The sixth season of Community starts with a bit of good news that isn’t all that good, delivered via public-address speakers by Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash): Greendale is now ranked fifth on Colorado’s alphabetical list of colleges. “Rest in peace, Fatboy Slim’s DJ School!” Like so much else on Dan Harmon’s comedy series, it’s an exuberantly silly throwaway line that doubles as a comment on the continued, unlikely existence of Community, a sitcom that’s learned the hard way to see every glass as half-full even when there’s nothing in it.
“Six seasons and a movie,” one of many cherished mantras of the show’s resident disordered pop-culture junkie Abed (Danny Pudi), seems likely to come true now, but with an exhausted sort of integrity that seems more heroic when you think about everything that Community had to contend with. It was always too clever, convoluted, and aggressively self-aware to fit into NBC’s prime-time lineup; it often played like a series that would’ve been at home on premium cable, where critical accolades sometimes compensate for low viewership. It hovered on the cancellation bubble throughout its third season, and got killed in spirit in season four, when NBC replaced its brilliant but difficult creator Dan Harmon and aired a genial facsimile (which had its moments, as a good tribute band sometimes does), then in fact at the end of the re-Harmon-ized season five, when the network officially pulled the plug. Now it’s been reincarnated in the glitch-y streaming video player of Yahoo! Screen, which is a bit like getting booted from an Ivy League school that never liked you anyway and finishing your studies at a start-up college whose state certifications haven’t been framed yet. (Yahoo decided to join Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu in the original content derby just last spring, and has two new series in the pipeline.) The show is unveiling episodes one week at a time, rather than embracing the binge-watch model, which has it detractors, but might benefit a show as dense and allusive as this one.
Still: new Community. Glass half-full. Suck it, Fatboy Slim.
The sixth season kicks off with a bald-faced, yet playful expository montage (one of the show’s signature moves), narrated by the dean via Greendale’s loudspeakers. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is still a teacher, still arrogant yet filled with self-loathing, still hitting the Scotch too hard. Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) is agitating on behalf of the homeless, mainly because she’s living in a tent on the school’s main quad. Abed wrote the very copy that the dean is reading to us (we see him lip-syncing the lines he wrote, Max Fischer–style). Annie Edison (Alison Brie) is basking in the afterglow of saving the school from 534 catastrophes. Problem is, that’s one more than she actually averted: Cue the roof caving in from the weight of decades’ worth of errant Frisbees.
And it’s here, barely a minute into the episode, that fans can breathe a sigh of relief, realizing that they’re in good hands, because the ensuing disaster is classic Community: a blatant inciting incident that announces itself as such, even as it expertly apes the filmmaking style of a Hollywood blockbuster to generate real excitement (brightly colored discs crash through the ceiling like Michael Bay asteroid chunks). The grace note at the end — a segue into a delightful and perfectly scored flashback — is magnificent, transitioning from youthful delight to tragic awareness of time’s forward march, capped by a classic-movie-dialogue quote that couldn’t be more apt.
More than ever — thanks to its venue change from a broadcast network to a website, no doubt — Community is about the tension between the pleasures of stasis and the need for change (or “C-H-A-N-G-E,” as Annie puts it, spelling it out like an expletive so as not to frighten Abed). This is, of course, the central tension of all series TV, the thing that makes it so troublesome and exciting, so potentially tiresome when it recycles itself, so thrilling yet potentially chaotic when it tries to shake up its formula.
Harmon has cited Gilligan’s Island as one of Community’s key inspirations, which makes sense when you think about how infinitely malleable the show’s format has proved to be. The Greendale campus is a more theoretical than geographical space, shabby and small on the outside but splendid and boundless within (like Snoopy’s doghouse, or like one of those conceptual or virtual portals that Abed is so eager to explore). That belief in infinite possibility has given Harmon and company permission to treat each episode as an experimental comedy lab: to riff and obsess and deep-dive into navels, to long-jump and face-plant, or just screw around. The course-catalogue-inspired titles head off gripes about week-to-week inconsistency, announcing each episode’s main themes while giving the directors and writers permission to shift storytelling modes on a dime and parody Westerns, time-travel stories, historical documentaries, action thrillers, horror films, musicals, even the My Dinner with Andre–styled talk-fest. The show’s urge to weave countless variations on basic sitcom formula (crisis tests characters’ friendships; crisis is averted, friendships reaffirmed) can be exhausting, even tedious. But just when you think you’ve seen it all, Community will rally to deliver a gem like last season’s Zodiac-inspired Ass Crack Bandit episode, a procedural spoof shot in David Fincher shades of grimy slate, ochre, and teal. ("You can't stop me, because what are you gonna do, not have butts?" one of the Bandit’s letters taunted.)
The Yahoo version of Community seems rather scaled-down, budget-wise, and looser and less urgent than NBC seasons (running times vary). But it still feels, moves, and thinks like the Community you know. It has changed, yet it hasn’t. Its essence remains. The show is a glass-backed clock that lets you see its gears whirring, yet it somehow turns the act of watching the gears into part of the experience rather than a distraction from it, and it isn’t shy about teasing laughs and tears from the very clichés it mocks. (Season five, which I was ho-hum on until I re-watched it this week, has many fine examples, including the episode-long reading of Pierce’s will in “Cooperative Polygraphy” and the absurd-magnificent sight of Donald Glover’s Troy Barnes “sailing” out of the parking lot on Pierce’s yacht with LeVar Burton.)
The two episodes sent out for review are rich with such moments. They also continue the show’s tradition of preemptively critiquing itself, so astutely that pieces like the one you’re reading must be written from a place of respect for the show’s indestructible spirit, as well as fear of Community-splaining Community to Community. Casting and production changes are acknowledged in tossed-off lines, some of which seem to anticipate TV-critic think pieces months before they can be written. A study-group meeting in episode one notes the absence of Yvette Nicole Brown’s Shirley as well as Glover’s Troy; Ken Jeong’s Señor Ben Chang asks, “Are any of you white people noticing what’s happening to this group? Do Abed and I need to be concerned?” Seconds later, Dean Pelton introduces “new Shirley, just kidding” — the very meticulous, very calm, very white Frankie Dart (Paget Brewster), who’s been sent by the insurance company to streamline Greendale’s operations, keep costs down by eliminating courses like “Ladders” and “VCR Repair,” and exploit the school’s unique values, which a study sums up as “weird, passionate, and gross.”
At first, this character seems like a straw man “network suit” figure, and on some level she probably is. “I can’t determine if you have any specific flaw, quirk, or point-of-view that makes you a creative addition to the group,” Abed tells her. “I don’t know what that means, but I’m writing it down,” she replies. And yet the character’s eerie unflappability, expertly realized by Brewster, establishes Frankie as something else, or something more, than a Nurse Ratched manqué. She might be a walking, talking admission that the chaos of Community needs limits, someone or something to put a cork in Harmon’s genie bottle. She’s a pain in the ass, but too kind to seem oppressive, and she’s not always wrong. When she gives Abed a list of email tasks to complete before the school can hold a party and he disregards them, substituting janitorial tasks to give the mandatory “getting ready” montage more variety, she asks, “A montage is what, Abed?” “A movie apologizing for reality,” he replies. “And we are where?” she presses. “Reality,” Abed says, his eyes widening in understanding.
Later, Abed admits to his pals, “There are a lot of things in real life that are just as cool as the fake stuff. I learned that working for Frankie.” As he says this, he’s sitting in a secret speakeasy filled with people dressed in '20s clothes speaking period slang, but somehow it makes sense within Community’s context: the context of no context. The closing montage of the premiere episode encapsulates the show’s ongoing, death-defying magic act: It derisively mocks pop-music-driven montages that make peace between squabbling characters, but I’d be lying if I claimed it didn’t move me.