and Glover left to work on personal projects such as his rap career (as Childish Gambino) and a new series for FX, Atlanta. John Oliver returns as Dr. Ian Duncan after his stint hosting The Daily Show last summer. Duncan has a lot of good one-liners, but his relentless interest in Britta is pretty sleazy. Chang (Ken Jeong) has thankfully overcome his Changnesia, and Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) dominates every scene in which he appears.
My favorite addition is professor Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad), who more or less fills the Pierce role of grumpy old guy. I never cared for Pierce, and outright hated him for much of the show, but Hickey is excellent; he’s an experienced mentor figure who can be funny without being offensive. He’s also instrumental as Community shifts to exploring Greendale’s faculty dynamics now that Jeff is teaching.
I’m a sucker for Community’s concept episodes (which extend the boundaries of the sitcom format through homage to different genres such as action and horror), tropes like the “bottle episode” and the “clip show,” and gimmicks as wild as claymation and Dungeons and Dragons. “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” presents a green-tinted crime thriller in the vein of David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac) that succeeds even though (or perhaps because) the offender is the small-time “Ass-Crack Bandit.”
The series works best with low stakes and high commitment, and season five is proving that the show still has style. My favorite episode of the season so far, “Geothermal Escapism,” features a post-apocalyptic game of The Floor Is Lava, which symbolizes Abed’s discomfort with Troy’s departure. Community will have to work hard to make up for Glover’s absence; although Troy was never much of a lead character, Glover’s expert delivery was consistently hilarious. There are more than enough side characters around to make up for his screen time, but I doubt anyone will ever take his place.
More than anything, Community is a funny show about interesting people. I would recommend it to anyone who likes to laugh and has a working knowledge of pop culture. It takes a little while to get into (maybe half a dozen episodes for those starting from the beginning, although “Repilot” might be a viable entry point), but this show is worth the effort. Community airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBC.
Lea Bejtovic is a junior at Pomona College, where she studies English. She is from Dallas. She misses sweet tea and Lost.