Terry Morrow: 'Community' makes the grade in season-four opener

Joel McHale is back for the fourth season of "Community," returning tonight on WBIR, Channel 10.

Photo by Lewis Jacobs, © NBCUniversal, Inc.

Joel McHale is back for the fourth season of "Community," returning tonight on WBIR, Channel 10.

If the multitude of behind-the-scene changes is weighing "Community" down — not the least of which is the departure of creator (and the show's heart and soul) Dan Harmon — it's not evident on screen.

Certainly the comedy feels a bit repetitious in the opening episode (8 p.m. Thursday, WBIR, Channel 10), employing retro-styled animation, flash-forward fantasy sequences and alternate reality gags for laughs. However familiar as these may be, "Community" has been away for so long now — about a year and some change — that it's a pardonable sin.

If odd is what you seek, you won't find any mainstream network comedy able to provide more than "Community." It can be slapstick funny then darkly humorous within seconds, no easy task to pull off convincingly on network or cable.

Of course "Community's" quirkiness doesn't work for everyone. Just look at the weekly ratings. The series has struggled season after season to stay on the air.

That's the injustice of primetime TV. During a time when audiences with dozens of channels at its disposal and complaining there's nothing fresh to watch, "Community" goes virtually ignored.

Forget the logic that this long-time study group remains together and close despite the fact two of them — weasly Jeff (Joel McHale) and old-man/ bigot Pierce (Chevy Chase) — openly dislike the group.

Tonight's opener is the beginning of the new school year shrouded in a spoof of "The Hunger Games." Jeff fights for his group to have spots in a history class about ice cream. It's a tad predictable, but at least we get to see Jim Rash, as the dean, in a gown. And that never grows old.

Score: 3 stars (out of five)

Terry Morrow may be reached at 865-342-6445 or morrowt@knoxville.com.

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