[Originally published on TheCelebrityCafe.com]
Community has changed pretty substantially since Season 1. It started as a group of seven people taking class together at a community college, but now three of those people are gone, one isn’t even a student, and nobody is in class together. Beyond that, it morphed from a pretty typical sitcom into a weird pop-culture mashup. That’s all not even counting the behind-the-scenes drama and the fact that the show has completely shifted mediums, from television to the world of online streaming.
But the season 6 premiere of Community assures us that change is good and that in spite of everything, this is still the same show we know and love. The two episodes that went up on Yahoo this week are funny, self-aware and thoughtful, and a pretty good indication that we’re in pretty good hands going forward.
The first episode, “Ladders,” deals largely with the concept of change, something that has frightened Abed consistently in the past. This is appropriate, given the show’s massive leap online. Frankie, hired to shape up Greendale’s management, concerns Abed: he isn’t sure how she’ll fit in with the rest of the characters, and he’s worried that the show has strayed too far away from where they were in Season 1. But as Frankie notes, a good show is always changing, and even though all of Abed’s concerns are true, it’s also kind of great that Community is constantly shaking things up and giving us a new dynamic, even if it’s often just because of behind-the-scenes drama.
“Ladders” asserts this season’s clear desire to be more grounded, as Frankie struggles to get Abed out of the weird bubble of the show world of Community and into the real world. It’s like we’re watching Dan Harmon call himself out for how goofy and insane the show and the world of TV in general is, as we contrast the “doing the work” montage with how it would be in real life: a montage of Abed typing a boring email at his computer.
Despite some initial concerns, Paget Brewster’s Frankie fits in surprisingly well. So far she’s functioning pretty effectively as a sort of straight man, which at this point the show really doesn’t have, with everyone fully sucked into the insanity of Greendale. But even though her character is pretty serious, she proves herself in the premiere to be able to pull off some great comedic moments too, like when she tries to fit in by telling Leonard “you’re old and you deserve less!”
The episode also shows us why Greendale needs some restraint, and why having someone like Frankie to ground everyone is a good thing. Once she’s gone, Jeff immediately has the Dean get rid of the school’s insurance and allows everyone to drink on campus all the time. This freedom and ability to do whatever they want is probably a feeling Dan Harmon and his writers had when moving to Yahoo, a medium where they no longer have censors, and yet “Ladders” expresses the show’s desire to hold back just a bit and keep things relatively grounded. At least as grounded as a show that features alternate timelines can be.
The only possible disappointment I could see with “Ladders” is that it maybe spends a bit too much time setting up the new Frankie character and not enough on everything else. She gets a whole lot of screen time, but at the end of the episode we’re still kind of left with questions about our main characters and where they are in their personal journey here at Greendale. I kind of wish the show would have held off on introducing new people until episode two, although with only 13 episodes I can see why Harmon would need to get right into things.
However, we get some of that grounded character focus with the second episode, “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care,” probably the best episode for Britta in a very long time. We get to find out more about her home life and about her need to rebel against her parents. Her friends don’t get it, but from her perspective her parents were horribly strict to her and while they’re now extremely nice and supportive, she can’t really get past how they treated her growing up. Because Britta rebelled and ran away from them when she was 17, she’s kind of always had that need to fight authority as part of her personality.
And while I’m sure she won’t exactly lose that, the episode leaves her in a place of genuine change, able to accept her parents as not gods or demons but just as regular people with flaws like her. The episode is a little lighter on laughs than the premiere, but it’s the best serious storyline the show has had in quite a long time, and with her advice to Britta, Frankie plays a pretty great role in that.
Then we have the Dean’s subplot and his sudden desire to make the school super high tech with a new virtual reality system. This combines the hilarious physicality of Jim Rash, flailing around and screaming about Jesus weeping along with the ridiculousness of climbing up a massive wall just to find a computer’s serial code. As funny as it is, I do think the joke gets a little repetitive here. We spend a substantial amount of time on this, when really the joke never goes a whole lot beyond “the Dean looks silly” and “this computer system is overly complicated.” It’s funny, but wears out its welcome just a bit, which might be a symptom of these episodes now being a lot longer than they were on NBC.
Still, these two premiere episodes were both very strong, showing absolutely no decline from the NBC seasons. As far as I’m concerned, cast members can come and go and the character relationships can change, but really, Community is almost more about Greendale than it is about any individual people. Despite looking a little different than its first season and with a different dynamic, the heart and soul of this show are still the same. Long live Greendale!