Last seen graduating from the loony-tunes diploma mill of Greendale Community College, Jeff Winger heads back to his alma mater in the season 5 premiere of Community with mixed emotions and evolving motives — part idealistic superhero, part vengeful destroyer. Joel McHale’s snarky shyster surely expresses the tsuris of his mad-scientist creator, Dan Harmon, who was fired from the cult fave after season 3 — and now returns following an exile year of podcasting with often drunken abandon. Community, which wilted without his invention and care, is instantly funnier and more interesting for it, even as it remains burdened by its past and sober about its future.
Set three years after the season 4 finale, ”Repilot” manages to be quintessential Community — self-aware, banter-packed, geek-proud — by being a fable about its own fragility. Greendale is imperiled: Its reckless meaninglessness has caused a catastrophe that threatens to close the school. At one point, Winger argues that Greendale has turned his study-group comrades — pop savant Abed (Danny Pudi), Jesus-loving entrepreneur Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), prim perfectionist Annie (Alison Brie), wannabe do-gooder Britta (Gillian Jacobs), and air-conditioning-repairman prodigy Troy (Donald Glover) — into incoherent characters. There’s even a sly critique of chaotic Chang (Ken Jeong), who’s gone from teacher to student to despot to ”Changnesia” hoaxster. Yes, Harmon is criticizing Community’s mismanagement — but his targets include himself.
The series has always sought profundity by finding the universal in the particulars of genre pastiche. By the end of the first episode, Jeff becomes a teacher and the group resolves to rescue themselves — and Greendale — by re-enrolling and producing the good they want to see in a world where institutions only fail us. Community’s premiere is a focused, confident piece of storytelling about a humbled enterprise and screwed-up people scared straight by the reality of their squandered potential.
Subsequent episodes are lighter if spottier than the bittersweet premiere. Nicolas Cage jokes, Scientology pokes, and Jeff-crushing Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) yield hard, subversive laughs. Chevy Chase’s richie racist Pierce Hawthorne is gone but not forgotten, especially when Justified’s Walton Goggins shows up in a deadpan turn as Pierce’s lawyer. The fourth installment — which traps the study group in the library, prodding them with polygraph tests to reveal their true selves — suggests that Harmon knows the future hinges on investing us anew in his characters. If he succeeds, maybe, just maybe, Community can graduate with highest honors. Which is to say: #sixseasonsandamovie. B