The Community gang's fourth year at Greendale Community College finds the characters preparing for some big adjustments, yet they remain as endlessly idiosyncratic and curiously heartwarming as ever. In the season premiere, "History 101," every character handles the realization that he or she must soon part ways with Greendale's eccentric, insulated comfort zone, and each of their approaches is both a reflection of their individual evolutions over the past three years and a snapshot of the shifting ensemble interplay that makes Community's brand of referential humor so effective. Series creator Dan Harmon's controversial departure as showrunner sparked much drama during the show's extended hiatus, and it's refreshing to see that the material is as fresh and adeptly performed as ever.
"History 101" lacks the spectacularly choreographed musical numbers of previous Community season openers, though it does manage to reimagine the series as a traditional laugh-tracked sitcom, and it's actually better than most of the real ones currently on the air. This absence of any go-for-broke, attention-grabbing extravaganzas gives the episode a more levelheaded tone, digging deeper into Abed's (Danny Pudi) reluctance to once again embrace a personal metamorphosis. Finally seeing graduation in sight, Abed realizes he must soon relinquish the study sessions he treasures so dearly, so Britta (Gillian Jacobs), not one to ever give the best advice, suggests that he flee to his "happy place" in order to escape his anxiety. Of course, Abed finds solace within his own head, where his pop culture-saturated mind spawns alternate realities. The episode uses Abed's emotional shackling to his distorted parallel universe, dubbed Abed TV, as a simple yet compelling metaphor for refusing to enter adulthood.
Other storylines lack this sort of potency, such as Annie's (Alison Brie) brief bout with senioritis or Jeff (Joel McHale) taking part in Dean Pelton's (Jim Rash) bizarre Hunger Games-esque contest to secure coveted spots in a fake class called History of Ice Cream. Even though Abed is inarguably the most peculiar character in the series, he's commonly responsible for its most resonant moments. In a touching scene that closes "History 101," rather than being comforted by one of Jeff's classic feel-good speeches, Abed calms himself down via an encouraging spiel by the animated baby version of Jeff who lives inside his brain.
Britta's unusual courtship with Troy (Donald Glover) is more of a central storyline this season, and while Troy's childlike nature and obsession with strict routines repeatedly clashes with Britta's free-spirited, can't-be-tamed demeanor, their unlikely bonding occasionally provides illuminating incidents, as in "Conventions of Space and Time," where a trip to an Inspector Spacetime convention puts Troy and Abed's wavering friendship to the test. It's here that Britta's desire to console (she still wants to become a therapist) is used not as a typical Britta subplot where she runs off on some crazy soul-searching expedition, but as a device to ease Troy out of his rigidity when it comes to "sharing" Abed. Jacobs's theatrical range is quite remarkable: Britta is easily the most volatile member of the Greendale crew, and Jacobs never loosens her grasp on the sentimental elasticity required to make the character completely believable in her sporadically flighty actions.
Harmon may have left the building, but perhaps Community was secretly wanting for a shift in command. There's a slight subtly that wasn't here before, less of a sense of visual urgency and more of a fluid, natural progression. Community has always been a series that wears its badge of snappy creativity proud, and it's fourth season doesn't shy away from that. It does, however, thankfully take a much-deserved deep breath every once in a while, something collegiate seniors so often forget to do.