by Josie Kafka
After the relatively bleak opening episode, most of “Introduction to Teaching” was a welcome reminder that we were, in fact, watching a sitcom. There were gags and hijinks and pop culture references and in-jokes, but the specific thing I enjoyed most was Jonathan Banks (Mike from Breaking Bad) as Professor Buzz Hickey, duck-drawing criminologist.
I say “the specific thing,” because what I enjoyed most overall was the return of the Community I used to love. The fourth season of Community was just wrong. I can point to a few things that were done incorrectly: a pause after most jokes for a non-existent laugh track, an overdose of deansanity, beating the “darkest timeline” to death. But what was really missing? Hard to say.
Whatever it was, it’s back.
It’s back to such a degree that we no longer have to parse whether Community qualifies as “odd-good” or “odd-bad” according to Abed’s quality spectrum, which, in true Community fashion, is a fun meta-joke: like Nicholas Cage, this little sitcom may have had a Guarding Tess year, but it has the potential to reach Face/Off levels yet again.
That Abed plot—a great callback to “Competitive Wine Tasting”—was classic pop-culture insanity. But Abed’s quest to qualify Nicholas Cage also showed that Abed does have some more work to do, just like everyone else in the plucky study group. They’re staying in college (or going back for advanced degrees, or something) because they have not yet reached their full potential. They need a bit more something.
Will Greendale offer them that something? I’m not sure. The season premiere ended on an ostensibly positive note, but there’s a dark undertone to the idea that these grown-ups aren’t done growing up yet. Of course, no one ever is, but we gradually learn to put away the childish crutches of, for instance, making dioramas for a grade. If we don’t, we become what Jeff, Abed, Britta, Annie, Troy, Shirley, and Chang are: failures. They have not achieved their dreams, and they’re not sure what to do about it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not judging them. (I’m hardly a success story.) (Billie pays me in cats.) (And I am grateful.) But this season of Community seems to be more aware of the darkness—even, dare I say, the tragedy—that lurks behind comedy. I think tragedy is the point of the last scene, in which Troy and Abed dress up like a chair and a plant to surprise Professor Jeff in his new office. Instead of getting the chance to perform a cute prank, they accidentally eavesdrop on an older man who can’t afford brand-name medicine or a proper burial for his father. They get a real glimpse, in other words, of this modern American grown-up life.
Jeff pointed out that teachers at Greendale are there because they did something wrong, just like the students. And most of the time, Community is about a group of wildly different people coming together and loving one another despite all the things they’ve done wrong. They occasionally even learn things about themselves, as Annie pushed Jeff to realize he could love teaching (so long as he was teaching Lying and Argument-Winning 101).
But as Community moves into its last act (whether that means this season or one more), the sad reality of failure, of Jeff thinking he’ll be able to stop settling for a teaching gig like Hickey used to believe—these facts start to have meaning beyond the laugh they create. They start to foreshadow a real “dark timeline,” one that parallels the situations many people find themselves in after college and throughout their lives.
Will Community go to the real darkest timeline—the one the audience lives in? Will Harmon take the risk of making a truly cynical TV show? Will it waver, bringing laughs as it brings frowns? Will we ever understand Nicholas Cage? These are questions that I look forward to answering as this season continues. Welcome back, Dan Harmon. And welcome back, Community.
Cool Cool Cool:
• Professor Sean Garrity, aka Professor Professorson, aka Sam Weiss from Fringe: welcome back to you, too!
• Chang: “Here’s all you need to know: break into groups, grade each other’s papers, and here’s a seven-disc edition of Planet Earth.”
• Abed: “But is [Nicholas Cage] good, or is he bad? Robert Downey Jr.: good. Jim Belushi: bad. Van Damme: the good kind of bad. Johnny Depp: the bad kind of good.”
• Professor Hickey: “I say minus her…Teachers don’t have to explain minuses. Why do you think we invented them?”
• Jeff: “Anyone that tries to argue has already lost, because they pick an argument to lose.”
• Britta: “I think our opinions about pop culture are fed to us by machines designed to criminalized human autonomy.”
• Professor Hickey: “I have seen human heads used for things other than human heads.”
• Jeff: “I may not love teaching, but I did fool around with it today, and I may hook up with it again a few more times, even if I do dump it right before Christmas.”
• Abed: “So Nicholas Cage is Jesus?”
Shirley: “Um, no. But clearly he works in mysterious ways.”
Three out of four Voice-Activated Tables