By Sam Adams | Criticwire January 2, 2014 at 12:32PM
In the first scene of Community's fifth-season premier "Repilot," which marks creator Dan Harmon's return to the show, things are not going well for Jeff Winger (Joel McHale). His attempt at establishing a solo law practice after graduating from Greendale Community College has gone down in flames, with repo men carting away his office piece by piece as his former partner (Rob Corddry) tries to coax him back to the dark side of the law. But even as he nears bottom, Jeff is still trying to stick to his newly discovered principles.
"I may be broke, desperate and nearly homeless," he says with faint valor, "but I've still got one thing deep down inside that gives me power." Then, the repo men grab the half-full whiskey glass from his hand. "That was it."
Give Harmon's well-established fondness for brown liquor, as well as his habit of using Community to comment on itself, it's not hard to see an echo of Harmon himself here. Although he kept himself busy during the year when, after much butting of heads with NBC executives, he was replaced by David Guarscio and Moses Port, Harmon made no secret of the fact that he was heartbroken to see his baby in someone else's hands. The re-Harmonized Community can't quite be what it was: Chevy Chase's sublimely misanthropic Piers Hawthorne is gone for good, and Donald Glover's Troy is headed for the exits after five episodes. But it's much closer to the show its small but fiercely loyal audience had come to love, and by all accounts, that's cause for rejoicing.
"Repilot" and "Introduction to Teaching" are mostly free of jabs at what the Greendale crew refer to as "the gas-leak year." But late in the first episode, Jeff confronts his fellow characters with the way that over their four years together, they've turned from complex characters into walking punchlines: "We went in as real people and came out the other end as mixed-up cartoons." Perhaps it's a jab at Guerascio and Port, but also of the way sitcoms inevitably evolve over long runs. Actors and writers hone their strengths, which without sufficient caution can bleed into caricature, just as successful one-off lines mutate into catchphrases.
To be honest, Community hit that point for me well before Harmon's departure, although I still appreciate his ability to throw wild curveballs now and again. (It would, naturally, be unfair to give away the ones in the three episodes of Community's fifth season provided to critics, but rest assured, they're coming.) But the repiloted Community at least feels like the product of a coherent vision rather than an attempt at simulating someone else's. Harmon's not trying to make new fans anymore, but he knows how to please the ones he has.
David Sims, A.V. Club:
The show’s future, as ever, remains uncertain. Will it reach the hoped-for sixth season before the fabled movie? Will Harmon manage to keep things on budget without imploding? Will the ratings be enough for the show to carry on, especially since it’s already been sold into syndication? It’s best not to worry about the future for now. The amazing and exciting truth is that Community has steered out of the skid, against all odds. If this strong start is anything to go by, the show is going to produce an interesting, challenging, and hilarious batch of episodes for its fifth season. That’s reason enough to rejoice for now.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix:
At its best — and Harmon's first few episodes back get much closer to the show's peak than I was expecting -- it is a marvelous contraption fueled equally by a love of pop culture and a commitment to character, that can do kitchen-sink realism one week and a stop-motion animated Christmas adventure the next.
Mike Hale, New York TImes:
It seems too simple, too easy somehow, but there's no denying the evidence before our eyes: Community is a worthwhile show again now that Dan Harmon, its creator, is back in his office doing whatever it is he does so obsessively.
Jace Lacob, BuzzFeed:
After the story engine is jump-started in “Repilot,” the show feels very much like an old friend after a long absence. There is a sense that he is older (though not necessarily wiser) and that he’s lived through some changes (both good and bad), but in his heart, he is still the same person he was before.
Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times:
Though Harmon has expressed a hope that the fifth season does well enough -- that he does it well enough -- to merit a sixth, it's not as if anyone involved with Community can expect it suddenly to become a hit. What matters is that it has held its own against, or within, the humanity-consuming system. Its audience is small, by network-hit standards, but it is very engaged -- a part of the community the title describes. We may be few, and weird, and marginal, but we are in this together.