‘Community’ gets back on the dean’s list

Dave Bartlett
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For years after I finished my undergraduate degree, every September came with a strange anxiety. When work life started to blend my summers seamlessly into fall, I secretly wished for those carefree years as a student. Eventually I largely outgrew that feeling, remembering all those Februaries when I just wanted to be finished school.

Dani Pudi (left) and Donald Glover play Troy and Abed in the NBC comedy “Community.” Glover recently left the series, following Chevy Chase out the door, but the show has retooled itself for the better. — Submitted photo

When the gang of “Community” enrolled at Greendale Community College in 2009 as a new NBC sitcom, it didn’t me take long to become a fan of the show and for the next few autumns, I also looked forward to its return to class.

It’s a pop-culture stew of comedy that uses every potentially strange shaped vegetable to create a truly unique show that effortlessly alters its look, tone and supporting cast to pay homage to other TV and classic (and not so classic) movies. But at its centre is a study group of bizarre and diverse characters that have formed an unlikely exclusive clique.

After continued poor ratings, producer Sony replaced creator Dan Harmon with new show-runners and delayed the start of Season 4 until January 2013. Meanwhile, Chevy Chase continued to take issue with the writers of the show and eventually quit midseason.

I didn’t miss him, as the show — that had sped downhill faster than a runaway soapbox racer — wasn’t helped by Chase barely phoning in his performances as perpetual wealthy student Pierce Hawthorne during his final handful of episodes.

The show was almost sure to be cancelled. But NBC surprisingly renewed “Community,” and following Chase’s departure hired Harmon back. But it again delayed the 13-episode fifth season until January.

Then news broke that Donald Glover, who plays Troy Barnes, was also slated to leave the show after only a few more episodes.

So, as my PVR collected the first half a dozen episodes of Season 5 last month, I wondered what I would get when I finally got around to watching them: the wacky show of its first few semesters or the disappointing, almost unwatchable episodes of Season 4.

I’m more than happy that after midterm, “Community” has again earned an A, and may be even better than it was before.

Chase makes a brief appearance as a hologram, and his character Hawthorne has died, providing a great backdrop for an episode which revisits one from the past when Pierce fakes being terminally ill to irritate and prank the others.

The one episode so far without Troy was also surprisingly smooth and the absence of Glover has barely been felt so far — which to me is surprising as he is one of my favourite characters.

His two final episodes are a lead-up to him leaving, and there’s even a scene in the “Repilot” where Troy bashes actor Zach Braff for leaving the show “Scrubs” halfway through that show’s last season.

“After everything ‘Scrubs’ did for him!” He states with deadpan anger.

But can “Community” continue to sustain this fantastic run of exceptional episodes?

These last few have been full of guest stars, many returning, including John Oliver, Rob Corddry and Dino Stamatopoulis, the thought-to-be-dead student known as Starburns for his outrageous facial hair.

It has spent most of the time so far in Season 5 revisiting its own past, along with dissecting other fiction. When a show starts using itself as grist to go on, it usually starts to get old fast.

But I’ve got a good feeling that “Community” has actually been smartly retooled and could be back in class again in the fall.

If you are familiar with the show, but have yet to watch the new season, here are a couple of notable changes. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is back at Greendale teaching pre-law, and Chase has been replaced with criminology professor and Jeff’s new office mate Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks) who fits in so well.

The rest of the gang, after a collection of post-school failures, have re-enrolled and are now the core of a committee to renew the school’s reputation to merely dismal along with now math teacher Ben Chang (Ken Jeong).This is the second show in as many weeks that has said goodbye to major characters, yet seems to have enough momentum to overcome the losses.

As mentioned last week, “Parks and Recreation” has also bid adieu to Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones. If you missed Chris and Anne’s goodbye Thursday, you missed one of the best episodes of that show.

What shows have been made better by the departure of a cast member? Send correspondence

to Dave Bartlett at talkingtelevsion@gmail.com.

Organizations: Greendale Community College, NBC, Jonathan Banks

Geographic location: Troy, John Oliver

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