Community, the wacky NBC sitcom about the weirdest community college in America, is coming back to life. But perhaps more bizarre than the idea of a community college with classes about the acting choices of Nicolas Cage (a hilarious subplot that gives us Danny Pudi’s impressive Cage impression) is the behind-the-scenes drama.

After an impressive, if sometimes uneven, run of episodes in season 3, NBC and Sony fired Dan Harmon. Harmon was not only the creator and showrunner of Community, he was also the soul of the show. Yet with the sweet, sweet nectar of syndication in sight, the show still trundled on for a shortened season 4 under new showrunners. 

This zombie Community was never the show it was before Harmon left, yet it earnestly tried to be the weird little show that had fans chanting outside 30 Rockefeller Center for #SixSeasonsandaMovie. It was Community, yet it wasn’t Community, which resulted in a disorienting season of television.

The difference between last year’s zombie Community and this season’s batch of episodes is startling. A lot has changed between seasons in the lives of our characters, yet the biggest change is in the writing for the show. Even in the best episodes last year, like “Intro to Felt Surrogacy,” things still felt just slightly left of center. With Harmon’s return, it feels like the ship has been righted back on course and the soul has returned to the proceedings.

Harmon’s vision was always the dark engine propelling Community to heights of sublime absurdity. The first three episodes are darker and angrier than anything last season, perhaps influenced by Harmon’s own feelings of being punted from his creation. But the episodes are also, strangely, more heartfelt and more hopeful than anything last season. 

Of course, it’s also more meta than ever before. Community is completely aware it’s wiping the slate clean and starting the show over. The fifth season premiere is, after all, called “Repilot.” There are many references to season 9 of Scrubs, when the show made J.D. a teacher and tried to launch a new set of characters. In that sentence, there’s a hint of what’s to come for at least one of the Greendale seven. 

The “repilot” is primarily concerned with getting the Greendale gang back together in a way that is, if not organic, than at least knowingly contrived. The rest of the first three episodes seek to establish the new status quo, while also dealing with a lot of that referenced behind-the-scenes turmoil. 

Chevy Chase’s Pierce is out, after years of tension between the actor and production. His send-off is probably the best episode of the first three, creating a bottle episode where the characters are forced to reveal inter-group tensions and long-buried secrets. It’s also a great use of guest star Walton Goggins (Justified) as a straight-laced interrogator. 

More upsetting to most fans is the approaching departure of Donald Glover’s childlike jock Troy Barnes, part of the Troy and Abed pairing that has become one of the shows most reliable comedy wells. Glover is only scheduled to be in five episodes, and by the end of episode three the wheels for his departure have already begun turning. 

Of course there are some impressive guest stars to pick up the slack. Breaking Bad‘s Jonathan Banks will stick around all season as a scary-tough teacher who likes cartooning in his spare time. John Oliver’s Ian Duncan will make a return and Ken Jeong’s insane Chang is, of course, always kicking around. 

The fifth season episodes available to the press were less crazy and audacious than some of Community‘s past gems. There is no Ken Burns documentary parody, there are no alternate timelines. (Thank god, as the “darkest timeline” gag has been effectively run into the ground at this point.) With Harmon back at the helm, however, it seems only a matter of time before the show lets loose and gets truly weird again. 

“We went into Greendale as a real people and came out the other end mixed-up cartoons,” Jeff tells the gang in the first episode. Community is building itself back into a more authentic, and authentically weird, sitcom. And that’s going to make season 5 must-watch television.

Community returns to NBC January 2 for back-to-back episodes starting at 8 pm EST.

(Image courtesy of NBC) 

Morgan Glennon

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV