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'Community' Clicks Refresh

When NBC canceled it in May, ”Community” was supposed to drop out of TV for good. Instead, the series took a cue from its characters and reenrolled at Yahoo.

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Justin Lubin/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television/Yahoo

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Seven months ago, Community left television forever. The sitcom about Greendale Community College had lasted five seasons: 97 episodes of community-college high jinks and meta-cultural adventures, of bottle episodes and animated outings. Five years of critical adoration, low ratings, regime changes, and fan campaigns. ”#SixSeasonsAndAMovie,” pleaded the hashtags, ”#SaveGreendale.” On May 9, 2014, it all ended: NBC canceled Community. The cast and crew were resigned to their fate. Several members of the ensemble met up at Orsa & Winston in downtown L.A. for a casual farewell dinner. The mood was lighthearted. ”It was like we had a great wake for the show,” says Alison Brie, who plays tightly wound Annie. ”We had already all grieved, then we all got together for a celebratory dinner!” There were rumblings that the show might go on. Although it aired on NBC, Community is produced by Sony, and the company had the ability to carry the show to a new network. This didn’t seem outside the realm of possibility.

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Seven months ago, Community left television forever. The sitcom about Greendale Community College had lasted five seasons: 97 episodes of community-college high jinks and meta-cultural adventures, of bottle episodes and animated outings. Five years of critical adoration, low ratings, regime changes, and fan campaigns. ”#SixSeasonsAndAMovie,” pleaded the hashtags, ”#SaveGreendale.” On May 9, 2014, it all ended: NBC canceled Community .

The cast and crew were resigned to their fate. Several members of the ensemble met up at Orsa & Winston in downtown L.A. for a casual farewell dinner. The mood was lighthearted. ”It was like we had a great wake for the show,” says Alison Brie, who plays tightly wound Annie. ”We had already all grieved, then we all got together for a celebratory dinner!”

There were rumblings that the show might go on. Although it aired on NBC, Community is produced by Sony, and the company had the ability to carry the show to a new network. This didn’t seem outside the realm of possibility. One year before Community‘s cancellation, Netflix aired the long-yearned-for fourth season of Arrested Development. The same year, Cougar Town—a low-rated sitcom beloved by, among other people, Community character Abed Nadir—jumped from ABC to TBS, magically transforming from a low-rated network sitcom into a high-rated cable sitcom.

At least one person seemed skeptical about the prospect of more Community: Dan Harmon, the show’s creator and fired-then-rehired showrunner. In early May, Harmon posted a note to Tumblr that sounded resigned. ”Ninety seven episodes,” he wrote. ”Over eighty pretty good ones. Mission accomplished.” But privately, he still had hope. ”I knew that Sony was talking to one company about the possibility of a streaming version,” Harmon says. ”Then, at the last minute, it became about Yahoo.” Like many other digital concerns, the search-engine-giant-that-isn’t-Google was looking to expand its original content. Sony asked: Would Harmon want to continue Community on Yahoo’s incipient network, Yahoo Screen? ”I said no,” he says. ”It’s something that takes a little while to get used to.”

Get used to it, America: Sometime this winter, Community will become the latest television show to air new episodes everywhere besides television. “We’ve always been a Web series,” says Gillian Jacobs, returning as perpetual wet blanket Britta. ”We’re now just finally on the Web. It’s a brave new world of?” she pauses. ”TV?” she considers. ”Content,” she concludes.

When you go to the set of Community‘s sixth season, there are two overriding feelings: that everything has changed, and that nothing has changed. When the actors talk about their new bosses, they sound a bit like orphans who suddenly got a new home in a giant mansion. ”Yahoo is so cool,” says star Joel McHale, a.k.a. Jeff Winger. ”They love the show. They are serious about it. That is a huge difference.” Multiple cast members mention the fact that Yahoo has already commissioned a promotional photo shoot. ”It made us feel very special!” says Brie. ”Like a real show.” Jacobs is just eager to get outside. Literally: ”We weren’t allowed to shoot outside for a couple of years,” she says. ”I would watch other TV shows and be filled with envy when I could tell they were on location. I’ve heard rumors that we’re going back to Los Angeles City College to shoot some exteriors!” Pause. ”That shows you how pathetic our show is that we’re excited about that.”

The sets are also the same—but different. After NBC canceled the show, it lost its longtime home on the Paramount lot and has now taken up residence on the CBS Radford lot. The cast has shifted too. ”Unfortunately, the Community tradition has become starting each season with the loss of another beloved cast member,” says Harmon. Yvette Nicole Brown asked to be released from her contract to care for her father, which means her Shirley will follow Chevy Chase’s Pierce and Donald Glover’s Troy away from the study table. (There appears to be an open-door policy on returning cast members, though. In a recent Reddit AMA, Chase claimed he was filming a cameo in the new season, which is doubly remarkable: He infamously clashed with Harmon during season 3, and Chase’s character is dead.)

To replace the absent members of the study group, the show is bringing in two new characters. Paget Brewster (Criminal Minds) will play Frankie Dart, a troubleshooter hired to help Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) in the never-ending quest to save Greendale from oblivion. ”She’s there to help Greendale,” says Harmon, ”but she rubs up against the group, and particularly Jeff, the wrong way.” Meanwhile, baritone-voiced character actor Keith David will join the cast as an inventor. ”He’s very smart, very proud, and made the mistake of focusing too much on his work in the past,” says Harmon. ”Now he has no idea what he’s going to do with the last chapter of his life.”

In their first week back on the new old set, Community cast members seem punchy and excited. When I interview McHale inside the dean’s office, Jacobs wanders in and announces that she will answer two questions as Joel McHale. ”Ask what he feels about Gillian Jacobs!” says McHale. (”Not a fan,” says Jacobs-as-McHale.) There’s a special celebration that day: The crew gets together to sing ”Happy Birthday” to McHale, who offers a deadpan thank-you: ”It’s so great to be on Parks & Rec, everybody.”

For Harmon, a sixth season is both a step forward and a chance to get back to the show’s roots. ”We wanted to recapture a look and feel of season 1,” he says. ”That means building a foundation of immersiveness, believing Greendale is a real place, as opposed to surrendering to the fact that it’s kind of a magical place. There’s no episode so far where everyone’s a Roman gladiator.” Season 1 of Community aired in 2009, an already long-ago era when Twitter was starting to take off and Nielsen reigned supreme. Harmon looks back on that time fondly. ”I grew up on NBC programming,” he says. ”I was proud to have Community be one of the last members of that era. But it’s also fantastic to watch it flop up on the shore of streaming TV and take its first gulps of pure Internet air.”

And who knows: The show’s audience could grow. ”I think there are still a lot of people in America that have never heard of Community,” says Jacobs. ”Maybe they have Yahoo email addresses!”

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