Jan 2, 2014

Thom Bitches About Community: "Repilot"/"Intro to Teaching"

Joel McHale

In the ashes of a failed column comes the reformed birth of Thom Bitches About Community: a weekly look at the beloved Dan Harmon sitcom that chooses to push boundaries and throw a meta cocktail into the face of every sitcom currently out there. With the return of the show's creator after a rocky, disastrous season four, we take a look at the show and try and capture what exactly makes the show worth checking out all these years later. Keep an eye out for it every Thursday night following the episode unless otherwise specified.

It was some ways into season five's first episode "Repilot" that I began to wonder if maybe the show was still following continuity. My belief going in was that Dan Harmon was axing a lot of the major moments because of how awful that season was. However, there were countless references to a supposed relaunch that left me blank. Either they were penchant cutaway gags, or I missed something. Of course, I do not ever plan to finish my Thom Bitches About Community columns for last season, as they were in general awful and left me fearing that Abed (Danny Pudi) would never be right in the head. 
However, it didn't take long for the new episodes to conceptually work. Yes, it was just as meta and weird as last season, but it felt more natural. It is strange that during the era in which Harmon was in exile, the show had some of its highest ratings. I would like to think that this means that the show will only improve and find an audience, but it almost feels too rooted in cult to really do much of anything else for NBC in the midst of a rebranding period with Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show choosing to be their big draws. 
But what "Repilot" showed wasn't necessarily something to be ashamed about. It was what it said in every way. Jeff (Joel McHale) has graduated and is trying to get a program started to "Save Greendale" with the help of Abed and his merry band of friends, sans Pierce (Chevy Chase, in a brief, hologram of an appearance). This isn't so much the point of the episode, as it allows the show to reach the meta heights that it left off on at season three. Abed is specifically obsessed with pointing out how his life is like seasons and that this "reboot" in which everyone returns as students is just like Scrubs. Probably the most interesting, meta moment within this that is subtle to anyone not reading the news, Troy (Donald Glover) comments on how Zach Braff left the show briefly after season nine of Scrubs. This is important to note because Glover is reported to be in less episodes this season to focus on his rap career with Childish Gambino. While it could be read of someone getting out while the getting is good, it also seems oddly like the show is starting to drop hints through sly jokes.
It isn't that Abed's Scrubs comments weren't clever, it is just that the episode did feel a little on the nose with what it was going for. It wanted to rebrand the show after a lackluster season that almost everyone hated. This is most evident in the social commentary aspect. Jeff tries to console his fallen study group, who have all had jobs that they don't want to have since we last saw them. Even within the context of the show, it almost feels like the most egotistical yet appropriate way of Dan Harmon apologizing for letting everything go astray.
It also seems like he has amped up the supporting cast as well. Almost every side character has their moment to shine in these two episodes. As far as rebranding the show however, "Repilot" is actually a solid episode that while not quite on par with the best of the first three seasons, it does give plenty of hope. There's irreverent comments, pop culture references galore, and Abed reconstructing just how appropriately meta he can go. What is obvious is that in anyone else's hands, Abed would fall into a schizophrenic coma. In that sense, it is great to have Harmon back, as the script already feels stronger and the adjustment back into old sets, notably the study room, makes the overall episode, which could have easily been labeled "Apology" one of the best open letters a show could possibly do for mistakes that they didn't have any control over.

Danny Pudi
For all of the good will that "Repilot" had to earn back, "Intro to Teaching" saw the Greendale gang return in top form. Following the events that lead Jeff to become a teacher after dropping his lawyer routine, the story almost feels like the right way to reboot the show. Jeff, who has always seemed like a slightly superior voice of cocky wisdom is finally that. What better way to make the routes than with new character and Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks), who seems to be a hard-nosed guide to the world of teaching. Continuing the strange yet impressive trend of Breaking Bad crossovers, it is great to see Banks inserted into the series so perfectly. His old man, gruff personality fits well with the big debate of the episode, which is whether or not to give Annie (Allison Brie) an A or an A -, which is considered a way to torment smart kids.
There's some rebelling and a sense of questioning teachers for the right to have "slighter higher grades," which is only undermined by the idea that both are rather poor and don't care all that much. Still, in terms of mentoring, it is interesting to see if Hickey and Jeff end up hanging out together and having those strange moments that exploit the teacher side of Greendale. This episode alone suggests that there's unlimited potential there and now that the characters are building power, there is a chance that the show will become about the underdogs who became the dogs.
Still, is there anything more endearing a reminder of the power of Abed and his gleaming O.C.D. than him taking a class on Nicholas Cage? Much like the Who's the Boss? episode, he is pretty much only on the show to break the code and figure out the mysteries of Cage. The teacher says to watch seven movies. He goes extreme. He watches everything so closely that he can even see an alien hand in a scene in Snake Eyes. He is so obsessed that his closing scene is worth everything that it has been building to.
The big debate that the show addresses, and most everyone else, is what is Cage? Is he a great actor, or a terrible one? There's even hints of him being extraterrestrial. The answer is itself never resolved and becomes a paradox that is fascinating. Everyone is right about Cage and his lack of consistent levels just means that he might win an Oscar here or there. It is a topic that could have served to be its own episode, but paired with the Hickey/Jeff story, it almost feel s like the perfect counterpoint. We see Jeff progressing while Abed has a breakdown.
Even for those not obsessed with Cage films, the final speech that Abed gives is a sign of great things to come from the show. Abed, who hasn't slept in days, pretty much nails the energy levels of Cage through his career. His messed up hair and crazy antics all are on display. It is true that I have complained that Abed last season was a disgrace to Abed because of his off the wall nature, but that was because it didn't feel tied to his obsessions. Cage is pretty much on his radar, and to see it almost seep into him like as if the films are his DNA is beyond impressive and sets the bar already high for the season to come.
I am not entirely sure how lucrative in the long run the show could be with these premises, but one thing is for certain. The show is back to being sharp and full of great arrays of humor and meta moments. This has returned back to the Harmon universe and thankfully his brief exit into Rick and Morty doesn't reflect an overlap in quality (no offense to the Adult Swim fans out there). The chemistry is stronger and the apologies are out of the way. We got Abed back! Jeff is a teacher, and I feel like that changes dynamics enough to make for an interesting reboot of the show. Let's do this! It may only be January 2, but it already feels like one of the best shows of 2014 after a problematic 2013.

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