To be a dedicated fan of NBC's "Community" is to live in a state of near-constant anxiety. OK, so maybe that's kind of a stretch, but you know what I mean.

The wacky, low-rated sitcom about a gang of study-group misfits at fictional Greendale Community College has spent its life on the proverbial "bubble," forever coping with the threat of cancellation. Moreover, it's routinely treated like an ugly stepchild by NBC, which has bumped the show around its schedule. Case in point: This week's Season 4 opener was originally set to debut in October, but at the last minute, it was unceremoniously yanked and shelved.

COMMUNITY -- "History 101" Episode 401 -- Pictured: (l-r) Joel McHale as Jeff Winger, Jim Rash as Dean Pelton -- (Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC)
COMMUNITY -- "History 101" Episode 401 -- Pictured: (l-r) Joel McHale as Jeff Winger, Jim Rash as Dean Pelton -- (Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC) ( NBC )

Most alarming was last year's messy firing of "Community" creator and showrunner Dan Harmon. His ouster sent a big jolt of dread through devotees, who were left to wonder if their delightfully kooky show would now tone things down and lower its freak flag to half-mast.

The good news is that "Community" is finally back -- albeit for a shortened 13-episode season -- and if Thursday's opener is any indication, it's as boldly absurd, trippy and adventurous as ever.

The episode has Jeff (Joel McHale) and the gang returning for their fourth, and presumably final, year at Greendale. (Do students really attend community college for that long?) But soon, there's trouble.

A highly coveted history class (the history of ice cream) has been overbooked, which prompts Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) to hold an outrageous "Hunger Games"-style competition to determine who gets in. How outrageous? Well, let's just say that it features buff shirtless guys rocking unicorn costumes.

Meanwhile, Abed (Danny Pudi) is experiencing high anxiety over the fact that this could be the last year the gang is together, so Britta (Gillian Jacobs) suggests he go to a "happy place" in his head. The result is typical "Community" meta fantasizing: A warmhearted sitcom involving all his pals, with a jarring a laugh track, plays out in Abed's mind. At one point, we're treated to an animated sequence presenting Greendale folk as babies and they're oh so adorable -- even Pierce (Chevy Chase).

The funny thing is, although the episode contains sight gags galore, it didn't exactly have me doubling over in mirth. Perhaps I was just expecting too much after such a long wait, but the dialogue seemed to largely lack that smart, sly edge, and the overall half-hour just felt too busy.

Fortunately, any doubts I harbored were eased by a second episode provided for review that I found funnier. It focuses on a fan convention for "Inspector Spacetime" -- an affectionate nod to "Doctor Who" and its rabid devotees.

The event brings out the worst in Troy (Donald Glover), whose fledgling relationship with Britta is putting a crimp in his long-running bromance with Abed. In fact, when the latter meets a supremely nerdy "Inspector Spacetime" fan at the convention, freaked-out Troy worries he's being replaced.

"Community" can be too consciously zany at times and occasionally misses more than it hits. But from the early looks of things, it seems to be holding up just fine.

CRUNCHING NUMBERS: When Kiefer Sutherland's "Touch" returns for its second season on Friday (8 p.m., Fox), it will try to get back in touch with more viewers.

The drama about a single father and his numbers-obsessed son (David Mazouz) started strong when it debuted in March, but lost nearly three-quarters of its audience by season's end. Executive producer Tim Kring has promised to crank up the tension and infuse the show with "a much more highly charged danger" in hopes of keeping fans hooked.

In addition, Maria Bello joins the cast full time, and the action shifts from New York to Los Angeles. The show also has enlisted several of Sutherland's old pals from "24," including Mykelti Williamson, D.B. Sweeney and Annie Wersching

Still, it might be difficult to attract more attention now that the series has been moved to Fridays, typically a night of lighter viewership. "Touch" kicks off with a two-hour opener.

WORKING FOR A LIVING: Sutherland will find himself pitted against "The Job" (8 p.m. Friday, CBS), a new reality series that is kind of like "The Apprentice," but not.

On "The Job," contestants compete for actual positions with prominent companies, including Cosmopolitan magazine, the Palm Restaurant Group, Major League Soccer, Epic Records, Live Nation and Zynga. Hosted by Lisa Ling, each episode will feature five candidates participating in several rounds of elimination challenges before a panel of executives.

In addition to the episode's featured company, representatives of three guest companies from related industries will have the chance to make an immediate offer to one of the candidates, who must decide if they will accept the offer or stay in the running for the main job.

THE 'DEAD' LIVE AGAIN: The weekend's main TV attraction is, of course, the 55th annual Grammy Awards (8 p.m. Sunday, CBS). But for many of us, the sound of moaning zombies is music to our ears.

Yes, "The Walking Dead" (9 p.m. Sunday, AMC) is back to resume its gripping third season. The action -- and we do mean action -- picks right up from where we left off in December with reunited brothers Merle (Michael Rooker) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) locked in a fight-to-the-death brawl that has been orchestrated by the very angry and very vindictive governor (David Morrissey).

Meanwhile, the bloody battle in Woodbury has left nerves frayed and tensions simmering among our fragmented band of gutsy survivors. And it doesn't help matters that Rick (Andrew Lincoln) appears to be on the verge of an emotional meltdown.

Contact Chuck Barney at cbarney@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his TV blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/tv and follow him at http://twitter.com/chuckbarney, and Facebook at www.facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.ChuckBarney.

'community'

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When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: NBC