Review: 'Community' returns for Season 4... but is it still streets ahead?

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"Community" -- "History 101"
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“Community” fans were ready to high-five Annie’s Boobs (hey, that’s the monkey’s name!) when NBC announced in May they’d be renewing the offbeat college comedy for a fourth season. After all, when it comes to little-watched cult comedies, every renewal is cause for celebration.

But then the darkest timeline came to pass: Just days later, the network announced that Dan Harmon, “Community’s” creator and mad-scientist visionary, was out as showrunner as part of NBC’s effort to make “Community,” for lack of a better term, less weird. Never mind the fact that “Community’s” weirdness is precisely why we fell in love with the show in the first place; if we wanted a cookie-cutter sitcom with canned laughter, we’d go watch CBS.

So now, after months of delays, Season 4 of “Community” (the first without Harmon at the helm) is finally ready to see the light of day. Fans are understandably wary: Will the new episodes still have that free-wheeling oddball spark that hooked us in the first place? Or have all of “Community’s” rough edges been smoothed out in the hopes of winning a new audience? After screening two of the upcoming episodes, we can reassure you: This is still the “Community” you know and love. In fact, if anything, Season 4 might be trying a little too hard at first to convince you that the Greendale gang is just as wild and wacky as ever.

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"History 101" Episode 401 -- Pictured: Joel McHale as Jeff

We have to tread lightly when talking about this week’s Season 4 premiere, “History 101,” since the screener sent to critics comes with a laundry list of plot points we’re not allowed to reveal. What we can tell you (we think) is that right off the bat, the show addresses fans’ fears head-on with a knowing wink to all the behind-the-scenes drama. It’s vintage “Community,” but maybe a little too much so: By immersing itself so thoroughly in inside jokes and meta nods to its core audience, “Community” runs the risk of alienating anyone who just wants to tune in and laugh without knowing the whole backstory. We already had to watch the great “Arrested Development” get mired in a self-referential feedback loop over its final episodes; we don’t want to see that happen to “Community,” too.

"History 101” finds the study group returning from summer break and ready to start their final year together -- only Abed’s not ready for the group to go their separate ways. The impending separation anxiety leads Abed to once again take refuge in his own little mental wonderland. Quick side note: Are we the only ones who aren’t fans of “Community’s” attempts to delve into Abed’s psyche? It seems that anytime the writers try to explain what’s really going on in the pop-culture savant’s brain, the laughs come to a screeching halt. Did “Seinfeld” ever try to explain why Kramer was Kramer? Can’t we just let Abed be Abed?

Anyway, the group has their fall class together all picked out: the very scrumptious-sounding History of Ice Cream. Unfortunately, the rest of Greendale thought it sounded scrumptious, too, and the class is severely overbooked. So Dean Pelton (and we’re so happy to see Jim Rash back in drag again) sets up a cutthroat “Hunger Games”-style competition to determine who gets the coveted seats. But after two epic paintball wars, it’s a bit of a letdown that we only get to see flashes of the actual games here. We are treated to a memorable dance sequence of Jeff and Dean Pelton performing a wicked tango, though. (Anytime there’s homoerotic innuendo between Jeff and the Dean, sign us up.) And the Dean’s role looks to be increasing this season -- a move we wholeheartedly endorse.

Get a sneak peek at "Community's" Season 4 premiere right here:
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We weren’t provided an advance look at Season 4’s second episode, a Halloween installment now set to air on Valentine’s Day. (How romantic!) But “Conventions of Space and Time,” set to air February 21, is an entertaining return to form. The concept isn’t mind-blowing -- the gang heads to a convention celebrating Troy and Abed’s beloved “Inspector Spacetime” -- but it allows the show to explore the new season’s most promising storyline: the love triangle developing between Troy, Abed, and Britta.

You may recall that Troy and Britta have been exchanging flirty glances for a while now, and as Season 4 opens, they’re officially an item, walking the halls of Greendale hand-in-hand. But of course, Troy is already half of one of the best bromances on TV: Troy and Abed (in the morning!). And their triangle expands to a rectangle in “Conventions” with the addition of Matt Lucas (Rebel Wilson’s bald brother in “Bridesmaids”), who plays a “Spacetime” superfan looking to replace Troy as Abed’s BFF. This awkward situation has all kinds of comedic potential, with Troy torn between his new love and his old pal, and we look forward to seeing how it plays out over the course of the season.

[Related: Joel McHale Goes on Howard Stern, Addresses Chevy Chase's 'Community' Exit]

The rest of the Greendale gang is pretty much how you remember them: Annie is cute, Jeff makes inspirational speeches, Shirley says “no no no.” We would mention Chevy Chase here, but what’s the point? Pierce has been the study group’s weak link for a few seasons now, with his role now reduced to random old-guy outbursts and the occasional racist epithet. (Chase famously parted ways with the show in November, but filmed most of the new season before exiting.) And the less said about Ken Jeong’s Chang, the better; he does resurface here, but his paranoid-delusional charm has long since worn off.

So based on these two episodes, we’re happy to report that “Community” will continue to earn a spot on our DVRs. The flaws here -- the inconsistency, the insular jokes -- were here way before Harmon was shown the door. And really, even a slightly muted “Community” is better than no “Community” at all, right? That’s the bottom line here: In an era where TV shows get canceled within a month if they don’t pull in 10 million viewers each week, the fact that a series this proudly bizarre has survived to see a fourth season is something of a small miracle. We may not get our “six seasons and a movie”… but let’s just be thankful that Greendale hasn’t shut its doors yet.

See what's in store this season on "Community" with this Season 4 trailer:
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Season 4 of “Community” premieres Thursday, 2/7 at 8 PM on NBC.

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