Episode 1: “Ladders”
Community is back! On the internet! Dot com!
Probably the nicest aspect here is that, from the start, the show looks right. The move to the web hasn’t affected much of anything. In fact, believe it or not, Yahoo(!) shelled out more cash than NBC was willing to in the show’s final years, so everything actually looks a smidgen better than it has for a few seasons now.
The outdoor scenes make Greendale look like a real college again (because it is; this is the first time in a long while they’ve returned to shoot at real-life Los Angeles Community College) and none of the sets look anywhere near as ramshackle as, for example, Shirley’s garage from Season 4 or, well, everything in last season’s MeowMeowBeenz episode. (I know the draping of sheets over everything was deliberately crappy-looking but it also looked like they saved a lot of money on set dressing by, y’know, draping sheets over everything.)
In terms of visuals and sound, there are no shake-ups here. The study room looks like the study room. The show’s intro is intact (aside from Yvette Nicole Brown’s credit which, at least in the screener version I watched, was replaced with what appears to be an image of two bananas getting drunk). The music cues are largely the same and the show is paced and edited much as it has been, act breaks and all.
The story doesn’t throw too many curveballs either. Hell, the “Save Greendale Committee” from last season is still the basis here. It was a goal of creator Dan Harmon’s to ensure that the move to online didn’t mean a massive overhaul of what we’ve come to expect from Community and, as someone still suffering from PTSD from the Netflix season of Arrested Development, that this show feels familiar is quite the relief.
At the same time, this is Community’s exact problem. So little has changed it’s very much like picking up right where we left off with Season 5. In fact, if it weren’t for the sudden (and very unfortunate) disappearance of Shirley and (to a far lesser extent) Buzz Hickey, the concept of an outsider showing up to whip the committee into shape could very well have been a Season 5 episode. And Season 5, though not without its highlights, was kind of a mess.
Harmon has been touting this as something of a grounded season that will attempt to get back to the show’s roots by being a show about a group of friends at a community college. This intent is felt in “Ladders;” a good portion of it is characters in rooms (often sat at tables) interacting with one another. It still moves quickly but it’s palpably less nuts than it was in Season 5. The opening, in which the school roof caves in under the weight of a crapload of ill-chucked Frisbees, is a misdirect, as nothing else nearly so wacky happens after that point.
However, having characters engage in lots of dialogue does not a grounded show make when the issue remains that your characters have long since grown unmoored. The seeds of the Flanderization of these characters were planted back in Season 3 and they’ve only spun further out of control since then. “Ladders” actually revels in how self-aware and ridiculous these people can get by making the conflict about Abed having to choose between the real world offered by new addition, Francesca “Frankie” Dart (Paget Brewster) and the absurd, throwback speakeasy his friends have started up in the school’s basement, complete with gangster outfits for the guys and flapper getups for the girls.
Though Community has had multiple storylines very transparently about the show struggling with its own identity, this particular approach is clever, cute, and unique enough. However, it banks on (and this is fair enough, really) the fact that you’re already a fan. This is a show that has become so self-aware that it can have plots purely about how self-aware it is, without even doing much build-up to that self-awareness.
But take a step back, and you’ll see these plot movements are kind of weird and sloppy (another unfortunate holdover from Season 5). The moment the speakeasy starts up is rushed and feels a bit random. It’s also odd that Frankie leaving means that everyone is suddenly allowed to get drunk all over campus. Frankie’s presence is honestly just weird in and of itself. Why would she even agree to bother working with this ragtag group of people rather than just doing this job herself, since she’s getting paid to and seems capable enough? (In fairness, this is illuminated some at the end of the episode.) Wait a minute, why is Britta homeless?
The silliness of a number of the joke premises fall in line with this, too. Take the reliance on montages as a recurring gag or the fact that insulting Leonard is a rite of passage (even though Britta’s diss was hardly up to snuff; it took me a moment to decipher it). There’s a sense, as there was in much of Season 5, that the show knows that you know that it knows that you get it. I mean, the episode itself is titled after a class we were introduced to back in Season 3.
Again, this is not unexpected and Community probably deserves to pander to its fans at this point. They’ve fought hard to keep it around. But it also means the show resorts to a lot more shorthand, which means things get a lot sillier and weirder a lot more quickly, with any idea of grounding flying away and up onto a roof, like so many Frisbees.
In a way, that “Ladders” achieves the status quo of latter-day Community is a big relief. I find the show in its current form to be comfortable enough and I get some chuckles here and there (Britta’s astoundingly horrible attempts at prohibition-speak are the top highlight). Still, this is not the Community that made me excited and elated from week to week the way it did in its early days. But I’m thankful this premiere didn’t set me on edge as others have in the past. Season 4’s premiere made quickly evident it was going to destroy the show we loved, while Season 5’s sadly indicated that the return of the show’s creator might not herald an immaculate return to form. “Ladders” effectively just says: “If you’ve been with us this long, here’s more of the same.”
3 out of 5
Episode 2: “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care”
Much like the premiere, the second episode of Season 5 attempts a balance between ridiculous and grounded and, unfortunately, ridiculousness wins out by, like, a lot.
Obviously, some absurdity is desired with Community, but much of “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” is spent watching the Dean flailing around wearing an oversized virtual reality helmet or, alternatively, watching Britta flail around and shriek at everybody.
I like what’s going on behind the nonsense. Britta finding out all her friends are already secretly acquainted with her parents and that together they’ve all been helping Britta out financially, is a simple, but solid sitcom premise. It also works as a conflict specifically for Britta who, as a constantly failing rebel, of course has issues with her parents and would naturally react melodramatically to this situation. I think it’s weird that her parents live in driving distance of Greendale, though. The same thing happened with Jeff’s dad in Season 4. All parents just live in Colorado, huh?
I also like the introduction of Keith David as Elroy Patashnik. Specifically, watching his patter with Jeff is, almost instantly, a treat (“You’re a clever young man.” “I’m 40.”). It seems Joel McHale and Keith David just have great chemistry and play off each other really well and the show already recognizes it (hence the not-very-good, abrupt freeze-frame gag suggesting the two of them in their own spinoff). Watching Elroy and Jeff banter was the most fun aspect of the episode, and, briefly, when I thought this would be the centerpiece of “Lawnmower Maintenance,” I expected to love it.
Unfortunately, far more of it was spent in VR land with the Dean or watching Britta freak out. Of course, some of this was funny. I did laugh at the Dean’s repetition of “Jesus wept” and Frankie’s mention of his desire for a pee jar so he’d never have to unplug. As for Britta, an important part of that character comes from letting Gillian Jacobs act like a total spaz so, over the top as all her behavior was, it got me laughing a bunch all the same.
There was also Chang, who the show still has no real idea what to do with (which has been a problem with the character for nearly all of Community’s existence). His plot of wandering around with an infected cat bite on his hand is braindead on arrival. However, his utterance of “You’re back, Troy” upon seeing Elroy for the first time is brilliant.
I found “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” more fun than “Ladders.” There were more jokes I laughed at and, again, Elroy and Jeff are a great comedic pairing. But the episode is brought down by its slapdash plot. Britta basically just runs around screaming about her parents and then the conflict is quickly resolved thanks to a brief heart-to-heart with Frankie that didn’t really land for me. (However, I did very much enjoy the introduction of the concept of “Jimmy Fallon Syndrome,” the condition in which you want to hate someone because you knew them back when they sucked.) Similarly lazy is how Elroy just sort of randomly changes his mind about giving the Dean a refund for the VR equipment and then decides to attend Greendale because his inventing career is obviously lame.
I’ll admit that the state of the screener I watched may have brought the episode down just a bit. It often felt flimsy because much of the music wasn’t yet mixed in and all the VR scenes used placeholder animation and nothing more than an electronic buzzing noise for the background audio. I suspect the final version of this episode will hold together a bit better, but it’s still going to have the Dean and Britta acting like idiots for a bit too much of the running time and that’s my main complaint.
2.5 out of 5