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February 07, 2013 at 07:10 PM EST

“October 19th” has finally arrived.  After the ouster of creator Dan Harmonthe hiring of new showrunners a 16-week delay, a change in scheduling from Friday back to home on Thursday, and news of a star’s departure, Community returns for its fourth (and possibly-but-also-maybe-not-final) season tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC. As you can imagine, the new guys in charge, executive producers Moses Port and David Guarascio (Aliens in America, Just Shoot Me), are a wee bit antsy to finally kick off the year after this extended hiatus. “Given all the change with the show, meaning us coming aboard, it would’ve been nice to be airing episodes while we’re making them, to cross that threshold of, ‘Hey, world, here it is, take it or leave it, whatever you think!'” says Guarascio. “There is so much anxiety about how people will react to it, because we’re all so invested in getting everyone to embrace the show. On the other hand, we feel like we’re on a night we’d much rather be on….The fact that we’re back on Thursday has also helped increase the anticipation a little bit. It’s why dessert comes at the end of the meal, it’s the anticipation that helps make it so satisfying.”

Season 4 will serve up a Hunger Games parody in the first episode, a visit to Pierce’s “haunted” mansion on Halloween in the second, a journey to an Inspector Spacetime convention in the third, a battle with the Germans over the Study Room in the fourth, and throughout, a diverse smattering of guest stars (including Malcolm McDowell, James Brolin, Jason Alexander, Tricia Helfer, and Adam Devine). It also will seek to use the show’s meta-comedy to its advantage. “There’s something about the idea of change that is really like a perfect symmetry this year,” says Guarascio. “It’s Jeff’s senior year. He (Joel McHale) and Abed (Danny Pudi) are at the center of the group, so that obviously means a lot for everyone knowing that change is coming, and at the same time there’s been this change in the real world of the show. Sometimes change is something you over-anticipate — you make something too much of — and the anxiety about it is much larger than the actual effect. And sometimes it does bring about real differences in your life, and navigating which is what is what makes it such a challenge. Knowing that our characters are in a year of change, and that the show is in a year of change — it’s been a constant theme for us throughout the season.”

While Port and Guarascio are keenly aware that obsessive fans of the show and its mastermind, Harmon, will hold a very powerful microscope up to the new episodes, the pair want to make it clear that the goal is to preserve the show’s intricate, quirky comedy. “It’s more of the same. They’re very much Community episodes but part of Community is that every season is different from one season to the next,” says Port of season 4.. “They’re not going to be Dan episodes but I’m very confident that they’re Community episodes. And very early on, in a good way, everybody was on board to stop asking ‘What would Dan do?’ and start asking ‘What’s this Community episode going to be? What’s this season going to be?’ So, this season feels to us and to the writers and actors like the next logical year of Community.”

Of course, one of those actors won’t be around after this season: NBC confirmed in November that Chevy Chase and the show were parting ways. It wasn’t terribly surprising, given his bumpy relationship with the show, and particularly Harmon, with whom he had feuded. After Harmon exited, though, Chase found himself at the center of another problem: While filming one of the last episodes of the season, he used the n-word in an argument over the direction of his bigoted character, Pierce. Port and Guarascio are reluctant to say much about the Chase controversy. “A lot of this predates us being on the show to some extent, and everything runs its course in its own time, whether it’s fiction or it’s real life,” says Guarascio. “Relationships end… Some relationships end better than others, and this one could have maybe ended a little bit better, but it just was maybe the right time for everyone involved.” Port, however, does stress that “it felt like a good creative year for Chevy. We got to do everything with the actor and the characters that we needed and wanted to do… Chevy seemed to be refreshed this year, and he certainly was giving it his all.” Chase will appear in almost every episode this year, including the finale, which provides some semblance of a send-off. “Maybe in a different situation we would have been able and would’ve wanted to handle it slightly differently,” notes Guarascio, “but at the same time I would say there’s good closure for the season for Pierce.”

Closure is certainly something fans will be seeking if Community does not earn a season 5 pick-up, falling two seasons and a movie shy of its goal. With all of this season’s episodes already in the can, did the producers craft the final episode of the season to also work as a series finale?  “One of our big goals for the season was we wanted the last one to be worthy of a series sendoff,” says Guarascio. “But timing being what it is, we wanted to do something that is also sending a message: This show is ready back for a fifth season, and there’s a lot to look forward to.”

To give you a more detailed preview of what to expect from the fourth season, check out our Q&A with Port and Guarascio that was published back in October, when NBC delayed the premiere. In the interview, the duo discussed the pressures of replacing Harmon, what sort of changes were in store for the show and upcoming story lines. Click here to read it.

NEXT: Read their teases for each of the main characters.

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Joel McHale and Alison Brie star in this comedy about a college study group—which has received second life on Yahoo.
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