Perhaps this is finally the end of Community, or at least the small but virulent fervor that surrounds it. We can't say we din't see this coming — our Richard Lawson wrote back in October that the show should just die already. But NBC's three-and-a-half-year-old sitcom was always bit of a unicorn: critically acclaimed with a rabid fan base (see: the Community subreddit) but constantly at odds with the network, and even to some extent itself. On Thursday night Community embarks upon its long delayed fourth season (the Halloween episode is airing on Valentine's Day!) with new showrunners taking the place of hailed-as-crazy-genius creator Dan Harmon, and many of the show's lauded writers are gone as well. Now, as eagerly as fans may anticipate its return, the reviews have been mixed to very bad. Even critics — once a major part of upholding the Community cult — are upset at their own reactions to the show:
Having watched both episodes twice now, I'm pretty sure they're not BAD. I'm also pretty sure I'm LYING TO MYSELF.— Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti) February 7, 2013
With the network suffering, and this spate of bad/tepid/disappointed response to new episodes, Community's departure seems more and more inevitable, even though one of the new showrunners, David Guarascio, told The Hollywood Reporter that he's "feeling very confident about a season five." In the world of Community, who really knows? But let's take a look at what's wrong, at least according to today's critical 180:
It's Not As Smart Anymore
Mike Hale of the New York Times savaged the show in his review in today's paper. He starts by saying that, before Harmon's departure, Community was "unapologetically smart." Now it's been "dumbed down, its humor broadened past recognition."
It's Not Funny
Hale, who is by far the most voracious critic of these new episodes, charges that the laughs are gone. He writes:
They might have been nut cases who negotiated reality through bad puns and movie references, but they were substantial and complex nut cases. In the new season they’ve been flattened and, especially in a story line in which Annie (Alison Brie) imagines marrying the bad boy Jeff (Joel McHale), sentimentalized. Also, they’re just not very funny.
It's Trying Too Hard
James Poniewozik of Time explains that the so-so (not terrible) episodes "play like they were created by very talented writers who prepared by reading Community's IMDB description." Poniewozik makes the case that a number of shows (The West Wing is one) lost their creators but then went in different, equally interesting directions. Here, there is no such direction. Alan Sepinwall at HitFix has a similar take, explaining that the early episodes "feel like everyone is trying much too hard to recapture some lightning that flowed out of the bottle when Harmon left."
It's A "Zombie" Version of Community
That's the way Andy Greenwald describes the new episodes in his take for Grantland. He explains that "there's a Stepford quality to it all," as easy and obvious choices are made in trying to sustain the characters' special brand of weirdness.
Listen. Dan Harmon was far from my favorite person. I wasn't sure there'd be that much of a difference. But this show is just soulless now.— Libby Hill (@midwestspitfire) February 7, 2013
Where do we go from here? There's still an entire season to get through, but if the fans cry foul, then what does Community have left?