Early into the Season 6 premiere of Community, now streaming on Yahoo along with Episode 2, Abed (Danny Pudi) has a very Abed-like moment in which he sums up—hurriedly and almost robotically, of course—the current state of the sitcom’s uncertain identity. Addressing Greendale’s new administrative consultant Frankie Dart (Paget Brewster), he frets over her place on “our show.” What was once a world made of quirky misfits, he laments, has now become:
A pretty loose-knit group of students and teachers, none of whom are taking a class together in the school which, as of your arrival, is becoming increasingly grounded by asking questions like how do any of us get our money, when will we get our degrees, and what happened to that girl I was dating.
That’s classic Community for you—overtly meta, indisputably self-aware, ever on the brink of an existential crisis. It’s a nice moment, a positive sign that showrunner (and notorious self-deprecator) Dan Harmon is still very much committed to the world of Greendale Community College, even after being dumped by NBC and “saved” by TV-producing newcomer Yahoo, and even following the departures of multiple integral cast members. (Original cast members Chevy Chase as Pierce, Donald Glover as Troy, and Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley have all gone their own way.) It’s also the Harmon way: Unsure whether or not the NBC big-wigs will grant your low-rated, but critically praised series will live to see another season? Put the fate of Greendale Community College and its students in a parallel limbo. (And then do it again. And again.) Is there tension behind the scenes, particularly in regards to a notoriously difficult cast member? Kill off his character and resurrect him—briefly—as a hologram. Afraid that all of this change—new network, reduced original cast—will ruin the show? Ruminate about it via your most awkward character.
Those changes that accompany this new post-NBC era hover unabashedly over the first two episodes. Season 5 ended with the study group successfully saving the flailing Greendale from being taken over by Subway. In the Season 6 premiere, the remainder of the study group—Abed, Britta, Jeff, and Annie (who are now on the school’s administrative committee)—must adjust to the loss of Shirley as well as their beefed-up responsibilities for the fate of the school. Many of them initially resist these new frontiers: in “Ladders,” all but Abed conspire to work against Frankie’s efforts as administrative consultant, pegging her as evil from the start. And in Episode 2, “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care,” Britta, who moves in with Annie and Abed, is unwilling to reconcile with her estranged parents.
But while the show’s willingness to confront its new direction is a huge, admirable draw for its devoted fan base, it’s still hard to ignore the fact that Community has lost much of its luster since Season 3. Here, Harmon maintains the off-kilter humor that made Community a cult favorite (see, for example, a bizarre Frisbee-related flashback involving crotchety old stalwart Leonard), and there’s a fair share of instantly classic moments as well, like the Dean’s Scrubs-like voiceover narration that caps the end of Episode 2 in hilarious fashion. Yet something feels noticeably off this time around.
The comedic timing can be plodding where it once was zippy, with prolonged beats (an extra couple of seconds for an uncomfortable pause here, a sly glance there) falling flat—a result, it seems, of longer episodes that clock in around 26 minutes. (Harmon describes the run time for Yahoo as “a little more flexible” than at NBC.) It drags the story pacing down, to the point where I sometimes wondered if the characters were holding for applause or a laugh track. (For what it’s worth, Alison Brie, who plays Annie, finds the extended run time refreshing, as Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey reported from a recent Community panel at South by Southwest. “Things can be as weird as you always wanted them to be,” she said. In this respect, I’m inclined to disagree that this really works, at least in the first two episodes.) Meanwhile, the many callbacks to older episodes—like Britta and Abed’s attempt to simulate his trademark handshake with Troy—only served to make the absence of past study group members that much more glaring.
Still, there is promise in the character of Frankie, who gets some choice rat-a-tats with the former study group, particularly at the end of the first episode. And Keith David, who first appears in Episode 2 as retired scientist Elroy Patashnik, could reignite some much-needed spark in the remainder of the season. The storytelling success of this season will largely hinge on how Harmon incorporates them into the world of Greendale, and thankfully, it appears that they will soon become more than just a “new Shirley,” or a new Pierce.
Based on these first two episodes, at least it’s safe to say that Season 6 is unlikely to resemble the disaster that was the year of the “gas leak.” (Aka, the Dan Harmon–less Season 4.) And I’m now much more interested in seeing how this new post-NBC era turns out than I was before. But don’t be surprised if, upon entering this Yahoo-produced season, you find yourself wistful—returning to an old favorite from, say, Season 3. Though of course, there are worse things.