The Show That Won’t Die marches on, with diminishing returns.
How much can you improve Greendale before it stops being Greendale?
It’s usually not a good sign when the first episode of a new season has to spend most of its time justifying its existence, in increasingly obvious, naval-gazing ways. Not to diminish the work that Community‘s eternally game cast is doing in the show’s sixth(!) year, but there’s an overriding sensation that everyone involved — especially creator/mad scientist/SXSW audience-alienating Dan Harmon — had made peace with NBC finally dropping the hammer, and now find themselves wandering the internet wastelands like restless spirits. If the Harmon-less Season 4 was Community‘s “Zombie Season,” when the characters were temporarily lobotomized and often unrecognizable, Yahoo! Screen’s Season 6 is the Ghost Season. They’re still here, but not entirely, and not sure why.
To be fair, though, how many comedy series are still firing on all cylinders six years in? In (what I thought was) my eulogy after its cancellation, where I counted down Community‘s ten best episodes, there was only one representative from Season 5 (“Geothermal Escapism“) — due to cast attrition and general fatigue, the show was running out of gas. Last year’s finale was a collective shrug, as it seemed like Harmon was just glad to be done writing the show.
Instead, here we are again, down three more cast members. We had already lost Chevy Chase and Donald Glover, and now Yvette Nicole Brown (whose father was having health issues), John Oliver (who’s kind of doing a thing on HBO), and Chase’s “replacement” Jonathan Banks (who’s kind of doing a thing on AMC) are gone as well. The paper fortune teller of the credits has a few blank spots now. Change is inevitable, and, when embraced, can fuel a story rather than derail it — but in this case, Team Community is more obligated to just fulfill the “Six Seasons and a Movie” prophecy, using whatever spare pieces and leftover plots they have lying around. Yahoo threw a pile of money at them, and they couldn’t refuse.
Even the two “new” cast members, Paget Brewster (Criminal Minds) and Keith David (Enlisted, RIP), have actually been on the show before: the former playing a completely different character in last season’s “Analysis of Cork-Based Networking,” and the latter narrating Season 3’s brilliant “Pillows and Blankets” as himself. Now, Brewster is Frankie, a humorless legal mind brought in by the Dean to limit the damage Greendale does on a daily basis; David is Elroy, the washed-up designer of a ghastly virtual-reality experience who, by the end of the second episode, is looking to restart his life. He’s effortlessly funny, and I’m genuinely excited that he’s here — Brewster, I’m less sure about, because her character as written is too “normal” (i.e. “boring”) to make an impression on a show like Community.
Of course the writers know this, and make Abed monologue about it in the premiere: “My umbrella concern is that you as a character represent the end of what I used to call ‘our show.'” Frankie indulges Abed’s TV-is-Reality paradigm because she’s nice, but counters that “good shows change.” Any concern or criticism we may have about this new Ghost Season, Harmon and his staff have already agonized over, but just pointing it out in the script and saying “yeah, yeah, we know” doesn’t actually solve the problem. They’re just hoping that we go along with it, because it’s Community, and we’ve stuck with it this long, so why stop watching now?
I took an informal survey to get a sense of how Greendale is perceived. And three themes emerged: “Weird, “Passionate,” and “Gross.” Now, you want to hang onto that grouping.
The plots in the first two episodes, such as they are, are simple and expository: the show has to explain why Shirley is gone — she “spun off,” as Abed puts it — and establish the themes of the season. (Chang: “Any of you white people noticing what’s going on?”) Community has never been less about people taking classes at a local college than it is now; instead, the “Save Greendale” committee established last year, which had already done their job by the time they prevented the campus from being sold to Subway, will never really be finished. Greendale will always be weird and dangerous. Hijinks will always ensue. There will always be another 80s-style montage to cut to. Jeff, Annie, and Britta are resistant to the change that Frankie’s no-nonsense role represents, to the point of creating an elaborate speakeasy in the corridors behind the sandwich shop. But as the crises mount (including a drunk “Ladders” professor toppling one onto Annie), the group realizes they might need a little adult supervision. Barging into a job interview that Frankie is actually bombing, Jeff pleads: “Whatever he’s offering you…Greendale will pay you less.” And she accepts, because — like Dan Harmon — she’s obligated to.
The second episode, “Lawnmower Maintenance & Postnatal Care,” finds two more characters adjusting to a new reality, but only one by choice: The Dean, who becomes increasingly drunk on the “power” he acquires within Elroy’s V-R experience (Jeff calls him “White Morpheus” as he gleefully zaps document files with lasers from his hands); and Britta, who discovers to her horror that Abed and Annie have been getting help from her own parents to keep her afloat. In the Dean’s case, it’s just another example of him getting in too deep into the plot of the week (though its the kind of thing that would usually be an A-story, not a B-story). In Britta’s, it’s some actual character development — which is not unwelcome, but nevertheless feels like a hasty retcon. Apparently her friends have been hanging out with her parents for years now, but she — and us — had no knowledge about it until now. Where we see an adorable, benevolent Martin Mull and Leslie Ann Warren (Clue reunion!!!), she only sees the stifling parents who ruined her childhood through mistrust. (Frankie, in her best line of the night, calls it “Jimmy Fallon syndrome.”)
Interestingly, the few moments that showed real flashes of the gonzo Community we know and love were completely independent of the actual story: the first episode’s tag, with Shirley’s “spin-off” lawyer show The Butcher and the Baker (hey, wheelchair-bound Steven Weber!), and the glimpse of the glorious Portuguese Gremlins knock-off. (Also, Alison Brie’s imitation of the Portuguese gremlins.) Community still knows its way around turns of phrase (both “Jesus Wept!” and “Worlds within worlds!” become running gags in the second episode) and deft use of its bench (Garrett! Todd! Nathan Fillion! Leonard, “like tears in rain!”). Its budget, if anything, has increased (the lighting in the study room looks way more natural this year). Harmon and Chris McKenna have more control than at any point in the show’s history. But there are also more subtle differences: just like Arrested Development on Netflix, removing the hard 22-minute episode cap doesn’t always make the show better. The pauses are longer; the pacing is slower. The show is still fun because we love the characters and the jokes, but its tangy, anarchic zip is missing.
But that’s only two episodes out of 13 — there’s still plenty of time for the show to find its groove and get back to the high-concept wackiness that it does so well. But, at the end of the season, will we look back on it and say we were glad Yahoo pulled it out of its grave, or that Community just went through the motions for another year because its tiny, obsessive fan base demanded it? I’ll get back to you in May.
He’ll be back to his old self in a hour.
Great! Do you have a way to fix THAT?