We can rebuild it. We have the technology.
Yahoo pulled Community’s damaged body from the burning wreckage of what was once NBC’s Thursday night comedy block, bio-melded it with their streaming tech, and revivified it as a next-gen cyborg: The Six-Seasons-and-a-Movie Dollar Man. Like Tithonus of lore or Keith Richards, the show has been granted seeming immortality but forgot to ask for eternal youth. At the start of the sixth season, we’re down three of the original study group, whole limbs that have been amputated. Troy is just a memory, Pierce a hologram, and now Shirley has taken her leave of Greendale Community College, despite it being now ranked fifth on Colorado’s alphabetical listing of community colleges.
So what’s left? Jeff, Britta, Abed, and Annie in the center circle. Dean, and, of course, double-helpings of Chang in the next ring. Oh, and Todd and Garrett and Leonard and the rest of the back-bench. Showrunner Dan Harmon is also left, returning again for his second season since The Season That Shall Not Be Named, and probably with less creative (if not budgetary) restrictions than ever before. The show’s absurd tone, recurring mythos (what’s up, anus flag?) and exhaustively schematized act structures also remain, as does its pop culture DNA and unrelenting self-awareness. For all intents and purposes, this technologically resurrected Community still feels like Community, just, you know, a little different.
The first episode of the new season doesn’t try for anything too high-concept. Hickey turned out to be only an interim replacement—Jonathan Banks had to return to Albuquerque—so we’re introduced to the show’s latest cast member, Paget Brewster, who plays administrative consultant Frankie Dart. Frankie’s joke is that she’s normal, “exceptionally boring”. She looks, in her white blouses and professional pantsuits, like she’s been teleported from some CBS procedural where she was previously solving rape-murders and unwinding with red wine. But that’s the point. Frankie is essentially the Frank Grimes (RIP Grimey) of the Community world, an outside observer imported from a firmer reality, not clued into the surreal silliness that defines the rest of the characters.
Basically she can see the sitcom substructure that undergirds every scene and action on the show like the Matrix, a fact that immediately finds her kinship with Abed. That’s the show’s real secret: Despite its vertiginous meta-ness and love of the high concept, Harmon still reveres the strength of solid episode plotting and time-honed TV-comedy conflicts. The fact that the writers have a tendency to hang enough lanterns on its clichés that you’d think it’s Chinese New Year doesn’t take away from the fact that there’s still something old-school at the core of Community. Here, Abed being seduced by Frankie’s offer of non-sitcom normalcy is just a more genre-aware version of the classic storyline of a disruptive new friend stealing away a group member.
Abed remains the mouthpiece for the show’s continuing mid-life crisis, puzzling out the central existential quandary of any long-running series: the push-and-pull between the desire to evolve over time and the sweet, sweet respite of the status quo. That issue popped up a few times in the fifth season, and it’s back again here as Abed points out in his speech to Frankie the inevitable mission drift, how “our show” was “once an unlikely family of misfit students” but is no longer. It’s hard to tell whether baking this self-doubt directly into the crust of later seasons is helpful or more like an alcoholic admitting he has a problem while three sheets to the wind.
To the end of being normal, Abed trains himself not to use montages—without using a training montage, even—and to send emails to the unseen “Diane,” perhaps the same one who’s been receiving Dale Cooper’s voice memos. But meanwhile, the rest of the gang has kept the old high jinks wheel spinning and soon Britta’s disastrous takeover of Shirley’s sandwich shop has contorted itself into them operating an old-timey speakeasy bar they’ve built in the school’s basement. Abed, unable to resist the conceptual shenanigans, is won back over and the gang is reunited, alcohol is repermitted on campus, “Ladders” is added back onto Greendale’s course listings, and everything is back to abnormal just in time for next week’s episode.
Or not next week, since this is streaming. The season’s second episode was also released last night. It was a pretty straightforward divide-and-conquer deal, A-plot and B-plot going their separate ways and never the twain shall meet. In the former, Dean Pelton purchases an off-brand Virtual Boy, which gives him hallucinations of grandeur and it’s up to Jeff and Frankie to find a way to return it against his wishes. This leads them to the season’s second new addition, that man who has a voice like God just gargled honey, Keith David. David weans the Dean off of VR and back into regular reality—or at least whatever version the Dean was previously inhabiting.
Meanwhile Britta is forced into some emergency adulthood when she realizes her estranged parents have been helping her from afar. Still homeless, she moves into Abed and Annie’s apartment (all the better for cast consolidation now that Troy’s gone) and realizes that the parents she has been rebelling against since she ran away from home at age 17 have been colluding with her friends to do nice things for her (including getting her a nifty new pull-out couch). Martin Mull and Leslie Ann Warren play Britta’s reformed mom and dad and the main joke is that Britta only responds to their openness and kindness with frustration. Everyone else likes them, but she remembers when they used to suck—a.k.a. “Jimmy Fallon syndrome”—so she ends up stealing away on some kid’s Green Machine presumably because there were no Power Wheels in the area. There were some really funny running gags, including Chang’s increasingly infected cat bite and Portuguese Gremlins, which culminates in my favorite bit of the first two episodes, a fake Grade-Z ripoff trailer for Joelho Alto Prejuizo Moral (Knee High Mischiefs). Just don’t get them salty.