Saturday, August 1, 2015
"Community," Year Six
Here we are, at what I'm pretty sure is the end of the road for "Community." I admit I put off watching the final Yahoo! funded and presented season for much longer than I should have, but once I went and watched the first episode, I quickly marathoned the rest. I was afraid that the show was going to be horribly diminished in some way because of its transition to a web platform. Instead, aside from a few cast changes, "Community" is largely the same as it always was, thought more hyper-focused on Jeff and Abed. And this season is actually better and more cohesive than the last one that aired on NBC.
First, some thoughts on the cast changes. Yvette Nicole Brown's Shirley got a brief goodbye and Jonathan Banks' Hickey did not, which was regrettable but clearly necessary. Much more time is devoted to introducing familiar character actors Paget Brewster and Keith David to the group, and very successfully for new additions arriving so late in the show's run. Brewster's Frankie is an administrative consultant hired by the Dean to essentially be a competent adult watching out for Greendale's interests in a way that he can't. Keith David's Elroy shows up a bit later as a programming guru fallen on hard times, who becomes Greendale's primary IT guy. They're both nicely delineated as very imperfect adults, who aren't going through the same growing pains as the core cast, and thus very much supporting players in the same way that the Dean is. Also, note that the group is now comprised of more teachers and admin figures than students.
The writing is back on track, with most episodes in the vein of the school-centric, character-centric first season. The study group has transitioned to the Save Greendale Committee fully, and Jeff's status as a teacher is firmly cemented, so the show can put all the worries about graduation dates and classes mostly behind it. There are very few wild high concept episodes, though paintball does get trotted out one last time. References and running jokes have been pruned, but there is a lot of meta - Abed's penchant for using pop culture as a crutch is simplified to making observations on the group like it's a television show, leading to a fantastic finale episode where everybody pitches ideas for Season 7. Dan Harmon and company have fun acknowledging the show's format, cast, and platform changes where they can.
More vitally, however, it felt like the characters are themselves again, after the fourth season without Dan Harmon, and the extremely rushed, extremely compromised fifth season that left a lot of loose ends. Britta and Jeff both get great episodes examining their current dissatisfaction with their lives from new angles. Chang is still a trainwreck, but used better than he has been in ages. Ditto Annie, who at least gets a great closing scene for her character. We learn enough about Frankie and Elroy to help us connect to them, and if this is the only season where they appear, it's still enough that I'll miss them. As for Abed, I wish we got more of him this year because there's so much of his journey that feels like it happened off screen.
All and all, season six had the usual ups and downs. There were some episodes, like the one about grifting and the one with the robot convicts that didn't work, but they still felt of a piece with the rest of the season. And there were some big highlights, like Abed's epic science-fiction Z-movie, Garrett getting married, and Dean Pelton trying out the role of token homosexual. It's fascinating how the entire premise of "Community" has been almost completely upended now, but it feels closer in spirit to its earliest episodes than it has in ages. I think it has to do with the writers embracing the show's instability instead of trying to hide it. "Community" never got over the departure of Donald Glover, but at the same time the constant reinventions have kept it from sliding into complacency or over-indulgence.
The best example is this season's epic tags. The format and length of "Community" didn't change much in the move to Yahoo!, with the exception of the show's closing credit segments, which just kept getting longer and wilder as the season went on. The tags were always a highlight, but this year they exploded. My favorite was Shirley's new NBC detective show with Stephen Weber, though the cybercrimes kid and the man who bought Dean Pelton's giant hand statue were up there. And how fitting was it for the show to end on that meta-tastic "Community" board game ad?
Six seasons done. Now settle in for the long wait for the movie.