Joel McHale Joel McHale

Fans of Community are understandably wary about the fifth season, given the fairly hollow simulacra that aired last spring. But with the return of creator Dan Harmon, the show has regained the sense of deliberate chaos and freewheeling playfulness that originally earned it such a devoted (and vocal) fan base.

For Harmon's unprecedented return, you can thank none other than Joel McHale, who played a crucial role in NBC bringing back the controversial showrunner. Comparing Harmon to Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development), both of whom are guest-starring this season, McHale preached the benefits of letting a series be dictated by a singular vision. "There was some really good stuff last year, but it did not have the direction that the other seasons had," McHale, who plays Jeff Winger, told reporters during a conference call. "I know this is going to sound really grandiose but [Harmon is] as specific as Shakespeare was with his words ... there's no excess," he added.

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When Harmon was fired, Happy Endings' David Guarascio and Moses Port were recruited to keep the sinking ship afloat. Replacing Harmon was a thankless job, but Jim Rash, who plays the flamboyant Dean Pelton, applauded their attempt to pick up where Harmon left off, even if they weren't quite able to reproduce his complex Harmon-ian logic. "Without somebody who has this sort of approach to make it so dense and deep with layers, it's difficult. It's a Herculean task that I certainly wouldn't want to take on. But I think we did our best, you know?" Rash said.

Community is a show that has lived on the bubble since it's inception in 2009. Now only one season away from its #sixseasonsandamovie goal, it'd be a shame for the series to limp to the finish line only to realize no one was left cheering them on. So while Rash and McHale understand fans' skepticism going into Season 5, it's comforting that they could barely contain their praise for the new episodes. "I think that this whole year was just sort of — it felt like a gift," Rash told reporters. "It felt like you were being handed material that was just, I would argue, some of the best of all the seasons. And I feel like the growth of this year for all the characters and for Community in general is pretty paramount. We really went very far as far as hitting big sort of epic episodes, but also really paying homage to these characters that we started with five years ago."

While Season 4 saw Guarascio and Port attempting to broaden the appeal of Community, Harmon's return reinstated the series as the carefully crafted niche comedy it once was. But cult appeal was never Harmon's intention. "Believe it or not, everything I ever put my name on is my 100 percent attempt to entertain everybody on the planet as possible," Harmon tells "I'm well aware that certain things will play for certain audiences more as I'm making them, but I never think in my head, 'Oh, I'm gonna make something that alienates my mother because I want to make 15-year-olds happy. I really try as hard as I can to entertain myself."

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But while Harmon's exile and shocking return to Community became all anyone could talk about regarding Community, McHale says the priorities will soon shift back to the work itself. "When the material's so good you kind of forget about that stuff," he said. "And, you know, 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. The sense of relief that I've had this year has been tremendous."

Even though Harmon is back at the helm, there are still changes ahead: The series is returning without Chevy Chase (Pierce) and with Donald Glover (Troy) only appearing in five of the season's 13 episodes. While fans are particularly bemoaning the loss of Glover, whose onscreen chemistry with Danny Pudi (Abed) is exactly what Tumblr is made for, McHale said the situation created "a wealth of great change" for the show. "I think it really speaks to the idea of the evolution of a series," he says. "The rules keep getting changed on us, but — which is very much like reality — people adjust."

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To help combat the absence of two of the Greendale Seven, Community has enlisted an impressive roster of guest stars, including  David Cross, Chris Elliott, Paul Williams, Gina Gershon, Brie Larson, and Jonathan Banks, who will appear regularly as Annie's criminology teacher, Professor Hickey. Though excessive guest stars could easily veer into stunt casting or overwhelm the series much in the same way gimmick themes derailed Season 4, Rash and McHale were quick to ease these worries. ""People start using guest stars to make up for storytelling. And all these guest stars only absolutely support and enhance it," McHale said. "I think it's the most creative guest stars of the last, I don't know, I'm going to go with the last 100 years of television."

While McHale might have exaggerated the last bit, judging by the first few episodes of the season, Harmon has found a way to organically weave in each of the new characters without it feeling desperate or contrived. Walton Goggins' appearance in Episode 4 is of particular note, as he plays a key role in what's sure to become one of Community's more emotional episodes yet.

With so many behind-the-scenes changes, the title of the fifth season premiere, "Repilot," had many people wondering just how different Community would be. Jumping forward in time to after everyone has graduated, the entire study group finds life to be far from what was expected, inspiring a new opportunity for a fresh start. "It'll be kind of getting back to basics," Harmon teased. With enough winking nods to the show's own mistakes ("When we met you were an eclectic anarchist. How did you become the group's airhead?" Jeff probes Britta), Community's premiere apologizes to fans for its uneven past and lays a hopeful track for the future. And while the cast shakeup and Jeff's new role does undoubtedly change the series' dynamic, Rash explained that the re-pilot is really about raising the stakes for the characters. 

This is welcome news since Community, at its core, has always been character-driven. Even when the study group was singing their way through a stop-motion world or exploring the Darkest Timeline, it was motivated by a deeper emotional need surrounding the study group members' relationships with each other. The fourth season's biggest failure was its attempt to copy Harmon's use of surreal themes without the same emotional motivation. But with Community's creator back in charge, we can once again look forward to these episodes — including the much-anticipated Nic Cage tribute airing directly after the Season 5 premiere. This season will also feature  takes on David Fincher, a Dungeons and Dragons follow-up and an homage to Logan's Run that might just take the show to another level.

"[It's] the most insane piece of television I've ever been a part of," McHale says. Who needs paintball? 

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Community returns Jan. 2 at 8/7c on NBC.