Judge Erich Asperschlager is fyne.
Our reviews of Community: The Complete First Season (published September 20th, 2010), Community: The Complete Second Season (published September 6th, 2011), and Community: The Complete Third Season (published August 14th, 2012) are also available.
"I remember when this show was about a Community College."
I can't think of a recent TV show that returned from hiatus with more drama, controversy, and expectations than the fourth season of NBC's Community. For three years, the ambitious sitcom had lived on a steady diet of rabid fans and low ratings, culminating in the firing of series creator Dan Harmon. Angry viewers took to the Internet, sharpening their knives and writing off new showrunners Moses Port and David Guarascio before they'd even begun. It didn't help that the new season was delayed at the last minute from its original October start date to after the holidays.
From the first episode, Community Season Four was a disappointment to many fans. The characters were the same, the antics as quirky, but it wasn't quite right. It felt like an approximation of the rich, character-driven comedy had made it the best sitcom on network TV. It felt like Community fan fiction.
Other great TV shows have had lesser seasons, of course: the second seasons of The Wire and Twin Peaks; the sixth season of Saturday Night Live; and The Simpsons after the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, or twelfth season, depending who you ask. As I re-watched the fourth season of Community, I thought a lot about watching The Simpsons on DVD. Starting with the tenth season, I expected each new Simpsons season set to be terrible, and each time I've been surprised by how much better the episodes were than I remembered. I had the same experience with Community: The Complete Fourth Season. Instead of the frustrating mess I expected, I saw what for many sitcoms would be a standout season.
Facts of the Case
Community: The Complete Fourth Season has all 13 episodes of this shortened season, on two discs:
It's impossible to talk about this season without mentioning Dan Harmon. Whatever his problems with top network brass, Harmon's OCD perfectionism and rampant creativity can be felt through every episode of Community's first three years—and the lack of his influence can be felt in every episode here. It takes more than one person to make a TV show, and plenty of talented folks stayed on after Harmon left, but there's no denying that Season Four isn't as densely layered with jokes and character moments as previous seasons. It feels, as many fans feared it would, like a standard single-camera sitcom.
Removed from comparisons to previous seasons, that's not a bad thing. There are fewer jokes, but most of the gags hit. With well-established characters and a continued focus on meta references to movies and TV, there's plenty of room for the writers to play. Highlights of the season include the Scooby-Doo style Halloween episode set in Pierce's gaudy mansion, a visit to an Inspector Spacetime convention, the puppet episode "Intro to Felt Surrogacy," and the revelation of the group's shared history in "Heroic Origins."
Some of the referential humor feels forced, and characters act in ways that don't jive with their growth in previous seasons—Annie's relapsed obsession with Jeff is the most egregious example—but there's no real damage done. It helps that Troy and Britta's awkward dating relationship and the "Changnesia" storyline are resolved by season's end. The worst that can be said about the season is that it treads water, going back to series stand-bys like documentaries and paintball.
Season Four also has an impressive lineup of guest stars. Malcolm McDowell has the biggest recurring role, as the group's history professor, but there are cameos by Jason Alexander, Tricia Helfer, James Brolin, Joe Lo Truglio, Brie Larson, and '90s pop star Sophie B. Hawkins as herself. The kind of casting one would expect from a sitcom, but Community makes it work.
The Season Four DVD set is as sharp a package as previous sets, from the in-joke packed packaging to the extensive bonus features. Like previous sets, the season is available in standard definition only, no Blu-ray. The 1.78:1 presentation looks great, thanks to the series' high production values. The episodes come with a 5.1 surround mix that's clear, but doesn't do much with the extra sonic real estate.
• The set's main bonus feature are audio commentaries for every episode—mixing and matching cast, crew, writers, directors, and showrunners. Topics include which story ideas are holdovers from previous season and vague references to having to shoot around Chevy Chase's limited participation. Some commentaries are better than others. Certain newcomers spend more time talking about writers' room antics than the episodes themselves. As a whole, though, they're good fun.
• There are also about 11 minutes of deleted, extended, and alternate scenes split across both discs. Most of the scenes are short, and I'm hazy on the difference between "deleted" and "extended," but I can't complain about more Community.
• "Inspector Spacetime: Inspection" (9:43): The first of two featurettes, this closer look at the "Conventions of Space and Time" episode is worth watching for the tour of the impressively detailed convention set. The rest of the featurette focuses on standard making-of material, including background on the Inspector, cast recollections from San Diego Comic-Con, and answers to the burning question of who they'd want to be a Gluon with.
• "Adventures in Advanced Puppetry" (15:37): The centerpiece episode this season is "Intro to Felt Surrogacy," most of which takes place in a faux-Muppet world where puppet versions of the study group end up in lost in the woods. This featurette shows off the different puppets and puppeteers, gives the cast the opportunity to sound off on the accuracy of their felt doppelgangers, and acts as touching send-off to what everyone thought might be their final season.
• Outtakes (6:29): Flubbed lines and crude onstage antics, plus an Alison Brie werewolf rap montage.
Community: The Complete Fourth Season begins with a parody of multi-camera sitcoms, complete with laugh track, dumb jokes, and character catchphrases. In the commentary the writers say they did it to mess with audience expectations, but this fourth season is closer to that fake '90s sitcom than it is to the show's first three years. The plots are simpler, the references are more obvious, and the jokes aren't piled on top of each other. Watching the season as it aired was disappointing, but time, distance, and the DVD format have changed my mind. Season Four isn't Community at its best, but it's still better than most current network comedies…A backhanded compliment is still a compliment, right?
Not nearly as guilty as I thought.
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