'Community' Season 4 review: Celebrating and mourning the darkness we lost behind the laughter

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I really hate that I'm writing this review. I've been waiting and waiting for "Community" Season 4 like any good fan out there, and all I wanted to do was sing the show's praises upon its return.

It's just that I can't. This isn't the "Community" we used to know. What we have now is not creator Dan Harmon's darkly funny "Community," but a reflection of that show, filtered through the brighter and happier perceptions of others.

And that's the problem -- "Community" is not a light-filled show. Every joke and every parody had an underlying darkness that gave meaning to what might have been nothing but silly gags.

Without Harmon at the reins, the darkness disappears.


But wait...

Of course, "Community" is still funny. I'd even go so far to say that this show remains one of the silliest, cleverest and weirdest comedies on television. And the Season 4 premiere had moments of that sheer brilliance we have loved about "Community" for years.

What worked? Well, for one thing, Abed's ( Danny Pudi) "Happy Places" were incredible. I was most blown-away by his multi-camera sitcom dream. It proved something I've wanted to know for awhile now -- a high-quality, intelligent comedy can work with a laugh track and old-fashioned format. The "Community" of Abed's dreams wasn't familiar, but it was still funny. I'd watch that show.

I mean, seriously -- how could I not love something that brought in Fred Willard as "Pierce" (one of the most incredible bits of stunt casting I've seen in awhile) and interrupted our viewing pleasure with ads for upcoming shows like "American Sword Cooks" and "Blind/Blonde."

And then there was the "Muppet Babies" rip-off. I tip my hat and bow down to the person who came up with that little bit. And not just because of Baby Pierce and his boobie dreams.

Outside of the imagined worlds of Abed, the other big success came from the actors. "Community" has one of the best comedy casts out there, and nothing can change that. Sure, Chevy Chase is still going through the motions as Pierce, but the other actors are so committed and so darned talented that it's always a pleasure to watch.


Still...

Something is missing.

I want to blame the writers for this. If I can't blame the acting or the concepts, who else is there? But I don't want to blame them. "History 101," the Season 4 premiere, is a solid 22 minutes of comedy. It's funny. I laughed. Occasionally, I marveled at a bit of genius thrown haphazardly onto the screen.

The writers of "Community" have done a good job with what they were given. The problem is, they needed Dan Harmon.


Why?

Here's the thing: Harmon's vision of "Community" took the familiar and turned it into almost-revolutionary art.

Think about it. We all talk about how amazing this show is, but its basic premise is kind of dull. A group of misfits comes together in order to learn and grow as human beings? We've all seen that show before. Lots of times.

And, however much we don't think of it, we have also seen shows that offer brilliant parodies. Heck, "Saturday Night Live" has been running 30-plus years on the back of parody and satire. "Community" has done a great job with its twists on pop culture, but it's hardly the first show to do so.

The difference that "Community" has had can be summed up in one word: Darkness.


The Harmon factor

Dark truth hides underneath all of the best comedy. It's our need to laugh instead of cry that makes the genre possible. TV comedy often tries to ignore this, giving us laughs without much thought of why we would need them. And that's OK. It's not art, but it's OK.

But sometimes, comedy shows its darkness. "Community" did that well.

Consider the characters, for example. The seven members of the study group are essentially broken, unhappy people when they first come together. We had a high-strung overachiever who had ruined her life with drugs, a jock with nothing much between his ears, a disgraced and dishonest lawyer, a pretty woman who had managed to achieve exactly nothing in her life, an older man with nowhere else to go, a spurned wife whose world had crumbled, and Abed. The darkness of a character like Abed can barely be put into words.

And these characters were funny! All of this dysfunction made for brilliant comedy. Dan Harmon could see the humor underlying each of his failed examples of humanity. Every joke was simultaneously a minor tragedy.

Some episodes made this all too clear. Take "Critical Film Studies" from Season 2, for example. In this installment, the group goes all-out to give Abed a "Pulp Fiction"-themed birthday. But Abed chooses to go to a private dinner with Jeff ( Joel McHale). During that dinner, Jeff thinks that his friend has finally connected to another human being. That's before he realizes they've just been reenacting "My Dinner with Andre."

We realize, along with Jeff, that Abed isn't going to change. He is never going to just love his friends because they threw him a party. There isn't going to be a new kind of connection for the man. Abed is the way Abed is.

That's the thing with the "Community" we knew: It accepted that the characters **were flawed, that their endings would never be conventionally happy. These people needed their comedy to get by in a world that could never quite work for them.


The change

That's the difference as Season 4 begins.

This new "Community" is still a funny place, but it's also a happy place. Abed may fall briefly into the Technicolor world of his own mind, but he achieves his own resolution there. Then he comes back on his own. We don't have to worry that this new Abed will melt down again. He has dealt with it. He has learned. Grown. Changed.

The Harmon vision of Abed wouldn't just come to terms with the world this way. He can't. The humor would have been there, but underneath it would be the knowledge that Abed will never change. That's what makes him the flawed, tragically hilarious man that he is.

Such change may have been inevitable. The new showrunners are creating a show in the shadow of Dan Harmon. Not much can change, and the vision of a project simply can't be as clear when seen through the eyes of others.


So what?

Despite all of this, I'm going to watch the heck out of "Community" this year. I expect to laugh a lot -- especially if the episodes remain as funny as the first two are. It will be fun.

Still, "Community" will not be the dark art Dan Harmon gave us. And we should mourn the loss of that darkness, even as we cover it with more laughter.

Photo/Video credit: NBC