Bow down, TV lovers: “Community” has returned for a fourth season. The surprise hit show with a cult following seemed on the brink of cancellation, but, at least for now, “Community” will continue with a 13-episode season. “Community’s” ensemble cast of community college misfits normally gives the show an edge, but the first episode in nearly nine months has less primetime prominence than earlier episodes.
This season of “Community” opens with Jeff Winger (Joel McHale, TV’s “The Soup”) set on graduating a semester ahead of his friends by finishing out his history requirement after a summer of online classes. However, the course he had planned to take with the rest of the gang, “History of Ice Cream,” is overbooked. Dean Pelton (Jim Rash, “The Onion Movie”) already has a solution for the angry students: The Hunger Deans, a play on “The Hunger Games,” where students compete to win a spot in the class.
While Jeff fights to secure spots for everyone in the “Community” gang, Abed (Danny Pudi, “The Guilt Trip”) escapes to his sitcom-version of reality after becoming stressed about his nearing graduation. Meanwhile, Troy (Donald Glover, TV’s “Girls”) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) do couples stuff that ends with them getting wet, Annie (Alison Brie, “The Five-Year Engagement”) and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown, “Repo Men”) fill the dean’s car with popcorn and Pierce (Chevy Chase, “Hot Tub Time Machine”) just sits on the sidelines of The Hunger Deans trying to make ball jokes.
The thing that makes the show so great is its characters’ writing, which is sometimes very weak and other times too strong in the premier. Jeff has lost a lot of his edge as he desperately pursues becoming a better friend, a focal aspect of his character last season. While participating in The Hunger Deans, Jeff acts as if he’s valiantly fighting for the gang, something he has never done so blatantly. This may be a changed Jeff, but here’s hoping he snaps back to the more selfish, cool version of himself in episodes to come.
Many segments and characters that make “Community” great just didn’t fulfill expectations. Everyone else in the main gang is outshone by the dean, who lets his normally somewhat subtle bi-curiousness and obsession with dressing in drag wave like a rainbow flag during a pride parade. The look into Abed’s head is theatrically flat; his fantasies normally pull viewers’ interests, yet the trope didn’t come through as interesting this episode.
The stress of impending graduation is obvious in all the characters, but it carries over into the entire being of the premier. The tone for the season is set as one of coming to a close, contradicting the flash of “Six Seasons and a Movie” hope during last season’s finale.
Unfortunately, the season opener doesn’t come together like a “Community” episode should. We have wacky antics from all the main characters, but, when the cast comes together at the end of the episode, it doesn’t feel organic. Forcing this unlikely friend group into a conclusion via the script is a terrible mistake, and hopefully it won’t happen again.