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The Improbable and Welcome Return of Dan Harmon to Community 

Alison Brie and Joel McHale in Community.

Alison Brie and Joel McHale in Community.

Community returns for season 5 on January 2 with a two-episode block that plants its feet on the study room table and regrounds the characters after a fourth season of viewer discontent and lost purpose.

It's impossible to discuss the season opener without talking about the show's creator. The sweet, funny first episode, titled "Repilot," follows graduate Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), returning to Greendale Community College after his law career stalls. As in the original series pilot, Winger harbors bad intentions and ulterior motives. The episode also marks the extremely improbable and welcome return of series creator Dan Harmon, rehired by Sony Pictures Television with its own apparent set of Winger-ish motives: On the cusp of the 100 episodes that make series syndication lucrative, Sony execs probably don't much care who's in charge.

That was apparent during season 4, when Sony replaced Harmon with David Guarascio and Moses Port, former show runners of Just Shoot Me, a series with a notably broad, mass-market sensibility antithetical to Community's exuberantly unconventional spirit. The result was a flat, false imitation of Harmon's previous seasons that leaned heavily on forced meta-comedy and had the overdetermined jokiness of Robin Williams impersonating a faith healer. (We did, however, learn that Oscar-winning screenwriter Jim Rash, who plays Community's Dean Pelton, does a really good Joel McHale impression.)

Harmon claims he was never told why he was fired prior to the fourth season. The trades often cite an inability to wrangle the notoriously prickly Chevy Chase. But Chase was fired from the show after Harmon's departure, and the pair have remained friends -- so who's the bad Chevy wrangler, exactly? Draw your own conclusions, but Harmon has the distinction of having worked professionally with Chase for a longer extended period than any other person, including Beverly D'Angelo or Chase's former SNL costars.

"Repilot" quickly reestablishes the show's original structure: Unhappy with post-college life, the show's principal characters, with the exception of Pierce, return to Greendale for postgraduate studies. Harmon has long professed his allegiance to Joseph Campbell's monomythic narrative structure and developed an own eight-point story circle with which he structures his writing. In accordance with this story structure, Winger gets what he came for, but pays a high price: He's now the school's pre-law professor.

In the second episode, "Introduction to Teaching," Winger begins his new academic career in appropriately half-assed and half-hearted Greendale fashion. Troy and Abed enroll in a Nicolas Cage Studies course. Annie antagonizes Winger for his lack of effort -- it's business as usual, but without Chevy Chase. Pierce's absence is filled by a new character: criminology professor Buzz Hickey, played by Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks, who becomes a mentor as Winger acclimates to his new role.

It's remarkable how large a footprint Chase's character Pierce plants on these first three episodes, given that he's no longer a series regular. The third episode, "Cooperative Polygraphy," pivots on Pierce, with his open displays of racism, gender bias, white-guy entitlement, old-guy befuddlement, and bad-guy conniving -- all despite the fact that Chase never appears on camera. That's a real testament to Harmon's abiding loyalty to his characters and the sharpness of the writing staff.

This might be some tiny consolation to fans of Donald Glover, who's leaving the show to focus on his recording career as Childish Gambino and launching a new series he's created called Atlanta on FX. "Cooperative Polygraphy" plants the seeds for Troy's imminent departure -- Glover only signed to appear in five episodes. Harmon has sheepishly admitted that Glover is his favorite actor of the show's ensemble; in the idiom of the mythic story cycle he loves, maybe losing Glover is the high price Harmon has to pay for the triumph of getting his show back.

On his podcast, Harmontown, Harmon has said that he never visits the set during production because he's too busy in the writers' room and the editing bay. He approaches television as a writer first, and he's said that the show's characters are all projected aspects of his own personality. Harmon's own virtues as an artist aside, it's hardly surprising that he's better at writing for these people than anyone else.

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