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The Sad, Dark, Triumphant Return of 'Community'

After NBC announced in June that Dan Harmon would be returning to “Community,” the show he created and then got axed from after three seasons, it was easy to wonder if the famously tortured writer would implode under the pressure. He has long been known for his masochistic habits, pulling all-nighters and procrastinating on drafts. His departure had been legendarily painful and bitter. Last year I wrote about the intense spectacle of his “Harmontown” tour, which became a sort of refuge for the exiled showrunner in the wake of his firing—a place where he could seal himself off within the adulation of his fans. During “Harmontown,” he sat onstage and riffed on his pet subjects: comics, sci-fi, the corrosive effects of corporate interests on pop culture, the lapsed golden age of TV. “I am third act—what’s his name? What’s the guy who died of heroin? I am third-act Lenny Bruce,” he said after leaving NBC.

And then the network asked him back. Now “Community” is on the air again; it returned last night with a two-part premiere, though the best of the new episodes made available to critics will air January 16th. You can feel, in Harmon’s writing, that the stakes are higher, the screwball antics infused with a new sadness. “Community” always had dark moments: take the season two episode "Mixology Certification," in which the characters all get drunk and slide into a depressive gloom. But in season five, thus far, the sadness is more atmospheric. In part it’s a function of plot—the original premise was that this band of misfits had all, by some developmental accident, ended up at this fifth-rate community college. Now they’ve tried to graduate, and failed. Jeff Winger is back at Greendale as a law professor after his ramshackle strip-mall law firm fell apart. Britta is a bartender. Shirley has separated from her husband; “He took the boys. He took the dog,” she says. The melancholy makes a sharp backdrop for Harmon’s crackling dialogue. “If I wanted the government in my uterus I’d fill it with oil and Hispanic voters,” Britta says in what may be one of the best episodes in "Community" history, in which the group takes lie detector tests orchestrated by the now-deceased Pierce (Chevy Chase).

Perhaps the most promising sign for the season ahead is the addition of Jonathan Banks, Mike Ehrmentraut from “Breaking Bad.” He is introduced in episode two as a crusty criminology professor named Buzz Hickey whose lines include, “The trick is you have to show the other baboons you got a bigger, redder ass.” If Banks is meant to replace Chevy Chase as the token offensive oldster, he already seems set to be a better, more complicated character.  In one particularly good scene, Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) are alone in a room, camouflaged, respectively, as a plant and an armchair. Then Hickey walks in, oblivious to their presence, and proceeds to have a phone conversation about his heart medication and his dead father. It’s a perfectly Harmon moment: just the right combination of absurdity and pathos, cynicism and goofy heart.

After the cartoonish fourth season written by David Guariscio and Moses Port, it would have made total sense for Harmon to refuse and walk away vindicated. But it took a kind of crazy bravery for him to agree to see the thing through. The opening episodes of this season, shot through with his self-righteousness, are the perfect retort to the execs who fired him. “We went in one end as real people and out the other end as mixed-up cartoons,” ringleader Jeff Winger says of community college, but also, of course, of the lost season that Harmon didn’t get to write. The network of pop cultural allusions is denser than ever: one episode features an extended, manic, deeply impressive Nicholas Cage impression by Danny Pudi. “That’s for making these four years happen,” Jeff Winger tells his lawyer nemesis (Rob Coddry) as he whips him with a tie in the first episode of season five, “and now I get to make them unhappen for me and the only people I care about.” The only people Harmon cares about have long been his die-hard fans. But in season five we finally get the sense that the strictures of network comedy-making that have so tormented him—the push to wring broad demographic appeal out of an acutely personal show—have been lifted, to the show's great benefit, at last.