Community (NBC) 4.01- "History 101" ReviewA tv review article by: Janelle Revord
4.01- "History 101"
There are very few things that really stuck with me in my memories of taking sophomore US History in high school. The class itself, like almost every history class that I've taken, primarily consisted of copying notes that were found in the text book to extreme detail; events and dates, memorize and regurgitate. US History was no different. Each class we would sit for an hour, copying dictated notes that were also summarized on individual transparency sheets that anyone who read the text could have surmised the key important points of. The only reason this specific history class stood out was sometimes at the end of class if we got through copying notes early-- which, considering it was an AP course full of over-achievers who had to question everything, wasn't always the case-- our teacher would sometimes have episodes of The Daily Show recorded on VHS to show to us to keep us up to date on current events. One would think, all things considered, this would be the media oasis in a desert of dry cut information that any high school kid would dream of. In most cases, you'd be right. But in my freshman year of high school our history teacher was a much more goofy, laid back kind of guy. He looked for any excuse he could to tie in a clip of The Simpsons, or for reasons I still can't figure out (other than really liking Tracy Morgan), show us videos of Brian Fellow's Safari Planet. Those were great memories, so great that I can't even remember what level of history it was that I was learning. US History, really more-so my instructor, to this day has ruined watching The Daily Show for me, and I am fearful that the new writers that have taken on Community are on the path to doing just the same, just from what I can tell from the Season 4 premiere.
There is no questioning that it is easy to find comfort in familiarity. For instance, in one of his stand up bits, Mitch Hedberg once made reference to Subway being like the American Embassy for him. For me during US History, the opportunity to watch a show relevant to current events when the entirety of what we were studying was the past should have proven refreshing. As is with Community, a show that through ups and downs I have loved for three full seasons, theoretically should have brought at least some comfort in seeing familiar characters in a familiar setting, regardless of it being a new set of writers and no Dan Harmon.
Watching The Daily Show proved to be a painful experience. Taking into further consideration that this was an AP course and as far as I could tell we all were capable of understanding the semantics of a joke set up as well as the delivery of a punchline, the delivery of what talented writers, whose jobs and income are based on creating jokes that worked that even mildly intelligent people would be capable of understanding, were completely undermined and brought to blatant explanation by my history teacher. Jon Stewart would begin the set-up of his joke, and midway through, my teacher, who had clearly previously watched and screened the episode, would pause the VCR, excitedly explain the set-up, ruin the punchline by paraphrasing it, un-pause the VCR, and aggressively point at the TV, smiling at us when the joke was actually delivered, as if he deserved the praise for how HE chose to deliver the joke to us, and Jon Stewart's delivery was just a reiteration of information that was already simplified to the core by my history teacher.
It is almost too appropriate that the title for S4E01 is History 101, not just because of my coincidental anecdote, but of my unfortunate reliving of seeing something that I love and more or less having it ruined. The new writers are to my history teacher, as The Daily Show is to Community under the writing of Dan Harmon. It felt as if I had never seen Community before, and "History 101" was the over-enthused friend wanting to shove this amazing show down my throat ad nauseam with the character quirks of each character given in the most blatant and general details of someone who doesn't truly appreciate the depth of these characters. The subtle details of these characters gives them relatable human characteristics, proving that despite their quirks or faults, you still love them because they aren't too far out of reach from someone you have met or known at one point at your life. Harmon created and built upon the characters of this show in a way where this far along in the series these characters did not have to exist on the principals of their quirks alone to carry an episode, which seemed to be a juvenile tactic used to try to keep this episode afloat.
We get it. Seriously, we get it, just… just stop.
Thematically the entire episode revolves around the subject of change. Not in show plot alone; it’s what every fan of Community watching this episode held their breath in anticipation of. In my personal history of television fandom, I have never garnered as much anxiety anticipating change as I have with Community. Even with shows like Breaking Bad where you never know what to expect, those anxieties prove less stressful because of its flawless track record. With the firing of Dan Harmon, how much of the show is truly going to change without his involvement? There is still a cast of incredible actors with chemistry that may be able to pull together whatever is written to make it work, even though it is Harmon’s voice that really gave Community its flavor.
The main plot point of this episode was not even based in reality, yet through an episode inside this episode, a happy place inside Abed’s mind. I found it to be a bold decision to have the primary focus of this first episode after Harmon was canned to be so Abed-centric, a character that no one other than Harmon would know best. If any comparison is made most when people think of the character Abed, they immediately think of Dan Harmon, but with Harmon’s removal from the process, we are only left to wonder how that ship will be piloted.
Abed’s happy place is an alternatively warped Greendale in the form of a program on Abed TV called “Abed’s Happy Community College Show”, with the plot for this factious episode being the opposite of what is going on in Abed’s reality; no one graduating, everyone having to redo the past three years, all soundtracked by a parody of Community’s actual theme song. Despite being verbally informed that in this happy place in Abed’s mind, nothing is changing and everything is the same, if you were looking at this episode in comparison to the actual show Community, there are blatant changes to the format, which almost feels like the writers are toying with the idea of showing us the viewers just how much could have been changed in Community. In “Abed’s Happy Community College Show” it features a sitcom laugh track, in-show advertisements for other Abed TV shows, replaces Chevy Chase with Fred Willard, replaces Chang puns with Dean puns (although, I am surprised that in an episode about change, they didn’t play up the Chang puns as much). Although most people would probably welcome Fred Willard as a permanent replacement for Chevy Chase, throwing that sitcom laugh track into the mix just goes to show that change can be both good and bad.
The rest of the episode focuses on more subtle sub-plots involving how there is going to be change for everyone: Jeff competing in “The Hunger Deans” to prove that he himself has changed for the better to everyone in the group who thinks he’s the same man he was 3 years ago, Annie trying to force herself to change into something she is not because she is fearful of change and the future, only to have Shirley be the voice of reason once again reminding Annie and ourselves that change is just what happens, while Troy brings change to an annual tradition usually upheld by him and Abed by involving Britta, changing the rules and furthering their relationship.
The only character not exhuming change would be Pierce, where the audience is still trying to figure out if Pierce's character is just being acted or if it is just Chevy Chase fully devolving into a bumbling mess of old man and it was the best they could get out of him. He literally spends the majority of the episode laughing to himself with a pile of red balls trying to come up with a joke.
This episode had good intentions, attempting to demonstrate to fans of Community that change is something that happens and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the execution was far from perfect. None of the multiple sub-plot points were given enough time to be touched upon effectively, insteady they never felt like anything less than chaotic and thrown together. Abed TV made watching this actual episode of Community almost unbearable. The laugh tracks, in-show ads, and Inception style “happy place inside a happy place” were more distracting than beneficial in proving a point.
I don’t even want to know how this is a happy place.
Community hasn’t been known to have the strongest season premieres and surprisingly, Pierce held the most truthful line of the entire episode, with his “Somebody tell me what the hell we just did?” remark.
I am looking forward to episode 2, as it is one of the few that were written by Megan Ganz this season before she moved on to greater things over at Modern Family. There are only more 12 episodes in this season, which could easily be slated for its last, so it can’t get much worse than this, right?
Janelle Revord is one of the few authentically born and raised Austinites you'll ever encounter in your lifetime. When she's not yelling at people who have just moved to town to "get off her lawn," or attempting to holla at celebrities to get drinks with her when guest-hosting on CB's own Paranoid Video, you can find her on twitterbasically doing the exact same thing in 140 characters or less.