There's a state of emotional illness called Capgras delusions that leads its sufferers to believe that their world, and everyone in it, has been craftily replaced with exact replicas. It's not entirely known what triggers the delusion - brain injury, mental illness, migraine and dementia all seem linked - but I have a hunch that fans of the show Community feel like they're suffering a mild case of Capgras on this season's run.
I've written before about the well-wrought sitcom that Community is....was. Over its first three seasons, it went from a Friends-lite to something that isn't often seen on network TV. From its jumbled group of misfit students (the graduated prom king, the disbarred lawyer, the single mom who wants a better life for herself, among others), the show started delving into the weird and wonderful possibilities that exist for a 22-minute weekly sitcom.
First, it upended expectations of male friendship when it made Troy and Abed BFFs. This is one of my favourite relationships on the show, an opinion I share with the majority of the fanbase. Troy and Abed are buds the way you're friends with someone in kindergarten - their friendship is based on play, on imagination. That's not to say it's fanciful, but that they actively created a safe, alternate world to that of the grown-ups around them. Post-secondary school often functions like that for young people anyway (I can't be the only one afflicted with the crippling realization that I'll likely be working entry-level jobs well into my thirties - thanks, university), so Troy and Abed's worlds-within-a-world functioned like a blanket fort with high-level security. What made that fun was that viewers were encouraged to join them: the show made sure to highlight those in-jokes for everyone to see.
Once it was established that Troy and Abed had something special, Community as a show also started playing. Its gift has always been that it's not afraid of going big and getting crazy - genre-busting episodes started happening three times a month, and with those, the show's format got slippery. Instead of an A-story and a B-story, we were treated to seven strands of narrative, to mockumentaries, to action movie tropes on PCP, to video game quests. The show's visual style shifted accordingly: bright, glossy fantasy episodes were followed by gritty cinema verite.
At the end of last season, the behind-the-scenes drama of showrunner Dan Harmon's conflict with, you know, basically everyone, came to a head when he was fired. Several key writers also left, and fans were left wondering how the flavour of the show would be affected.
We're now six episode in, halfway through a shortened season that has felt, to many people, like the studio's attempt to get to that magic 100th episode needed for lucrative syndication deals. Harmon's replacements promised they were huge fans of the show, that they weren't interested in changing much, and that fans would barely be able to tell the difference.
This has proved to be untrue.
The show feels weaker, less subtle. Instead of allowing tropes to take over, the genre episodes feel superimposed onto a sitcom's regular structure. The characters seem like weak echoes of themselves, and relationships have become...weird.
Take, for example, Britta and Troy. The groundwork for this romance has been laid for at least a season, but now that it's here, the storyline is floundering. It's not entirely clear why these characters would have moved from crushes to sex buddies/boyfriend-girlfriend, and now that they have, I'm not sure what they're supposed to be doing. Writers need an endgame when they're setting up sitcom couples: are they going to Jim-and-Pam these guys (forever, "I do"s, a kid, and soul-crushing arguments)? Is this more of a Ross and Rachel situation (off and on, cliffhanger romances, drunken hookups, and soul-crushing tedium)? Given Britta's past relationships - a carny, a hippie, and secret sex with Jeff Winger - I feel like she should be freaking out about dating a prom king ten years her junior. But...she isn't. And Troy, who has been torn between palling around with Abed and growing up, might have feelings about landing his first real girlfriend. But...he doesn't. At least none that we can see.
Vulture's TV critic Jesse David Fox recently posted his theory that Community's current weakness was created way back when Harmon was still running the show. He thinks these characters aren't substantial enough to hang a sitcom on, and so when the new writers fail, they fail because Harmon set them up.
But sitcoms have never really been about character development - you'd be hard-pressed to find a sitcom personality that's undergone a really serious arc, and your Jerrys and Elaines and Rosses and Joeys have all been basically the same person since day one. (This is directly in contrast to "better" TV, ie, dramas, which contractually require character development.) Furthermore, they're never really complex characters to begin with. Pop quiz: does "type-A woman who doesn't always know she's pretty" refer to Annie Edison or Monica Gellar? Is "smooth-talking ladies man with daddy issues" Barney Stinson or Jeff Winger? Sure, people (and characters) change, but even if Harmon failed to imbue his characters with enough meat, there's nothing stopping this crop of writers from giving that a go.
Community works best when it's big - when the tertiary characters are fully fleshed out, when the parodic elements are given room to breath, when the jokes set up in season two pay off in season four. Community is never going to be one of the top-rated sitcoms, mostly because those are Two and Half Men and The Big Bang Theory (broad, stereotypical, and largely unfunny to people with actual functioning brains). So mashing Community into the mould of Generic Sitcom Number Three (School Edition) feels like a giant waste of time when we've already seen what can be done. It feels especially lame when the show won't shell out for the Greendale Seven's classmates, when sets are chintzily recycled, and when dialogue feels like it could be lifted from any other sitcom currently on.
My advice to writers: get your shit together. Stop trying to recreate what came before, and stop trying to make Community like any other sitcom out there. If you're as good as you think you are, to take on this fan- and critically-beloved show, then prove it. Harmon succeeded by breaking the rules, by stepping outside the box of what was "allowed" for situational comedy. You'll only succeed if you break his rules right back. Surprise us. Make it count. And for God's sakes, remember that doing a parody episode isn't just putting your characters in Shawshank Redemption drag.