Like most fans, I tuned into season 4 of COMMUNITY with trepidation. The first line of the post-Dan Harmon season was appropriate: "Does something feel different?" It was important to me that they acknowledge Harmon's firing. The show had cultivated a relationship with its cult following, and if they wanted to put us at ease that the heart would be intact, they had to acknowledge it in even a brief, metatextual way.
But we're 5 episodes in now, and the feeling that this is not the same show, and never will be, is starting to creep over every laughless half hour. It's not that the show is bad, or even unfunny. It's just no longer a great show, one that I would be eager to show to strangers or recommend to my friends. In their right-headed move to retain their fanbase, they've simultaneously made it a show that's just for us.
Back when "Modern Warfare" became the show's signature hit, it was hard not to share it. It inspired such a vibrant enthusiasm that people felt like it had to be spread. I was at someone's house, a friend of a friend, and when we found out someone hadn't seen an episode of the show, he brought it up on the DVR. He had saved it.
There haven't been any highs this season at all. I recognize that it's still early, but the weaknesses in the show as it has continued so far don't give me a lot of hope. During these episodes, I'll laugh out loud once if I'm lucky, usually because Donald Glover has sold even a mediocre line with his delivery. Otherwise, it's mostly silent acknowledgements of jokes. I recognize the humor, appreciate it, but I don't necessarily feel anything. I keep watching because it's just what I've become accustomed to watching on television. These are just characters I know and I like seeing that they're still around going about their ficitonal lives. But that investment didn't grow in this batch. It wasn't even really watered.
I agree with Vulture that a lot of these seeds were planted during Harmon's tenure as showrunner. The Troy/Britta relationship has no chemistry, half the characters reveal themselves to be somewhat rusty story engines and maybe the spoof & gimmick episodes have reached a saturation point. I also agree that Dan Harmon was part of the allure; we saw COMMUNITY as his work and we wanted to see what he would come up with next. Without him, it begins to feel like people are propping up a Harmon-looking puppet, hoping that they can capture the trappings of his style and outlook without having him actually there.
I've questioned, frequently, whether any of this criticism is fair. I don't know if I would have felt any of this if I remained ignorant to what was going on behind the camera. But if the knowledge of Harmon's absence and Chevy Chase's impending departure forced me to take a more critical lens to the show, then maybe it needed it. Maybe part of Harmon's talent is in appealing to us in such a way that we could gloss over these flaws.
All of these feelings really only solidified in the last two episodes. It had always felt uneven, but I was willing to give it time and the benefit of the doubt. They retained a talented cast and crew and writer's room, there's no reason why it couldn't have some highlights. Then came a flat, unearned Shawshank Redemption parody. Although it kind of ended on a joke that they were never meant to do a Shawshank Redemption homage, they certainly initially tried to with perplexing, empty references like smuggling a stick of gum in a hollowed out book. They didn't need it, it didn't mean anything, and it wasn't established that it would be hard to get, but it happened in the movie so they just did it in the episode.
This kind of hollow homage continued to bother me in the next episode, the return of Ben Chang, which was filmed as a documentary for no reason. Previous documentary episodes were done as a way of skewering the genre. Here, it just felt like an easier way to tell the story with voice over and exposition. Again, a perfectly passable episode, but a silent one. It's like decaf coffee at this point.
It's pretty clearly a different, more ordinary show. They don't pack in jokes like sardines, there's more retread than new creation -- the show doesn't even look as amazing as it used to. On DVD commentary and in interviews, Dan Harmon would sometimes brag about special computer chips in cameras they fought for, or point out the inventive shots directors like Justin Lin would knock out. Just look at that top image; It's from season 2 episode 1, and it stuck with me because it was a half hour comedy filmed like a 1 hour drama. Today, they've upped the frame rate making things look clear but cheap, and no one seems to be putting in the kind of singular vision they could brag about.
The departures and the late season delay kind of telegraph that this show is not long for the world. I'm still watching because it's not horrible, but it's not fueled by excitement anymore. I still like these characters and writers well enough, and there's some kind of blank, mindless comfort in seeing that they're still out there creating stories. It's the show that I watch because I've always watched it and there's nothing else on, which is exactly the kind of grind I think the show wanted to avoid.