A "Community" Comeback

The surreal college comedy returns Thursday with a “Hunger Games” spoof that suggests the creative team is willing to fight for fans.

By Jere Hester
|  Tuesday, Feb 5, 2013  |  Updated 3:15 PM EDT
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In promos for Thursday’s long-awaited return of NBC’s surreal sitcom "Community," Abed, the socially awkward fanboy convinced his life is a TV program, declares, "I remember when the show was about a community college."

The latest meta moment from a show built on them rings with laughter and truth. “Community” isn’t about hiding in school as much as it’s about escaping into absurdist fantasies, from the comfort of a hidden trampoline with a Prozac-like effect to the comic horror of a zombie near-apocalypse.

The characters’ shared reverie is as clever, elaborate – and fragile – as their ill-fated labyrinthine blanket fort. After nine months of programming limbo, the cult favorite returns for a fourth – and possibly final – season with the challenge of luring a larger audience into the quirky dream world shared by a clique of misfit losers.
 
For a show driven by fantasy, “Community” has been barraged by off-screen realities: The program’s return, originally slated for October, got delayed indefinitely after three seasons of modest ratings. Dan Harmon, the show’s creator, left under reportedly unpleasant circumstances. Ditto for Chevy Chase, who gave up his crowning role as crotchety old-guy, rich-guy student Pierce Hawthorne, reportedly after one on-set blow-up too many. 
 
The remaining cast members kept the Greendale Community College spirit alive during the hiatus – appearing at Comic-Con and making an in-character video mocking the scheduling issues, promising in October to return “someday.” The video has racked up 1.4 million views on YouTube alone, suggesting the devoted fan base that previously launched an online petition to save the show is still starved for more “Community.”
 
The season premiere, a “Hunger Games” takeoff called “The Dean Games,” appears to be more than just an excuse for Dean Pelton to dip into his collection of fabulous gowns. We’ll take the premise as a signal that the “Community” crowd, in its own peculiar fashion, is willing to fight to stay on the air – while maintaining the show’s pop-culture-reference-packed approach in the post-Harmon era.  
 
There are plenty of reasons to watch, even after last year’s epic fight to take back Greendale from a cult-like fraternity of air conditioner repair instructors. Chase will be around for most episodes and Malcolm McDowell, who knows from oddball parts, tackles a recurring role as a history professor. Last season offered some unresolved hints of darkness, with disbarred lawyer Jeff’s daddy-abandonment issues plaguing him, Abed’s evil alter ego emerging (complete with the requisite bad guy goatee) and the not-all-that-inconceivable suggestion in one episode that Greendale, in reality, is a mental institution.
 
For fans, there’s much to look forward to after the extended semester break. For the uninitiated, there’s much to catch up on via an engagingly strange and funny show that plays like it was hatched from roommates Troy and Abed’s Dreamatorium.
 
Either way, viewers appear to be in for more of the silly-smart whimsy we're already jonesing for just one week post-“30 Rock.” As we get ready to go back to a school like no other, check out a couple “Community” friendly videos below:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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