Last night’s Community episode, Intro to Knots, returned to normal, which sadly in season four terms means that it's a show that I can barely sit through. What’s especially depressing is that being able to watch an entire episode of Community these days isn’t just normal, but also a compliment. I lasted maybe seven minutes in last week’s atrocious Muppets episode before I angrily shut off the television. I was so distraught that my whole brain was crying. I luckily did not have to press the power button this week as Intro to Knots managed to top Intro to Felt Surrogacy by simply being mediocre.

Mediocrity seems to be the best Community can do ever since Dan Harmon was unceremoniously let go. It’s hard to find any ingenuity in the show anymore as the writing seems like it is full of callbacks and references. That feeling persists because the other jokes mostly fall flat and the characters are a hodgepodge of their personalities from the previous three seasons. The writers seem to be spoiled from the countless number of past great theme episodes like the paintball numbers, the Glee parody, the My Dinner with Andre episode, and countless others, most notably the infamous “bottle” episode of Cooperative Calligraphy, which Intro to Knots so wishes to be. The showrunners forget that it was the innovation and creativity of the jokes and dialogue underneath the glitz and glamour of these themes that made these episodes so special. Unfortunately, without the clever writing from the Harmon era, the show has become an unintentional parody of its previous seasons.

It’s hard not to smile when Troy (Donald Glover) brings up past memories of Annie’s (Alison Brie) lost purple pens in Cooperative Calligraphy when he dejectedly says, “Couldn't we just say a Ghost did it again?" as the group tries to decide who untied Professor Cornwallis (Malcolm McDowell). I vividly remembered the pillow that constituted Troy’s backpack and the mausoleum of unknown feelings that Abed (Danny Pudi) refers to as the bottle episode. Intro to Knots tries to recreate that magical episode, but fails to do so because of its all too familiar mediocre writing. Abed reprises his Meta existentialist role seen in the previous bottle episode or in Science of Illusion. In those numbers, there’s a reason for his character to humor us about the pitfalls of a bottle episode (I didn’t even know what that was when the show first aired) or to narrate and guide a buddy cop parody pairing between Annie and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown). In Intro to Knots, there’s no reason to bring back his, “I can’t tell life from TV gimmick,” as Jeff (Joel McHale) once described it. He’s only there to shove Die Hard references that make no sense in the context of the episode and to give shallow Meta observations that add nothing to the plot. He eats his popcorn and asks for milk duds like a theater going movie junkie. Abed is, in a sense, an audience member, which makes his character redundant since the audience is watching the show.

At the same time, what makes those callbacks and references feel so pervasive is the irony in them. While we’re constantly reminded of previous episodes and their history, the current Community criminally disregards them. Annie reverts to her housewife and creepy loving Jeff routine as she fixes up his apartment before the rest of the study group arrives for the Christmas party (Also, when did Jeff get a new apartment?). It’s like her past revelations about the illusion of loving Jeff (Virtual Systems Analysis, Conventions of Space and Time) have no influence on her character’s growth. In fact, Annie has learned nothing from the past. She lies to the group about the "F" they received for their paper when in fact they received a "C-." Didn’t she learn anything from season one’s English as a Second Language, about how wrong it is to lie to the group for personal interests? I could go on about Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and Troy’s nonexistent relationship, Abed’s new nonexistent relationship with Brie Larson’s character, or Chang’s (Ken Jeong) frustratingly underdeveloped amnesia/Greendale infiltration plot, but I can already feel the vomit pooling at the back of my mouth.

The best part of Intro to Knots was undoubtedly Malcolm McDowell as he methodically uses the allure of a better history paper grade to tear apart the study group, all while tied (supposedly) to a chair. I was enthralled by his voice, which gave off a deranged serial killer vibe like Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lector. It’s too bad that McDowell was the best character of the latest episode because supporting characters on Community should only add to the greatness of the regulars. But too often now, the study group characters are only a caricature of their past selves. There’s no semblance of continuity shown in season four and the little details that fans and critics raved about in the past are overshadowed by the rampant inconsistency. Intro to Knots stoops to Iron Man 2 levels of plot hole incompetence at the end when Chang calls someone who appears to be Dean Spreck (Jordan Black) about his foiled plan involving Professor Cornwallis to get the study group expelled. How could he have known that Cornwallis would be at the party, especially since Annie never told anyone that he was coming. And if he had hatched the scheme organically at the party there would be no need for him to call the City College dean, further highlighting the sloppiness of the writing.

I remember when Community was arguably the best comedy series on television with groundbreaking episodes like Cooperative Calligraphy. Now there’s Intro to Knots, which only serves to remind me how NBC ruined a once great series. By removing Dan Harmon, NBC has somehow managed to Hollywoodize a quirky and unique show. They are stripping away any kind of depth shown previously, and in its place they are forcing an overabundance of parodies, references, and other gimmicks that they believe the fans love into the show. I’m sure most of the fan boys (admittedly I am one) eat it up. But to me, the show that airs now just has Community’s name stamped on it and bears little resemblance to the show I once adored.

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