After five seasons and a cancellation on NBC, “Community” was rescued by Yahoo and the first two episodes of season six debuted on its new home at Yahoo Screen March 17, with new episodes weekly. Ed Carroll shares his thoughts on the first two episodes of Community’s improbable sixth season.
On camera, “Community” stars Joel McHale, Allison Brie, Danny Pudi, Ken Jeong, Gillian Jacobs and Jim Rash as Greendale Human Beings doing … something at Greendale Community College. First they were a study group. Then they were a committee. Now, they’re “a loose-knit group of students and teachers — none of whom are taking a class together.” The sixth season of “Community” is well-aware this isn’t really a show about a community college study group anymore.
It’s impossible to write about “Community” without mentioning the ride the cult show has been on behind the scenes. After going on a ‘indefinite hiatus’ midway through the third season, the show saw NBC fire creator and show runner Dan Harmon prior to the fourth season, which also saw original cast member Chevy Chase (finally) depart the series after expressing some pretty public displeasure about working on the show and with Harmon (and using a racial slur on set). Unfortunately, the fourth season was filmed out-of-order (as many sitcoms do), which led to some awkward episodes without a key cast member (in addition to lacking in quality).
For the next two seasons, “Community” would be a mid-season replacement for whatever NBC comedy failed (aka pretty much all of them). After mediocre reviews for the new show runners in season four, NBC then ended up rehiring Harmon for a fifth season, only to lose another original cast member in Donald Glover about midway through the season (Glover’s exit was planned and handled on-screen better). Then NBC cancelled “Community,” officially, and Sony appeared unable to find a taker for the Human Beings until literally the last possible day to renew the show.
But even the transition to Yahoo Screen, the new home of “Community,” wasn’t entirely smooth. The biggest blow came soon after the renewal, when original cast member (and native Clevelander) Yvette Nicole Brown ( who played do-it-all mom and businesswoman Shirley Bennett) left the series to join CBS’s “The Odd Couple,” as a recurring role on that show provided her more time to be with a sick family member (Harmon has said the door is “wide open” for Brown to return as Bennett if she’s able to in the future). Jonathan Banks ended up being a major part of season five as criminology professor Buzz Hickey, but was unable to continue with “Community” as he joined the cast of “Better Call Saul,” returning to the role of Mike Ehrmantraut from “Breaking Bad” which made him famous. Season five also saw the return of John Oliver’s Ian Duncan to a prominent role in the show after two seasons away, but Oliver’s duties hosting “Last Week Tonight” will prevent more Duncanisms in season six. None of the departures were written out of the show (Banks and Oliver aren’t even mentioned in these episodes), but losing Brown in addition to two recurring characters who really helped the second half of the season after Glover’s departure already put season six in a huge hole.
But season six of “Community” is here, in spite of really everything against it.
No, this isn’t the same “Community” you fell in love with in 2009. “Community” knows this, too. But if the first two episodes of season six are any indication, the show still has life in it yet. Harmon has said he isn’t writing this season as if it’s the last (despite the #sixseasonsandamovie hashtag that fans have rallied behind since season three). But the show has indeed changed dramatically from even last season (let alone the pilot), and as Abed (Pudi) states so brilliantly to new character Frankie Dart (Paget Brewster), he’s worried her character signals the end of the show he’s come to know and love.
We typically love television shows that are consistent; safe, reliable worlds we can return to time and again. Ever the rebel, “Community” is, either wisely or recklessly, attempting to embrace change and try to do its thing at the same time. The first two episodes of season six know the show has changed, and don’t try to hide it, but both “Ladders” and “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” found solace in some traditional “Community” humor: on-point self-commentary and Greendale Human Beings going all-in on something ridiculous. And, for the most part, it works. Not completely, but enough to make it still feel like the “Community” we loved before the move.
In “Ladders,” the season premier (which is apparently a class at Greendale, so no, the show isn’t abandoning its usual method of naming episodes after potential classes), Abed deals with having Frankie, an insurance adjuster, around the campus and attempts to be the “normal one,” only to get wrapped up in a backdoor speakeasy inside Shirley’s Sandwiches, which Britta (Jacobs) is now running into the ground after Shirley ‘spun off.’ The episode features a slightly excessive four montages, but plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, such as Frankie flipping out on the speakeasy. “Lawnmower Maintenance …” saw Dean Pelton (Rash) get lost in a virtual reality world, which led to the introduction of the second new character to the show, Elroy Patashnik (Keith David) a former virtual reality programmer as well as the introduction of Britta’s parents — who are apparently familiar with the rest of the Greendale crew already.
Yeah, it feels weird seeing the two empty chairs at the study table (which hasn’t been studied on since … season three, maybe?) and the opening title sequence has a fewer names on it. Brewster brings a nice touch of humanity to her tough Frankie (David’s Elroy isn’t given enough screen time to judge), but the focus is mostly on the returning people, as it should be. Jeff is still cynical, Annie still driven, Abed is still meta and Britta is still the worst. The show is still funny, even though it might not be quite as brilliant as it once was; a little stability (something the show hasn’t had since season three) might help season six rise above the impressive but ultimately uneven season five. There’s a couple fun cameos from familiar “Community” guest stars, and the recurring cast of Greendale regulars get a few jokes in themselves (particularly Garrett and Leonard), but for the most part, it’s focusing on the familiar gang getting used to the unfamiliar faces.
As far as experiencing the show on Yahoo Screen, it wasn’t without hiccups. I noticed the very last second of a segment being cut off by commercials, only to be shown before the next segment, and occasional (temporary) audio issues. That said, commercials were pretty reasonable (about one per break), and these episodes are actually slightly longer than their broadcast counterparts (at approximately 27 minutes and 30 seconds each). Unlike “Arrested Development” (which jumped from FOX to Netflix, making it the closest comparison to “Community’s” jump from NBC to Yahoo,), the extra time in “Community” isn’t too noticeable because the show is still funny (unlike in AD, where the extra time was painful), and it probably allows Harmon to indulge in some extended nonsense, such as the aforementioned four montages.
And while it would have been easy for Harmon to open fire on NBC for their treatment of the show now that he’s free on Yahoo, these episodes only take a couple of surprisingly-restrained shots at the show’s former home. There’s a big shot too awesome to spoil at the end of the first episode, but other than that, Harmon doesn’t let his show get wrapped up in the off-screen drama of, well, his show. “Community” also makes a few passing meta-mentions of moving to online, but again, nothing overdone.
“Community” is not the same show that it was in 2009. And if you want, you can probably make the argument that “Community” isn’t as good a show as it once was. I’m more thankful to be back in Greendale, and while there’s some wear and tear showing in its structure, “Community” seems off to a promising (re)start in season six.
Note: The sixth season of “Community” airs on Yahoo Screen, with new episodes every Tuesday. Check Everyone Hates Cleveland for regular reviews of each episode.