Jeff Winger's time at Greendale Community College is coming to an end. Graduation, and a return to his former career as a hotshot lawyer, is now in sight. But standing in the way is a villainous English history teacher, his own (reluctantly growing) sense of community and events unfolding in another timeline altogether.
Every long-running series has its Attack of the Clones, Crossroads of Twilight or "Jack's tattoo episode" moment, when the creative engines misfire and things fall out of alignment. Characters don't gel like they used, lines are delivered with less conviction and everything just goes a bit wrong.
In the case of Community, this problem was inflicted on the show by the studio: creator and showrunner Dan Harmon was fired between Seasons 3 and 4 and the show had to struggle on without its primary creative force. Given that Community is a finely balanced mix of meta-commentary, comedy and character development and even Harmon couldn't get it right all of the time (see the uneven opening to Season 1 or the middle of Season 3), it's unsurprising that Season 4 is a bit of a mess.
The show remains entertaining, even though the moments of out-of-character behaviour and dialogue grate. The performances remain strong and there's some genius moments of casting, with Malcolm McDowell playing the hard history teacher and a reasonable turn by Matt Lucas as an Inspector Spacetime fan to rival Abed. There's also some nice follow-ups to earlier seasons, with the finale combining both the 'darkest timeline' storyline that began in early Season 3 and finding a way of bringing back the paintball game in a different way. Even Britta recovers from her Season 2/3 descent into ditziness and is a moderately more interesting character this year. There's also a clever episode - a puppet musical - which pokes fun at the whole idea of high-concept episodes and feels like it could have been made on Harmon's watch.
Unfortunately these high points only emphasise the lows: the over-reliance on the Dean and the now utterly-redundant Chang for cheap jokes, the mishandling of Abed and indeed the whole pop culture angle (often just referencing things rather than using them to highlight plot or character) and the total sidelining of Pierce until he basically just vanishes from the show altogether. The actors, directors and writers make a heroic effort to make up for Harmon's absence, but there is no disguising that the show is no longer operating on the same level. Fortunately, the studio saw sense and Harmon was reinstated for the fifth (and, for now, final) season, which has been much more positively received.
Community's fourth season (***) is certainly watchable, with its share of funny moments. It also does move the characters and storylines forward more successfully than I was expecting. However, there are too many moments which misfire, too many moments when characters say and do things that feel off and too many lazy references to previous, funnier episodes. There's some fun to be had from revisiting Greendale, but Harmon's absence is palpable. The season is available now in the UK and USA.