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Community - Season 4 [DVD]
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Entering their epic senior year at Greendale Community College, these people aren’t just a study group, they’re family! They’ll have to be, if they hope to survive a comedy-crammed year with everything from an alienating sci-fi convention, a German re-invasion and a Thanksgiving dinner from hell, to a hostage taking Christmas, a life-changing father/son reunion and even an epic transformation into puppets! In its wildly inventive fourth season, this phenomenal comedy hits an incredibly hilarious, new level! Prepare to “Pop! Pop!” with laughter. The Players: Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alison Brie, Donald Glover, Jim Rash, Ken Jeong, Emmy® winner Chevy Chase and a Community of All-Star Guests.
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Every long-running series has its Attack of the Clones, Crossroads of Twilight or "Jack's tattoo episode" moment, when the creative engines misfire and things fall out of alignment. Characters don't gel like they used, lines are delivered with less conviction and everything just goes a bit wrong.
In the case of Community, this problem was inflicted on the show by the studio: creator and showrunner Dan Harmon was fired between Seasons 3 and 4 and the show had to struggle on without its primary creative force. Given that Community is a finely balanced mix of meta-commentary, comedy and character development and even Harmon couldn't get it right all of the time (see the uneven opening to Season 1 or the middle of Season 3), it's unsurprising that Season 4 is a bit of a mess.
The show remains entertaining, even though the moments of out-of-character behaviour and dialogue grate. The performances remain strong and there's some genius moments of casting, with Malcolm McDowell playing the hard history teacher and a reasonable turn by Matt Lucas as an Inspector Spacetime fan to rival Abed. There's also some nice follow-ups to earlier seasons, with the finale combining both the 'darkest timeline' storyline that began in early Season 3 and finding a way of bringing back the paintball game in a different way. Even Britta recovers from her Season 2/3 descent into ditziness and is a moderately more interesting character this year. There's also a clever episode - a puppet musical - which pokes fun at the whole idea of high-concept episodes and feels like it could have been made on Harmon's watch.
Unfortunately these high points only emphasise the lows: the over-reliance on the Dean and the now utterly-redundant Chang for cheap jokes, the mishandling of Abed and indeed the whole pop culture angle (often just referencing things rather than using them to highlight plot or character) and the total sidelining of Pierce until he basically just vanishes from the show altogether. The actors, directors and writers make a heroic effort to make up for Harmon's absence, but there is no disguising that the show is no longer operating on the same level. Fortunately, the studio saw sense and Harmon was reinstated for the fifth (and, for now, final) season, which has been much more positively received.
Community's fourth season (***) is certainly watchable, with its share of funny moments. It also does move the characters and storylines forward more successfully than I was expecting. However, there are too many moments which misfire, too many moments when characters say and do things that feel off and too many lazy references to previous, funnier episodes. There's some fun to be had from revisiting Greendale, but Harmon's absence is palpable. The season is available now in the UK and USA.
As ever, manic fare - all concerned over the top with timing a joy. Often a particular pleasure remains the mickey taking of films, TV Shows, etc. Targets include "The Shawshank Redemption", Scary Movies, "Hogan's Heroes", "Freaky Friday", romcoms and cult SF Conventions.
A highlight (for the cast too) is the puppet episode (an interesting bonus feature telling how it was made).
Generous bonuses include commentaries on all thirteen episodes. No surprise are outtakes far funnier than most.
Much inspired lunacy, but not as inspired as it used to be - a highly talented cast sometimes making rather weak material seem far better than it is (the body swapping, alternate reality, etc.).
At the heart of it all is something more serious, quite moving really - best seen when Jeff confronts his father who never bothered to be a real dad. All here are misfits. The group is the only real family they have ever had - dysfunctional most certainly (as most television families seem to be). By the end of most episodes, differences are sorted amidst dollops of schmaltz. Although this seems Jeff's final year, can he really bear to leave? Greendale represents escape from a world where they never really fit. They need the place, mad Dean and all.
Four stars generous? Not really. Although not at its best, I laughed a lot.
The pop culture gags feel forced, the characters have been dumbed down or simplified and there are fewer moments worth laughing at in this entire season than there is in the average episode from the Dan Harmon era. Let's not even mention the awful season finale or the horrendous Inspector Spacetime episode.
It's not all bad though. The ep where Jeff meets his dad is a series highlight, and the emotional moments in the (majorly overrated) puppet episode hit their mark with ease. But ultimately, the best thing to do is imagine the show ended at season 3, which shouldn't be too difficult since it wrapped things up neatly there.
If you're worried about whether the fourth season will still feel like Community in the absence of the showrunner, I'd recommend skipping 'Alternative History of the German Invasion', which is the low point. If you do watch 'Alternative History', just remember that it all looks up from there; don't let one episode colour your enjoyment of the other twelve!
Overall, the fourth season of Community may not be quite up to the high standard set by previous seasons, but give it a chance! It still has the humour, the charm and the characters that made the previous seasons great, even if it's a little wobbly on its feet at times.
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