Look at all of these proclamations of a slow death! Community's season premiere was tonight, and to hear some of the big critical voices tell it, the episode was the first horseman of what would be a disappointingly average season. The once-adoring fanbase, based on 320 AVClub ratings, bid it a similarly dismissive B-. "History 101" was a rough sit sometimes, don't get me wrong, but seeing a sitcom falter to find a new take on necessarily predictable characters is something typical to its fourth season. Parks and Rec did a little; Archer is feeling it right now; 30 Rock sure as hell did, especially in its sixth. Community itself was stretched a bit toward the end of its third season.
Let's not damn the genre, but the medium: nearly every show sustains these hallmarks of decay, especially considering how the very act of running and producing a show is such a volatile task. In a way, avid watchers of the show had primed themselves for a potential disaster right out of the gate. Dan Harmon was gone, Chevy Chase was pissed, and there was little satisfaction when we learned that the premiere would be something as trendy and cheap as a Hunger Games parody episode. When you love something long-running like a television show, you owe it to yourself to be objective about the changes that accumulate around it; losing its distinct auteurial voice and the illusion of interpersonal harmony were two that just didn't register well with most people. Harmon was crucial to the show's vision, and without him the best I was hoping for was a muted (at least relative to Community standards), sweet bowing-out.
This was not muted, nor was it particularly sweet. It was oddly loud and those end-of-the-episode affirmations, powerful if sporadically graceless, fell heavily here. The laughs were there, but minimal. The Hunger Games stuff was dire as expected, and barely had anything to do with The Hunger Games in the first place. The subplots accomplished nothing. Bearing all of this in mind, it's important to remember is that the show's season premieres, as Sepinwall points out in that second article, have never been its strongest episodes. Each season takes such a radically different perceptual tack from the one that precedes it that they need these episodes as a sort of readjustment time. What aired tonight was a public examination of the show's anxieties, an entity fully aware of the impossible space of satisfaction it must fill. Abed's regressions into his own mind, spurred by anxiety or disunity in the real universe, reveal a similarly pitched but entirely artificial multi-camera sitcom. We see the sort of show that Community was always concerned about becoming, a gradual distillation of something much smarter, and its recognition that a sitcom must broaden in order to become more commercially viable should shade the initial flatness as ground to grow upon. There are elements of an arc here, a multileveled examination of the necessity of change - hell, the episode is called History 101, begging for an understanding of the genre's failings - and that's enough for me to not write the season off as some thoughtless back 13 of a dying sitcom.
I understand the desire to take this attitude toward the show; it isn't a particularly flattering one, but it's common to just about everyone. Those who are able to systematically demonstrate why what they once loved isn't good anymore feel they are proving, simultaneously, both their love for the original show and their disdain for the assumed breach of principle that this new and inferior version has brought about. "Kill your idols," in this critical climate, has become a proving ground. Art evolves through criticism, but not through melodramatic proclamations of a show's death upon its first episode of a season.
Harmon is gone but not forgotten. Community still knows this. Let it have its say.
Sneaky July update: Season 4 was essentially a disaster, start to finish. Some cute moments, a few nice ideas, and exactly one big laugh. The rest is poorly-made, exsanguinated comedy flotsam. So you can disregard this entire entreaty, I suppose.