This review contains spoilers.
“We’ll definitely be back next year. If not, it’ll be because an asteroid has destroyed all human civilization. And that’s canon.”
Quick, to the internet! After NBC finally dropped the axe on Community, its “six seasons and a movie” mantra appeared to be in jeopardy. At the eleventh hour, the series found a second life on the Yahoo! Screen streaming service and we’ve got 13 new episodes before Dan Harmon and company have to start thinking about a movie.
The first two episodes arrived online on Tuesday – if you’re in the UK it’s also broadcast on Wednesdays at 10pm on the Sony Entertainment Channel. Greendale Community College has never been more accessible, but is the new season trying to keep everyone happy?
These first two episodes, Ladders and Lawnmower Maintenance & Postnatal Care, have even more to prove than last season’s re-Harmonised soft reboot, with the departure of regular cast members Yvette Nicole Brown, (Shirley) John Oliver (Duncan) and Jonathan Banks (last season’s standout, Professor Buzz Hickey) right off the bat.
With the new medium, these episodes feel like another shake-up, but does this double bill season premiere stand up to the previous, televised runs?
“I took an informal survey of how Greendale was received and three themes emerged – weird, passionate and gross. Now you want to hang on to that grouping. In marketing, it’s what we call the Good Belushi.”
The cold open for this one looks like business as usual, with Abed writing an announcement for the Dean “to catch everybody up” and Annie’s oversight of “rooftop frisbees” in her Save Greendale checklist leading to a catastrophic roof collapse in the cafeteria. But the episode that follows immediately shows a different approach to this season.
Frankie Dart (Paget Brewster) is the first of two new regulars to be introduced this season, and the Dean inserts her into the study group’s committee to try to keep them grounded and more importantly, keep Greendale in the black. The existing committee immediately decide she must be evil for wanting to change them, with the surprising exception of Abed, who suspects that the myriad developments around him must lead to more grounded progress from here on out.
There’s a very self-conscious transition here, with Abed seeming to stand in for writers Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna, in criticising some of the more high concept exploits of previous seasons. Meta-snarking isn’t new for Community, but it feels like this one spins its wheels on that spot for a little while.
Last season saw two campus-wide dystopias (caused by lava and Meow Meow Beenz) and a plot to sell the school to Subway that resulted in the discovery of a computer powered by love. “Out there” doesn’t quite cover it any more and it seems like Harmon feels that way too. If Ladders is anything to go by, then we might be in for a season even closer to the first run of the show than last year’s intro, Repilot.
That’s not to say it’s all change. Plenty of the familiar faces get their share of screen-time, including Todd, Garrett and Leonard (who gets a terrific Blade Runner-inflected gag in the pre-titles sequence.) Oh, and there was that surprise cameo from one Nathan Fillion as the head of Greendale’s janitorial cabal.
There’s also a return to the blow-off class from which the episode gets its name, which is saved from the chopping block when Jeff, Annie and Britta set up an old-timey speakeasy to rebel against Frankie’s ban on alcohol. Don’t drink and climb ladders, kids.
And yet, this introduction does seem to be adjusting to the new status quo in baby steps, as opposed to last year’s elegant writing-out of Chevy Chase and Donald Glover’s characters. In having Yvette Nicole Brown’s Shirley “spin off” off-screen, (we would watch 13 episodes of The Butcher And The Baker in a heartbeat) there’s immediately a bit of a disconnect there.
Without the self-assured stride of last year, Ladders feels like more of a warm-up, particularly for the thus-far deadpan Frankie. It doesn’t shed any of its continuity or characters and there’s still a high hit rate on the comedy, particularly the running joke about montages, meaning that this is still unmistakably Community.
6.2 Lawnmower Maintenance & Postnatal Care
“Britta’s a rich genius with superpowers and she’s gonna live on our sofa for no reason.”
This is another Harmon and McKenna collaboration, and it’s telling that they went from a grounded approach in the season premiere to introducing an inventor called Elroy Patashnik as a series regular in the very next episode. Without completely reverting to high concept stories, the second part of the double bill has a little more of what we’ve come to expect from more recent episodes.
The Dean makes an extravagant, non-refundable expense in buying the school a $5000 VR game-cum-filing system, with Jeff and Frankie trying to disentangle him from the poorly rendered power trip that ensues. Elsewhere, a homeless Britta moves in with Abed and Annie, only to discover that her estranged parents have been interfering in her free-spirited mooching by paying off her mountainous debts without her knowledge.
The plots divide cleanly between establishing the newcomers and further exploring Britta, but it’s the latter that feels the most substantial here. For a fan of Arrested Development, it’s almost obligatory to shriek like Lucille Bluth at any unexpected appearance of Martin “Gene Parmesan” Mull, and he and Lesley Ann Warren deliver a pair of winsome turns here as Britta’s newly reformed parents, Deb and George, doting on their daughter from afar because she’s far, far too proud to actually engage with them.
Gillian Jacobs clearly relishes digging into her character’s backstory – she can be simplified as “the worst” but Britta is one of the most consistently entertaining characters in the ensemble and here, she’s indignant for a reason.
From what we glean about how terrible they used to be, Britta isn’t exactly overreacting in emotional terms, even if her personality means she can only really express that by hitting people with pillows, hiding in Frankie’s car and most memorably, mugging a small boy for his Green Machine.
At least she finds sympathy from Frankie, who beautifully diagnoses the hatred of someone good because they used to be awful, as “Jimmy Fallon syndrome”, her second Saturday Night Live-related metaphor in two episodes.
Elsewhere, it’s fun to see Jim Rash make the most of the virtual reality game, designed as a giant baby stroller for the Dean to play with, while giggling in megalomania. That said, it’s really just a plot device that gets us to the aforementioned creator of the game, Elroy, played by the legendary Keith David.
As with many of the original characters and regulars who have since joined, he winds up at Greendale while looking for a new direction in life, leading Jeff to realise that he’s probably never going to leave the place. Along the same lines as Shirley’s spin-off, we’re up for more of the Jeff and Elroy show Hard Drive & Wingman, with its cheesy freeze frame gags and its Eric Clapton theme song, borrowed from The Colour Of Money.
Less successful is a running gag about Chang being bitten by Britta’s cat, that amounts to nothing more than Ken Jeong showing up randomly throughout the rest of the episode with a grossly swollen hand. The progression of his character from insane Spanish teacher to mentally ill vagrant has left him feeling a little marooned in some episodes, but as one of the original regulars, hopefully they’ll find more for him to do in the rest of the season.
Lawnmower Maintenance & Postnatal Care is more of a tale of two B-plots than the previous episode, but together, the double bill at the top of the shiny new season makes perfect sense. While Ladders stayed grounded, this one has some lovely non-sequiturs to remind us that it’s still the same show – the low-rent Portuguese Gremlins rip-off that’s referenced throughout and finally shown in the end credits tag might be one of the show’s best ever spoofs, and it’s arguably the funniest sequence of the episode.
Finally, assuming that Brewster and David will fill spots in the opening titles’ origami fortune teller, there’s at least one more vacant space, which suggests there might be another regular joining the cast at some point this season.
It’s a lot of change all at once, but aside from the new characters and slicker production values, it’s comforting to think that it’s still embodying the Good Belushi better than any other show, on or off TV.
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