This past week ushered in the new year, and with it, new seasons of Community and Downton Abbey. Both shows entered their new seasons with the task of rebuilding their worlds after massive shake-ups: Community returned with creator Dan Harmon once again at the helm, putting back the pieces of last year’s David Guarascio and Moses Port’s admirably-led, yet empty, season, while the inhabitants of Downton Abbey began life anew after the unexpected death of Matthew Crawley and departure of actor Dan Stevens.
Both shows turned the pages onto new chapters, but after watching the first two episodes of each, only Community glimmered with exuberant hope, while Downton Abbey dulled with lackluster.
— — —
I bailed on Community after four episodes last season. Without Dan Harmon on-board, I felt as though I was watching a show that was an empty shell of its former self. Port and Guarascio tried too hard to imitate the past season’s idiosyncrasies and it showed. The Harmon-free Community wasn’t the darkest timeline, but it sure rang hollow. The lighting was brighter. Pop culture references fell flat. Character motivations rang false. The heart simply wasn’t there. And worst of all, the show simply wasn’t funny.
With “Repilot” and “Introduction to Teaching,” the first two episodes of this season, it was like welcoming back old, familiar friends, albeit ones that were sadder, and perhaps even a bit wiser (nah). These were the characters we once knew. Community has always worked best when it dove into the weird recesses of its characters’ flaws, exposing a dark self-loathing hidden beneath the surface (see “Mixology Certification” and “Cooperative Calligraphy”). The show doesn’t need high-concepts all the time to be successful, but these skewed perspectives can bring out what rings true in these characters’ emotional lives.
Simply put, the Greendale gang felt like people again, people prone to Nicholas Cage-fueled breakdowns and messy owl analogies, but people nonetheless. Jeff Winger makes a quintessential observation on this necessary retooling of the group: “Don’t blame it all on a gas leak year. This is a four-year process. We went in one end as real people and out the other end as mixed-up cartoons.”
Jeff’s pointed statement wasn’t just a knock on last season, but a commentary on how the characters have evolved since the pilot, for better or for worse. In these new re-calibrated episodes, the characters were given more grounded motivations that stayed true to their essence. Annie Edison was the most smartly-written she had been in years, free of her Jeff-impaired schoolgirl crush. Britta, Shirley, and Troy hitting rock-bottom rightly fueled them to shed the loser mentality that they feared most. And Abed was Abed. These characters need each other in order to succeed and that need for connection was palpable.
Even Ben Chang, my least favorite character, came across as tolerable and palatable. Over the seasons, Chang has gone from teacher, to student, to megalomaniacal despot, to Changnesiac (thank goodness I skipped over that), but now it appears that he’ll be used in the capacity that suits him most: an obnoxious “teacher” that pops into frame in measured doses.
The addition of Jonathan Banks as Professor Buzz Hickey fills the hole that Chevy Chase’s Pierce Hawthorne left. Hickey is the suave, world-weary mentor figure that Hawthorne could only dream of being. Hickey will be around for most of the season, and it will be interesting to see how the little-explored Greendale student-teacher relationships will pan out, especially now that Winger himself is a teacher. The addition of the faculty lounge also opens up a brand new world to examine.
While Community is more than a well-oiled strings of zingers and meta-humor, it was a relief to simply laugh again. Insightful references to Scrub’s ninth season, Donald Glover’s impending departure, and Nicholas Cage’s particular brand of crazy examining the randomness of human nature hit the mark. And I can’t not mention my absolute favorite exchange that occurred between Jeff and Troy:
Jeff: “Your entire identity has been consumed by your relationship with another man.”
Troy: “You found my Clive Owen Tumblr?!”
— — —
Like Community, Downton Abbey entered its new season with rebuilding on the agenda, but unlike the Greendale gang, it failed to breathe much of a new life into the show. The unbearable soapyness of Matthew Crawley’s shocking death almost made my Naughty List this past year, along with the unbearable tedium of the Batezzz in Jail storyline.
Starting six months after Matthew’s death, creator Julian Fellowes gave a great opportunity to shake up the estate. Unfortunately, Fellowes is prone to falling into the same repetitive narrative traps and circling around the same tired conservative themes. Downton Abbey’s poor pacing and whiplash character motivations breed a familiarity and a repetitiveness that to some viewers may feel absolutely comforting (Oh that Dowager Countess and her witty bon mots!), but to others comes across as a dreary slog. I can appreciate the soapyness of it all (heck, I sat through all eight seasons of Desperate Housewives), but the show has failed to rise to its dizzying first season heights time and time again.
So with the cyclical narrative nature of the everyday life at Downton Abbey (Really? Edna Braithwaite again? What a blatant attempt to fill the Mrs. O’Brien void.), we must cling to the familiar character beats to find viewing satisfaction (Oh that Dowager Countess and her witty bon mots!). It is this character predictability, portrayed by talented actors and actresses that can elevate middling material, that makes Downton Abbey such a huge hit, with a record-breaking 10.2 million viewers tuning into the premiere.
Millions tuned in to see how Lady Mary would mourn her late husband, and the show did not disappoint in that regard. Michelle Dockery played every note of grief and stoicism with great and cold aplomb. Her icy delivery of “Oh, it’s Valentine’s Day” killed me. And her emotional and vulnerable breakdown with her father-figure Carson was a highlight of the two hours.
I have always been on #TeamEdith and I’m looking forward to watching her bloom into her own this season. The confidence with which she carries herself is ever-so satisfying. “I don’t care. Kiss me. Now.” she tells her boyfriend at dinner. In public. Get it, Edith! And it wouldn’t be Downton Abbey without the frustratingly insufferable Lord Grantham. Can we also move past the Ivy/Daisy/Alfred/Hot Jimmy love quadrangle? That was so last season. Thanks. Thankfully, the effervescence that Lady Rose has brought to the proceedings bodes well for the future of the series. More spunk and less Batezzz please!