Joel McHale, <i>Community</i> Joel McHale, Community

"We're gonna have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined!"

So sings — yes, sings — the Greendale Community College study group as NBC's Community kicks off its third season.

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The flashy opening number speaks to creator Dan Harmon

's plan for the third season, which he says won't be as stunt-episode heavy as the self-referential comedy has been in the past."I don't want to disappoint any more of the more hyperactive savvy fans that love nothing more than the fact that the show is completely unpredictable," Harmon first told at the end of Season 2. "I have to continue a promise to the audience to always engage them in every part of their brain that love television. But at the same time I've got to get my mom more comfortable with the show."But doesn't an elaborate song-and-dance routine fly in the face of that? "There's a narrative reason, a character-based reason why the best way to open the show is with an illustration of how good things can be," Harmon says. "It's in contrast [with how last season ended], and it's to illustrate the contrast. It was an opportunity to sing and dance for people since that's hot now and also tell our story."

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Indeed, last season ended with a somewhat gloomy cliff-hanger when Pierce (Chevy Chase) told his cohorts he wouldn't return to the study group in the fall. As a new semester begins (Thursday, 8/7c, NBC), Pierce's chair still sits empty and that's worrying to everyone — except Jeff (Joel McHale). While the first episode attempts to bring the family back together, it sets up an emotionally challenging season for Mr. Winger."[Jeff's] going to learn the price of being in love with a group of people and having a real family," Harmon says. "It's not all positives. There's a social contract that needs to be made with the community where, if it's providing for you, it's also taking from you. If it's the third chapter of a four-chapter story for him, then this is the chapter that needs to be the most painful."That pain will extend into the classroom as well, where Jeff will butt heads with biology professor Kane (The Wire's Michael K. Williams), an ex-con with little patience for Jeff's antics. "I want to see what it's like to have a real person teaching at Greendale — somebody who's not cartoonishly afflicted with some kind of fable ... [that] makes them unqualified to teach," Harmon says. "I wanted to... present a teacher who maybe represents a viable risk academically. He can pass you or fail you, and that's how you will get through this year."

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The show is also bringing in John Goodman, who plays Vice Dean Laybourne, the head of Greendale's air conditioning repair annex. "He's sort of the Dick Cheney of Greendale," Harmon says. "He's a guy who appreciates real power over perceived power. He has been sort of sitting behind the scenes and is very content that way. But this year, Dean Pelton [Jim Rash] pulls that tail and activates him and finds out very quickly that the real guy in charge is [Laybourne]."Laybourne will begin to interact with the rest of the group when the air conditioning repair school approaches Troy (Donald Glover) to join up. And yet again, Jeff will be threatened. "Little Troy is growing up, Harmon says. "Troy is certainly heir to the throne of alpha male, so there's going to be that natural organic energy of conflict that happens between the silverbacks and the branch crashers as we say in primatology."As for the rest of the group, Abed (Danny Pudi) and Troy will be roommates. Annie (Alison Brie) will square off with a rival that reminds her a bit too much of her former self, and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) will finally declare her major to mixed reactions from the group. And Chang (Ken Jeong) somehow ends up working as Greendale's security guard.

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Meanwhile, both Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and Pierce will look to get serious about making a name for themselves in business. "[Pierce is] going to start trying to emerge from his father's shadow," Harmon says. "He was an heir to the moist towelette company, and so everything that was special that he ever accomplished was kind of handed to him. So, he's going to become kind of obsessed with making his own mark."Even with the promise of having less of what Dean Pelton calls "National Lampoon-ery" this season, Harmon promises a show that previous fans will still find plenty to laugh about. And that's probably because, despite what the season's opening number tells you, the show is going to be as crazy as it ever was."I never know what the hell I'm doing," Harmon says with a laugh. "I can promise the network and the studio. 'Yeah, we're going to be totally normal this year.' That's what the opening song's about. But they're singing it and dancing. The insanity is going to be a little more deeply ingrained this year. It's going to be like the marble pattern in the meat. It's going to be in everything making it hopefully delicious and sizzling."Community premieres Thursday at 8/7c on NBC. Season 2 is available on DVD in stores now.