“Community” fails to retain artistic integrity after showrunner departure

When NBC's “Community” returned on Feb. 7, there was never any chance of it meeting expectations. After a tumultuous hiatus that included the departure of showrunner and creator Dan Harmon as well as the announcement that cast member Chevy Chase would not return after the fourth season, the show simply could not live up the hype that had been building for nine months.

It seems silly now, on the other side of season four's premiere, that anyone ever thought it would be the same “Community” as the first three seasons. The show was Harmon's alone, for better or worse, and when Sony Pictures Television chose to replace him, it should have been obvious that the show would see a shift in quality. The question never should have been whether or not there would be a noticeable change; it was obvious there would be.

The question should have been: Without Harmon should there have been a fourth season at all? And while it may be asinine to judge an entire season of television based on its premiere, there was too much in the Feb. 7 episode of “Community” that questioned season four's legitimacy.

The 20 or so minutes of the premiere, titled “History 101,” was a hollow attempt to alleviate fan fears of a Harmon-less season, an attempt that only served to confirm those fears. The premiere tried too hard to pretend that nothing was different while poking fun at the thought of a potential drastic change in quality that stemmed from Harmon's departure.

By opening with an Abed-imagined version of the show, a yukked-up sitcom laugh track and all, the episode tried to undermine itself with the sort of self-referencing for which the show is known. It seemed to say, “See, it's still the same show and the joke's on anyone who ever thought it wouldn't be.” But pretending to be bad to assuage an audience's fears is simply cowardly.

For all their self-references and pop culture parodies, the first three seasons of “Community” were always earnest in their belief in the show itself. The season four premiere had the sort of put-on confidence that only revealed the shaky ground it was on.

The Britta/Troy relationship, the “Greendale Babies” animation sequences and nearly everything else in the episode came off as little more than very well produced “Community” fan fiction, and without Harmon that's essentially what the show has become: the product of individuals very familiar with the show doing their best imitation of the first three seasons.

The best thing that could have happened to “Community” was cancellation after three seasons. The cult of a television series cut short has done wonders for countless others; “Community” would have been no different. Instead it goes on lifeless and uninspired, tainting its legacy. At this point, “#SixSeasonsAndAMovie” is more of a threat than an aspiration.