Joel McHale Talks "Community's" Big Comeback

With series creator Dan Harmon back at the helm, the star promises that 'things are as they should be'

By Scott Huver
|  Thursday, Jan 2, 2014  |  Updated 3:58 PM EDT
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Joel McHale as Jeff WInger in a scene from the upcoming fifth season of "Community" on NBC.

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“Community” is back in session with its original behind-the-scenes dean back in charge, and series star Joel McHale couldn’t be happier to re-enroll.

The NBC sitcom enters its fifth season Thursday night with the return of creator and executive producer Dan Harmon, whose distinctive comedy voice was missed by both fans of the cult-favorite series and its ensemble cast. The wildly creative but oft-controversial writer/producer was removed after season three, but was brought back after much rallying from McHale and his castmates.

“There was some really good stuff last year but it did not have the direction that the other seasons had,” says McHale. “This year with Dan back the scripts have been so great that with all the things that have happened with the show, when the material’s so good, you kind of forget about that stuff. Last year was kind of the crazy year, but now that Dan is back it’s like the monarchy has been restored and things are as they should be. So in that sense, the sense of relief that I’ve had this year has been tremendous.”

The show picks up where Season Four left off, and Harmon and his writing staff deftly address both some of the fallout from the previous episodes – including the characters’ graduation from Greendale and the departure of castmember Chevy Chase’s character Pierce Hawthorne – and looming challenges like the impending exit of castmember Donald Glover’s Troy Barnes after five of the new season’s 13 episodes. Glover is pursuing new career paths in both music and television.

“From Season Four there was a lot of unanswered questions, and Pierce’s departure was kind of abrupt and it needed to be addressed,” says McHale. “And it would have been easy for Dan to say everything was a dream upon his return, but the way he handled it was masterful. And it really answered all the questions that I think fans would have…When I read that, I stood up and screamed ‘Touchdown!’ It just dealt with it so well. And on top of that, Dan called the first episode as a ‘re-piloting’ and I think the second episode is a re-establishing of the characters.

“With Troy’s departure, you will see how if you thought that Danny Pudi was awesome before, he is incredible being this character that is socially different than everybody but is dealing with these big, heavy emotions,” McHale teases.

Pleasing the actor most, however, is the new path for his own character Jeff Winger, who finds himself returning to his alma mater as an instructor.

“This year, now that he’s a professor, Jeff is once again somewhat destabilized and his immaturities are exposed – a whole new set of them,” says McHale. “But there’s no doubt, though, that he loves this study group, and he has to really comes to terms with how he feels about the school, ultimately,” he adds.

To help fill the void left by Chase’s absence, Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”) joins the series in a recurring role as another member of Greendale’s academic staff, criminology professor Buzz Hickey. “Jonathan Banks’ presence in this show is just absolutely, out-of-this-world tremendous,” says McHale. ‘He’s an incredible actor, he’s really funny, and it’s just a whole different wonderful vibe. You’ll see how his character just sings through this thing.”

“I know this is going to sound really grandiose but Dan’s as specific as Shakespeare was with his words, where there’s really no excess,” says McHale, hinting that viewers who’ve loved Harmon’s Easter Egg-filled seasons will enjoy the path ahead. “All the stuff that Dan is saying in every episode, they’re very deliberate parts of the train-track that is being laid down to get to the end of this season.”

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