Now that Community’s been canceled after its fifth season, I think it’s safe to say that season 4 will go down as the most controversial and disliked of the sitcom’s run. It certainly had a lot of strikes against it from the get-go: Creator Dan Harmon had been fired, the episode count was reduced to 13, the premiere was delayed until the spring, Starburns was gone, and several other veterans on the creative side left.
But was it, as Abed always feared, the darkest timeline? Was it Community without the soul, without the wit, and without the pop culture post-modernism that fans expected?
It’d be very easy to say that yes, it was a terrible season. But the truth is (as Jeff might begin speechifying) that it was an above-average season compared to most sitcoms and a substandard performance with gratifying exceptions compared to Community seasons 1-3. I held off writing this review until I finished watching season 4 for the second time and I’m glad I did. It’s not half-bad as a whole, although you won’t hear me complaining that Harmon came back for the final season either.
Following the class-season framework of the series, in season 4 the study group enrolls in a history class and goes on a journey to see where they all came from. This theme is perhaps only loosely explored, with a couple of episodes showing how the group’s actions in the past were regarded by the rest of the student body and how they may have all had connections far before enrolling at Greendale.
There are a couple of other changes as well. Troy and Britta begin dating, which gave us a doomed yet oddly likeable couple. Abed starts to realize that everything is coming to an end and must deal with that. Jeff tries his hardest to become “New Jeff” and overcome his selfish habits. And Chang… well, he’s back as “Kevin,” a guy with amnesia who has forgotten most everything including how horrible he’s been to Greendale in the past.
Mostly, season 4 is a mish-mash of ideas that doesn’t really wreck the whole study group dynamic or the show’s format but doesn’t push it forward, either. There are probably proportionally more shows that take place outside of Greendale (such as Thanksgiving or an Inspector Spacetime convention) and fewer that just have fun with the whole college setting. I’m pretty partial to the puppet episode (with singing!) but I definitely agree with those that claim that the new showrunners weren’t secure enough in their roles to push things. That’s why we get a lot of callbacks to previous seasons, such as the return of the darkest timeline (which really should have been left alone after the end of season 3).
You can definitely feel the reduced episode count here. Whereas previous seasons took their time going through an entire year of the group at Greendale, season 4 is a vastly truncated experience that comes across as rushed and incomplete. The chosen group class, history, is only seen once, and that briefly. The fewer episodes and more out-of-college romps also means that the supporting cast of characters have limited cameos, which in turn reduce the sense of Greendale as an actual place.
I’ll admit that I felt affected by the final episode, seeing Jeff graduate Greendale and feel the passage of time as one does at the end of a real college degree. Fun time is over; real life beckons. With Chevy Chase’s departure at the end of season 4, the Greendale Seven would never quite be the same again, although there’s plenty to hope for that season 5 would go out on top with Harmon’s return. Speaking of Chase, I know that he was pretty disgruntled over the course his character had taken, but I actually like the Pierce of season 4 far more than the previous seasons. The way he stood up to Jeff at the dance made me actually respect him instead of wish for alligators to dine on his flesh.
I think that a lot of passionate fans’ hatred of season 4 will mellow out with time. It’s really not that bad and it is — against many odds — 13 more episodes of Community than some predicted. Plus, it gave us the Hunger Deans, a Freaky Friday remix, and a fun Scooby Doo homage.