The pressure on creator Dan Harmon must be enormous: Community was one of the most critically adored new comedies of last season, boasting the smartest jokes and best ensemble, and the kind of show that's unafraid to play with the format. If anything, Community is all about going so far afield from viewer expectations that it reshapes your idea of what to look for in a sitcom. It's meta-fueled, lightning-fast, and pretty consistently amazing. Harmon's got the unenviable task of trying to top the season that gave us "Modern Warfare," "Contemporary Poultry," and other half-hours that already feel like classics. (To say nothing of that fact that the series is now airing opposite CBS's broader and much less rewarding The Big Bang Theory.) Where does he go from here?
The answer: forward. Last night's season premiere, "Anthropology 101," was Harmon's opportunity to clear the air, tie up last year's cliffhangers, and set the gang in motion, all of which he did splendidly. Written by Chris McKenna and directed by Joe Russo, the episode had to keep the gang together but also knock them apart first, which it did by rapidly accelerating and then imploding the dynamic based on Jeff and Britta's sexual tension from last spring. Watching their ridiculous competition to out-love each other in hopes of shutting the other one down was hilarious and kinda dark and, blessedly, the last direction you'd ever expect the story to go. 99 series out of 100 would have written them to either date and break up or have an awkward DTR; only Community would have them grimace through a fake relationship out of sheer pride.
We also enjoyed the way everyone seemed to play an amped-up version of themselves. It felt like an attempt to intentionally overload their circuits and shake things up before the new season gets going; of the many lines last night in which the show referenced its own nature, Jeff's insult that Abed's TV fixation was "very season one" was the best illustration of everyone's desire to acknowledge their quirks without letting go of them. In the same exchange, Abed also joked about "canceling" the group in disapproval of their behavior, a line that obviously works not just in the context of his own neuroses but also as a dare from the show's creative team to the world at large. Even his comment about wanting something exciting to happen, like paintball, can be viewed as the writers and producers saying: We know what you love, and we love it, too, but we want you to trust us. Not since Arrested Development has a comedy had so much fun joking about its own survival.
The A-plot granted Abed's wish to "move away from the soapy/relationshippy stuff and into bigger, faster, self-contained escapades," with Betty White playing The Wacky And Slightly Off-Color Persona Now Known As Betty White, filling in as the gang's anthropology teacher. She's as funny as ever, deploying her dry delivery perfectly and creating a madcap little character that was a lot better than this one looks. Still, her purpose wasn't much more than giving Jeff a reason to realize he really needs his friends in his life, which he promptly did.
It was, all told, a strong episode of Community that doubled as the latest mission statement for Harmon and company: they're not going anywhere without a fight. The side story that had Troy tweeting Pierce's inane sayings was a lengthy but perfect set-up for a jab at CBS's Dollar Sign Pound Asterisk Exclamation Point My Dad Says, with Troy blurting out a quick "Who would watch that?" as everyone else shot down Pierce's idea of turning his tweets into a series. Community has moved beyond itself and begun to explore the TV world around it. If last year, and last night, are any indication, it's going to be worth every minute of the journey.
• Shirley's still hilarious, but she's at her best when she's allowed to be honestly pleased or shocked, or to feel any of a thousand emotions and let those mix or conflict with her faith, and not just forced to filter those feelings through an admittedly cartoonish version of Christianity. It's not that there aren't wingnuts out there; it's that she doesn't feel like one.
• I had to fight not to use the word "metatextual" in this. I am that guy. I'm sorry.
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• "Got any room in that pocket for a little spare Chang?"
• "Shirley, would you consider spinning off with me? Just riffing, but we could open a hair salon together."
• The first tag of the season calls back to the one that started it all? Yes please: