If Community had a motto it’d probably be something like “More with less.” That is, if it isn’t “Six seasons and a movie” or a quote from Bloodsport or “Weird, Passionate, and Gross” translated into Latin. Actually, there are probably about as many possible mantras for the show as there are classes in Ruffles the Dog’s course load—including Greendale’s own “You’ve already been accepted”—but suffice it to say a certain narrative thriftiness has always been one of the big guns in Harmon & Co.’s arsenal.
The show makes varied use of its spaces, finding all the nooks and crannies of storytelling they can in Greendale’s impossible geography. The college is like a TARDIS, or whatever off-brand police box used by Inspector Spacetime—it’s a lot bigger on the inside. Similarly, the show can stuff a lot of story into a space as small as the meeting room. Two of the series’ best episodes are bottle episodes—the paired bookends “Cooperative Calligraphy” and “Cooperative Polygraphy”—relying on bedrock of the show’s solid character interactions over any conceptual or meta razzle-dazzle. So when the third episode of the sixth season turns out to be a near-bottle episode—rallying the troops in the library as an emergency response team for an attack ad put on the air by those snobby ne’er-do-wells over at City College—it also serves as a good point to assess the structural integrity of the cast now that a few load-bearing characters have been switched out for newer, less stress-tested replacements.
It turns out the center can hold. I thought the episode was the quickest, strongest, and funniest half-hour of the three so-far aired from Yahoo’s new season. Tasked with combating the image that Greendale is the kind of incompetent, anarchic place that would give a dog a degree, the group runs into trouble with the fact that Greendale is exactly the kind of incompetent, anarchic place that would give a dog a degree. The meeting room is given yet another makeover—this time a central nervous system of operations for political strategizing straight out of The War Room—and the group splits off into more manageable groups. Some are united by flimsier bonds than others: Elroy shrugs “She’s wearing my pants!” when he runs off with a sloppy drunk Britta, but Annie and Frankie self-separate to compare and contrast their twin Type-A personalities.
Paget Brewster is turning out to be an interesting addition to the stew. She’s still partly the outsider commenting on the show after five seasons of Flanderization (her line “Did we give a degree to a dog?” is perfectly deadpan), but she’s also revealing individual specificities. While she’s as fastidious and checklist-oriented as Annie, she’s also a hard-nosed pragmatist who doesn’t have time for Annie’s rose-tinted optimism. “Hope is pouting in advance,” she says, dousing the fire in Annie’s heart with a bucket of cold, wet truth. “Hope is faith’s richer bitchier sister. Hope is the deformed attic-bound incest monster offspring of entitlement and fear.”
They eventually find a way to get the ad pulled on a technicality. Ruffles’ overdue fees at the library (mostly Jack London books and the occasional shameful Cat Fancy) prevented him from actually receiving a degree, despite being enrolled in dozens of classes. But while this counts as a win (as Frankie puts it, “Victory, you know within the context of Greendale”), Annie sees it as an opportunity to take a cold hard look at themselves and decide whether they really should be so proud about being at a school where a dog only almost graduated with a 28-dog-year degree. It’s hard not to read self-commentary into pretty much every second of Community, and here Annie’s words almost seem to serve as a reminder to the show’s creators that silliness will only get you so far, a preemptive (even anxious) course-correction and reminder that there should always be a there there.
Add into all this the Dean’s text correspondence with a Tokyo schoolboy pretending to be Jeff, Britta’s ‘90s-style music video drunken hallucination, and Keith David’s look of unfiltered disgust when Frankie says she doesn’t own a TV, and you’ve got a a solid bottle-and-a-half episode of Community worth its weight in canned olives.