NBC's Community Returns and It's Freaking Awesome

The Greendale gang is finally, really back, except not all of them are back. Okay, let me start over.

Fans of NBC's irreverent situational comedy Community finally have reason to rejoice. Last night, the show returned for a mid-season start with its original show runner, Dan Harmon, back at the helm. Anticipation was high (for me), but critics and lovers of the show alike all agreed that regardless of the result, there was no way in high hell the show could be worse than last year's Season Four. They were right.

Not to waste your time rehashing the entire back-story of Harmon's departure from the show, let's just say he got fired because he did. But NBC, with little left in its arsenal these days and seemingly a whole pillbox of humility, realized the lack of Harmon's vision and wit, and tail between legs, asked him back. What was he going to say? No?

In addition to Harmon's return this season, the show lost one of its major characters, Pierce Hawthorne of Hawthorne Wipes, played by Chevy Chase. The rumor mill cranked out stories of Chase being incredibly difficult to work with, especially where Harmon was concerned. It was not surprising that Harmon's return didn't make him want to come back. It was also announced early last year that Troy, played by Donald Glover, would be exiting the show because of personal reasons, a rap career, maybe his own show and some disturbing Tweets about his self-esteem. But Glover promised to be in a few episodes of Season Five, luckily. Suffice it to say, Season Five is going to have its challenges.

So how was last night's two-episode premiere? Freaking awesome. (That's official critic-speak.)

One of the issues that Harmon will have is not just making the show funny again, it's finding a way to worm the characters out of the mess of a plot they were written into last season. There are a few ways to go about this: pretend it never happened, spend a lot of time focusing on last season's plot elements as a set-up for Season Six, or do a little of both. Based on last night's episodes, the latter will be the way Harmon handles this.

The first episode finds that Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), who last we heard graduated earlier than his classmates, has opened his own legal practice with earnest intentions, only to find that being a "good lawyer" gets you nowhere but a meeting with the repo man. His old partner (Rob Corddry) presents Jeff with a case of an architect whose bridge recently collapsed and he is now suing Greendale Community College. The architect's defense being that Greendale was such a piss-poor college, he was unfit to do anything as a graduate. (If this is a solid lawsuit, sign me up.) But Jeff is a good guy now right? And he would never do anything to hurt Greendale. Wrong.

In an attempt to get the alumni's files, Jeff treks back to old Greendale and pretends to be starting a Save Greendale group; the study group catches wind and we get the gang back together.

The device used is both a cop-out and an amazing exercise in how to get everyone back into this four-year community college - which already never made sense - when the last we heard of them, they were on their way out. The only answer: make them either teachers a' la Saved By the Bell: The New Class or just screw it and make them go back to school. Or how about doing both.

Rather than going into much explanation as to why the characters graduated with different degrees than they were gunning for or how going back to a community college would really help them at all (Brita wants an advanced psychology degree... from a community college?), we're just going to go with it. The study group is going back to school with the exception of Jeff, who has agreed to teach law. Even Chang (Ken Jeong) who dominated last season's long plot with a case of "Changnesia" that was actually nothing, more or less wrote off last season's insanity with a quick dismissal and a return to form.

With the study group back and Jeff as a professor, there is a lot of room for the season to unfold. As of last night, the audience wasn't given the season arc, unless this architect really makes waves, but what we were given was the bizarre, sardonic and laugh-out-loud antics of seasons' prior. If I had to grade the return of Community, I would give it an A minus*.

*According to the second episode, "Introduction to Teaching," criminology professor Buzz Hickey (Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks) tells Jeff that students only receive minuses because the instructor doesn't like them and hopes they will drop the course. As a professor, I must say that this is absolutely true... false.

Both the "Repilot" and "Introduction to Teaching" brought the laughs. Some are rather weird laughs, as the ending of episode two finds Troy and Abed hiding in Hickey's office as a plant and chair in a hilarious attempt to throw the guy for a loop, only to find him talking on the phone about his Lipitor prescription, which is not a funny thing for a "gotcha;" how uncomfortably funny that moment is. And there is that inner monologue song entirely in French that the Dean sings about Excel. Yeah, strange stuff.

There are jabs at the show's own demise and return. Troy gets horribly angry at Zach Braff for leaving Scrubs after all the show had done for him, an obvious dig at himself for leaving Community. The group openly acknowledges that Brita has become a moron, which has been noted by many as an odd direction her character has taken over the past few seasons, among other meta jokes and hidden messages on chalk boards.

And then the show was just plain old funny like it used to be. The gang takes a Nicholas Cage course, which makes Abed go all Abed with one of the best Cage impersonations I've seen.

I felt like last season I had to keep defending the show, reminding people that even as bad as it got, it was still funnier than most anything on television. But after last night's openers, I won't have to do that again. This season is just going to be good.

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