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January 02, 2014 at 08:43 PM EST

Community makes a triumphant return to NBC tonight at 8 p.m. with two things of interest: Back-to-back episodes and Dan Harmon back in the showrunner’s seat. (Okay, that’s technically three things.) How did it feel for Harmon (who’s also the co-creator of Adult Swim animated comedy Rick and Morty) to be reunited with his beloved, weirdo creation after a one-year exile? What high-concept high jinks is he planning for season 5? And how many more seasons (and a movie) of this community-college comedy does Harmon want to make? Those answers — and many others — are contained in the following Q&A.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, what was it like to walk back into the Community offices for the first time?

DAN HARMON: It was surreal, it was weightless, it was the strangest thing in the world. It was a place I thought I’d never see again. The flood of memories combined with the unprecedented internally imposed pressure kind of creates an equilibrium, because when something is equally terrifying and exhilarating, it suspends you emotionally. So I just sort of floated through the halls like a big, fat ghost.

This show has been your baby, and there’s so much of your comedy DNA in the show. What did that year away after the firing bring you? Perspective? New ideas? Other?

I had to cut the emotional cord for the sake of my sanity. I knew that no matter what I did, I was always going to be affected by a disconnection with the show. So I made the decision, healthy or unhealthy, to not do anything consciously to connect with it. I worked on my house and focused on other projects, tried really hard not to think about Community at all. I don’t know if it filled me with any energy that is necessarily helpful in season 5. The characters are kind of alive on their own, so coming back to them was less like me bringing anything from the outside back to them, and more like me just going back up into this attic where they had been stored and investigating the ways they had changed over that year and observing them and trying to think about what to tell them what to do next.

When you finally did get around to watching season 4, what struck you? And what did you want to differently this season?

What immediately stuck out was the obvious effort that was being put into emulating the things about the show that I assumed got me fired. So, I was very confused about that. I spent the greater portion of the first couple episodes going, “Then why did you fire me? I don’t understand any more. I don’t get it. At this point, I have to assume that you really just didn’t like the smell of me, because you certainly had no problem with the creative content, the tone of it, the approach to it.” So there was confusion there. I’ll never get straight answers as to why I was let go, I don’t think there are straight answers about why I was let go. That’s the thing that stuck out to me. It’s so odd that these guys were probably in Sony’s eyes hired to do something which wouldn’t necessarily have been unappealing, which is a very grounded show set in a community college about a group of unlikely family members sorting out their problems and having some laughs. So I thought, “I guess that’s what I’ll have to do for season 5 — at least for the first couple of episodes, we’ve got to get this thing re-grounded.”

Did season 4 feel like an alternative universe of Community or Community Lite to you?

If I start reaching for metaphors, this story is going to go from Entertainment Weekly to TMZ fast. [Laughs] I’ve tried to clarify how I felt about it to other people’s dismay and head-scratching. I have a personal relationship with the show and watching it in the hands of someone else was uncomfortable. That’s not a professional way to approach your work. You’re not supposed to be attached to these things — it’s an industry — but that’s the relationship that I had with this show. I watched it once and it was weird.

Was there a mission statement for season 5 to help re-ground it?

It was certainly regaining the audience’s trust, be they the mythical new viewer that we are always trying to get or the very real, loyal fan. We needed to thread the needle of rolling out a red carpet — wow, mixing a lot of metaphors — for both of those people. That just entailed focusing on the halls of Greendale again, which is ironic because that’s something that I spent season 3 actively pushing away from. I was always of the philosophy that we were running on a tank of gas that was unnecessarily finite by focusing on the community-college aspect of the show. That we had this great ensemble of characters who were real human beings who were aging and time was passing, and we were telling the four-year story of this guy getting his bachelor’s degree. However, the 10-year story had to do with these people — it was called Community, not Community College. That was my philosophy in season 3, which is why you see me systematically trying to wean the audience off pencils and lockers and tests and teachers and things like that, and focusing on the relationships and people moving in together and things like that. The irony is that because season 4 continued along that trajectory, and because now there’s been such turbulence creatively, that the only way to get things steady again is to do that show that Sony probably always wanted me to do, which is the community-college show. I definitely knew we had to get within those walls and walk those hallways and have everybody taking classes and interacting with each other within the context of a community college, because that was our safety zone and that was how we would get re-grounded.

What kinds of themes will this season explore?

There’s a heavy theme of human versus system. There’s lots of different characters going up against different kinds of systems and having their humanity tested in the face of something that isn’t human. Other than that, we introduce Jonathan Banks’ character, Buzz Hickey, who’s a criminology professor. I didn’t set out to do this but noticed we were doing it about halfway through the run; we kind of rub him as kind of a touchstone up against each of the characters. Each character has a story at some point with Buzz Hickey that teaches you more about the old characters that you love and slowly paints a picture of Hickey as you go.

How would you describe Buzz’s personality?

I wanted somebody who could occupy the same tribal slot as Pierce Hawthorne. The hapless Obi-Wan, the sometime father but often child. But I also knew that playing the game of trying to find a new Pierce would be a losing one. So this guy has the same amount of experience as Pierce did but from a completely different tax bracket, a completely different philosophy. Buzz Hickey is a blue-collar guy. He had free-love parents that didn’t provide for him in his early life and let him down, so back when his generation was becoming hippies, he was becoming a soldier and a cop. He’s all about practicality. He’s a man’s man in a way that Pierce Hawthorne probably only fantasized about being. He’s very hands-on and doesn’t believe in the idea of nuance psychologically. He goes with his gut and what works.

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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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