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Community: Free to Be ... You and Me

Community has always had two jobs: telling stories and selling itself. Most traditional sitcoms only have to worry about the first one. Writers and producers figure out how to move characters in and out of relationships, and the good ones try to do it with a kind of memorable flair, but overall they're about the stories. But Community has always wanted to be more than that, and creator Dan Harmon has never settled for doing what everyone else thinks he should be doing. The show is a witty, intoxicating mix of light and dark that works on so many levels of awareness and referential humor that it always has to go to some amount of effort to bring the viewer along. It's not hand-holding, exactly; Harmon's got more respect for us than that. Rather, there are proselytizing moments that use humor and drama and an amazing ensemble to reach out to the viewer and say, "Things are going to be different. You have to trust us." The show wants to go to new, weird, challenging places for a TV comedy, and to get there it has to tell you being different is good, even if things don't always work out. The show's not quite like anything else on the air right now, and that's the point.

The opening minutes of the season premiere, "Biology 101," were the show's way of once more telling the viewer how things will be while doing so in a way you'd only see here. Community has become an adjective for itself, and I mean that in the best way possible. The song and dance were hilarious, a barbed retort ("We're gonna finally be fine!") to those who think the show should be brighter, sunnier or easier. I admit I've found myself in those ranks before, but I think that there's a middle ground between the smiling resolutions of, say, Modern Family, and the almost unredeemable darkness with which the show flirted last year. It's okay to be grim and tough, and to avoid easy answers. But the darker you go, the more you need to create characters worth caring for.

"Biology 101" seemed committed once again to doing that. Pierce is still a villain who knows he's a villain, but as we saw at the end of "For a Few Paintballs More," he also knows how important his makeshift family has become to him and to each other. Jeff went raisin cakes and almost hacked the study table to pieces, but he came to some genuine realizations about who he is and what he needs. These little moments were Community at its finest and most introspective: characters warring with themselves and each other, trying to figure out their relationships, and basically just being human.

The new characters were interesting additions to the mix, too. John Goodman's vice dean of the a/c repair school was an unrelenting badass, nothing short of Walter Sobchak in pinstripes, and he's got the potential to introduce a nice outsized chaos to the gang. And Michael K. Williams was predictably perfect as a hardened bio teacher still working through his own issues from being in prison. (This is where I would make the first of many Omar jokes for the season. I'm pacing myself. You can write this one.) There's no telling how long Williams will actually get to stick around -- guest professors on Community have a lifespan on par with Defense Against the Dark Arts instructors -- but he's got an edge reminiscent of first-season Chang.

Community has two full years under its belt now, and it's got a confidence that only comes with time. I don't know where the season's going to go, but I know I want to see it. Harmon and company know what they're doing, and they've proven it over and over again. There might be some bumps, and there might even be some failures, but it's going to be a good year just the same.

Scattered thoughts:

• Props to Jim Rash for finally being bumped up to the big leagues and getting his name in the credits. Regular player now.

• Loved seeing Abed's continuing fascination with Cougar Town play off the show's real-world scheduling. Its season premiere really did get bumped back, albeit to November instead of midseason. Although now I really want to watch Cougarton Abbey and Inspector Spacetime.

• "Monkey knockout gas. Now that's the kind of grounded, sensible thinking I want to see this year."

• Awesome 2001: A Space Odyssey homage.

• I can't help but worry that the dean's line about things this year being the same but with less money was some kind of comment on unseen drama in the production process.

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