Next Tuesday's DVD release of the fourth season of the NBC "must-see" sitcom "Community" provides a good opportunity to reflect on that quirky show that is a true survivor.
A fourth season was doubtful when the third season ended, series creator Dan Harmon was out after separate feuds with the network and series star Chevy Chase, and the premiere date for the shortened fourth season was pushed back.
The differences as of writing this review are that "Community" is returning for a fifth season, Harmon is back in, and Chase is out.
The outward premise of "Community" is that it revolves around the academic activity of the seven diverse members of a study group at the rock-bottom Greendale Community College. The real scoop is that the series lets us share in the wonderfully weird lives of these hilariously quirky characters. In fact, one character comments in the pilot episode that the show used to be about a community college.
This "community" simply feels free to say what they think and act how they want.We keep coming back both for the entertainment value related to that candor and because, like the viewing audience and a group of "must-see" misfit friends from NBC's Thursday night '90s line up, the Greendale Seven love their fellow misfits enough to pull back and apologize when they realize that they have gone too far.
Part of "Community's" evolution has involved expanding the focus from dark and sarcastic disgraced former attorney Jeff Winger, played by Joel "Don't Call Me Tosh" McHale of E's "Talk Soup," to his fellow outcasts. Winger enrolls at Greendale in response to a requirement that he obtain an undergraduate degree after it is revealed that he had lied about obtaining a bachelor's degree.
Danny Pudi as uber-fanboy group member Abed whose inner child runs free steals the show. Enhancing Abed's overall gentle nature and obsession with all things pop culture are the fourth season's best elements.
The fourth season fun starts with Abed retreating to his happy place in the form of a traditional sitcom version of "Community" in response to Jeff announcing that he is graduating earlier. Replacing quirky sketch comedy legend Chase with quirky sketch comedy legend Fred Willard in that version of the show is a not-so-subtle commentary on Chase's current stock.
The "real-world" action in the pilot consists of outrageously zany Dean Pelton, played by Jim Rash, staging a "Hunger Games" style competition for spaces in a true gut (pun intended) course about the history of ice cream.
Pelton spends much of the episode in a red evening dress and ramps up his barely concealed homoerotic pursuit of the completely heterosexual Jeff. The openness of this pursuit increases as Jeff comes closer to finishing his studies; a gag reel clip involving puppet versions of Jeff and Pelton is particularly steamy and has mild but appropriate profanity.
Abed's obsession with the hilarious fictitious "Doctor Who" clone "Inspector Spacetime" leads to the gang attending the fictitious Comic-Con clone InSpecTiCon event. A highlight of that episode include events that lead to jealousy on behalf of Abed and his bromance partner Troy. (Think of J.D. and Turk of the former NBC "must-see" sitcom "Scrubs."
Another highlight includes the derisive Jeff taking advantage of the strong similarity between his appearance and that of "Spacetime" villian Thoraxis to seduce a "Spacetime" fan played by "Battlestar Galactica's" Tricia Helfer.
A fifth season appearance by Thoraxis or at least Jeff dressing as that character in that season's Halloween episode are almost as certain as the Daleks showing up in "Doctor Who's" eighth season.
In typical "Community" style, the InSpecTicon hijinks lead the characters to learn something about themselves and/or another member of their study group family. Troy and Abed figuratively kiss and make up, naive good girl Annie discovers something about her true desires, and tough on the outside sweet on the inside Jeff displays his newly forming compassion.
A highly entertaining DVD special feature on the making of InSpecTiCon shows how the cast and crew really got into making that episode.
Another fourth-season episode that gives Abed a chance to indulge in his love of all things television has him purposefully schedule two dates for the same event so that he can frantically switch clothes and make excuses that allow bouncing between the dates in true sitcom style. Pelton's costume in that episode includes gray make-up and a June Cleaver dress that transforms him into a '50s sitcom housewife.
Abed's buddy Troy is one of the most interesting and appealing members of the group; seeing this former high school football star have such an awesome friendship with the nerdy Abed and care so deeply for that misfit is textbook charming.
In addition, many of us can relate to Troy having to deal with peaking in high school. The scene below in which middle-aged mom Shirley outshines Troy in a physical education education (PEE) class that Troy initially thinks is a gym class that he can sail through is hilarious. Another great scene has Shirley and Troy trying to deal with simulated locker room mayhem.
Another exceptional scene in the PEE episode is a montage parody in which Shirley and Troy help the alleged "Changnesia" afflicted former Spanish professor turned child army warlord "Kevin," played by "The Hangover" actor Ken Jeong, relearn simple tasks such as using a water fountain and throwing a basketball.
Although fourth season episodes do not prominently feature Chase's wealthy curmudgeon Pierce, he has some shining (pun intended) moments. A hilarious Halloween episode that is set in Pierce's mansion includes nice visual references to Chase's better days.
A subsequent episode that has most of the cast going to Shirley's for a particularly toxic Thanksgiving dinner provides a showcase for Chase's trademark pratfalls. Pierce also earns a big a laugh regarding asking African-American Shirley's (unseen but presumably large) female relative if she is Tyler Perry in drag.
The brutal honesty regarding the Tyler Perry joke is another element of "Community" that is almost as great as its embracing of childish behavior and related tendency to put awesomely dark spins on things as innocent as pillow forts and child-oriented animated adventures.
The fourth season's last episode, which likely was considered the series finale, when it was filmed is one of many examples of the love that the cast and crew have for the fans. Dean Pelton's obsession for Jeff, a melding of our universe with the one from "the darkest timeline" from a third season episode, and the unsentimental nature of Chase's departure are all very true to "Community." This episode also provides hope that "Community: The New Class" becomes more than a fantasy starring Marc Paul Gosselaar in this fan's head.
Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Community" is encouraged to email me. E pluribus anus everyone.