Last year, after NBC cancelled the oft-praised, oft-jeopardized Community after five seasons, Yahoo stepped in and saved it, because that’s what the Internet does now. But what did it save, exactly?
Like many sitcoms deep into their run, the show had seen attrition: Donald Glover had left, and Yvette Nicole Brown would soon join him (as well as recurring figures like John Oliver, now of HBO). Its premise had shifted with age, as the study group graduated, though the fifth season kept them together with the mission of rescuing Greendale Community College. The college was saved and the show was saved, but that left each with a question: what now?
The first two new episodes (premiering on Yahoo Screen March 17; here’s how to watch) still seem to be figuring it out. Community still feels very much like the same show in tone, sense of humor and production quality. The structure is more or less like the NBC version (though the second episode runs an extra-long 26-plus minutes). But what started out as an odd, emotionally charged series about motley misfits getting their lives back together is in the process of becoming… something to be determined.
The premiere, in typical Community style, is mainly about being the season premiere of a sitcom. The departure of Brown’s Shirley is explained, then dissected meta-style. “Like Troy?” demands Chang (Ken Jeong). “Do any of you white people notice what’s happening to this group?” Stepping in is Francesca “Frankie” Dart (Paget Brewster), an all-business new administrator assigned to ride herd on the committee, and soon Abed (Danny Pudi) is parsing her addition as a stand-in for the audience and critics: “I’m worried you’re not distinct enough from Annie, both in terms of physicality and purpose.”
Whatever doubts you’ve had about the changes, Community has already pre-doubted them. But the first thing that matters is if the latest reboot still has the comedy goods, and it does. A decade ago, Brewster was an MVP on the similarly eccentric Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and she’s custom-fit for Community‘s fast pace and commitment to absurdity. The second new episode is especially funny, combining two favorite Community modes–period pop-culture parody and outrageous visual gambits–as Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) becomes obsessed with a dated virtual-reality system created by an inventor (Keith David) in the 1990s.
What’s missing–and to be fair, what requires more than two episodes to judge–is a sense of mission regarding the characters. The original gang has evolved from where they were at the beginning; Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has gone from misanthropic disgraced lawyer to slightly jerky teacher, for instance.
Beyond the show’s astonishing inventiveness and world-building, Community‘s emotional power–what made it not just funny but gorgeous and great–came from Dan Harmon’s melancholic, lovely story about a boxful of broken toys trying to fix one another. No one ever becomes perfect, of course, but by the end of five seasons, they largely succeeded. They saved themselves, and they saved Greendale (again, imperfectly). Without a similar project, the two new episodes are very funny–the best bits, of course, I’m clamming up about so you can be surprised by them–but we’ll have to see if the show can be as emotionally involving again.
Maybe it doesn’t need to be. Maybe it’s enough for Community, free of the ratings pressures of NBC, to live its second life free to be weird and playful and experimental. Maybe the sixth season (if not the movie) will move this project forward, having each character negotiate new challenges of post-college adulthood. Maybe the former study group can be fixed but still funny.
But you have to wonder, as Jeff puts it in an argument with Frankie in the season premiere, “How much can you improve Greendale before it stops being Greendale?” As always, leave it to Community to be its own best critic.