March 17th might mean St. Patrick’s Day to most people, but this year for me it meant something better – the (improbable) return of Community. Sure, green beer and corned beef are pretty great, but the fact that Community just refuses to lay down in die has been an amazing thing to witness. After years of barely hanging on over at NBC, the comedy has finally become what it probably should have been all along – a quirky web series on Yahoo. This was a show that was never built for mainstream audiences or network sensibilities. It was too weird and meta for its own good, and I sincerely mean that as a compliment. Community is like nothing else that’s on TV, which is probably why it mightily struggled to find an audience. Moving to Yahoo takes some of that pressure off and gives Community the freedom to be the comedy it wants to be. I’ve been in on this show since the very first episode and have stuck with it through the horrible 4th season (when creator Dan Harmon was run off his own show), the cast changes and the schedule shifts. The show has definitely had its low points – even Harmon’s return in season 5 yielded some uneven episodes – but there was no way that I was going to miss out on the show’s miraculous near completion of it manifest destiny #sixseasonsandamovie.
Having watched the first two episodes of this new season, it clear that some of the wackiness and absurdity that I loved about the show is still there. But the movie to Yahoo doesn’t negate the fact that Community is also a comedy that is in its sixth season and it was inevitable that there were going to be signs of slowing down. Almost every comedy starts to lose a little momentum the longer that it stays on the air; it’s just hard to maintain the energy consistently over a long period of time. Community has had to fight to survive for so long that I think it burned a little brighter and used up more energy more quickly. The show has also had to adapt to a lot of changes – not only was the creator removed from the show, but three main cast members have also exited the program over the last few years. Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley) is the latest person to jump ship, so the first episode of the new season is bogged down a bit in exposition – it not only has to address her departure and re-situate us to where the remaining characters are, but it also introduces a new character (Thrilling Adventure Hour’s Paget Brewster). That’s a lot to unpack in less than thirty minutes and while Community deals with it in its typical self-referential style, it means that the new season on a new platform doesn’t get off to the most rip-roaring of starts. Once the foundation has been set, the second episode can start moving things forward. Another new character is introduced, but it feels a bit more organic and there are more laughs to be had since most of the other changes on the show have been dealt with. These first two episodes find Community a little more tentative than I would have hoped – the new platform hasn’t necessarily liberated Dan Harmon and his crew; instead you get the feeling that they are still kind of getting their footing. Community has been the underdog for so long that I wonder if the team has to adapt from being in scrappy survivalist mode.
All of this is not to say that the new episodes of Community are bad; they most certainly are not. But they also aren’t the best episodes that the show has ever done. There are glimpses of the Community that fans know and love – the teasers and the end of both episodes are outstanding – but there are also signs of a show that isn’t quite running on all cylinders. But I enjoy these characters and this world that they’ve created so much that even a “perfectly fine” episode of Community is worth my time. These new episodes didn’t necessarily blow my hair back, but it’s probably not fair to expect it to at this point in the game. The new characters have promise and it’s clear that the core actors who have been there since the beginning really love being on this show. My biggest fear going into this season of Community was that they would rely too hard on the character of Chang (played by Ken Jeong); a little of that guy goes a REALLY long way and the more he’s in the mix the less effective he is. To date, they’ve shown restraint in their use of Chang. He’s sprinkled throughout the episodes, but he’s more of a garnish than the main course. I really hope that trend continues.
In short, I see promise for the new season of Community, but expectations have to be modified. This is a high concept comedy that is now in its middle age; it’s blown through a lot of plot, has made a lot of adjustments and while it’s still an enjoyable program it is beginning to show its age. It’s still funny and it’s still very meta, but it’s also not exactly the same show it was when it started. Part of that is the adaptation to all the changes, but some of that was necessary. A show needs to move forward and the characters have to have some sort of evolution or it’s an endless loop of the same thing. I don’t know that Community will ever reach the heights of its second and third season, but it is still a far more creative and smart show than most of what’s out there. I’m ride or die with this show – I’ll stick with it to the bitter end regardless – but though the first two episodes of this sixth season have lost a little speed off the fast ball, I’m confident that they have plenty of other tools in their arsenal to keep the show fun and entertaining. Community may have used up eight of its nine lives at this point, but it still has signs of life.
New episodes of Community will debut every Tuesday on Yahoo Screen.