Extra credit: ‘Community’ returns on Yahoo Screen

CommunityBy JIM SABATASO

[A version of this review appears in the April 9, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.]

With the arrival of season six, Community fans’ rallying cry of #SixSeasonsAndAMovie is closer than ever to becoming a reality. On March 17, the oddball sitcom from the equally odd mind of Dan Harmon premiered on its new home on the Yahoo Screen on-demand streaming service.

This history of Community is a long and tortured one. Originally premiering on NBC in 2009, the series was never a ratings dynamo. An ensemble comedy about a group of damaged misfits at a community college, Harmon used that simple premise as the foundation for one of the most aggressively metatextual shows in TV history.

Characters would constantly comment on the stories they were within, giving nods to tired sitcom tropes the bottle episodes and clip shows while turning them on their ear. The bottle episode (“Cooperative Calligraphy”), a series best, was a collective descent into madness over a missing pen. The clip show (“Paradigms of Human Memory”), a parody of the cost-saving trick networks used to foist upon series, featured a collection of flashbacks to events not in previous episodes.

Other episodes would break form or adopt entirely different genres, including crime procedurals, sci-fi adventures, zombie apocalypses, documentaries, children’s cartoons, and even a claymation Christmas special.

Such a show asks a lot of its audience. Judging by the ratings, Community asked a little too much. Back in 2009, however, it felt right at home in NBC’s Thursday Must See TV lineup alongside the equally ambitious 30 RockParks and Recreation, and The Office. Of those shows, only The Office ever lived up to network expectations, going nine seasons and garnering solid ratings throughout.

Ratings aside, all four series were doing interesting things as they attempted to rehabilitate and reinvent the sitcom format and push the boundaries of what comedy could look like on network television. I would also argue that this is the strongest Must See lineup ever in quality if not ratings. Only two others come close: the original 1984-88 lineup of The Cosby Show/Family Ties/Cheers/Night Court, and the 1994 combo of Mad About You/Wings/Seinfeld/Frasier.)

But even among the quirky sensibilities of 30 Rock and ParksCommunity was still the weird guy at the party. “Community” is a show for nerds, specifically TV/film/pop-culture nerds who have a deep knowledge of the medium and its vocabulary as well as a willingness to go down various narrative rabbit holes. For the casual viewer, that can be overwhelming. However, the series has developed a devoted following among a small but zealous group, which can be credited for keeping the show alive all these years.

Any discussion of Community requires a discussion of its creator Dan Harmon. Harmon is an accomplished, Emmy-winning writer with a keen sense of comedy and humanity. He is a chaotic force of nature and, by his own admission, difficult to work with. His self-destructive tendencies have been well documented from his firing on The Sarah Silverman Program to his public feud with Chevy Chase.

Most famously, NBC fired him from Community at the close of season three. He was amazingly rehired for season five riding a wave of good will from fans of his weekly podcast.

While not required listening, Harmontown is a vital supplemental text. The podcast is a loose, boozy, improvisational adventure where Harmon holds court. Episodes vary wildly depending on Harmon’s mood and level of intoxication. There’s lots of riffing, rapping and ranting as the host takes the audience on a stream of consciousness journey through his mind.

Harmon often uses the show as a confessional revealing intimate, occasionally uncomfortable details about his private life, as well as addressing social issues with a powerful earnestness. Somewhere along the way, his willingness to show his vulnerability and insecurities struck a chord with the audience.

Harmontown has evolved into an interactive experience where the boundaries between host and audience are blurred. The result is a safe space, a community, where people willingly drop their defenses and just be themselves. On the podcast, Harmon is the reluctant leader of a tribe of misfits looking for a place to belong. (To get a sense of this phenomenon, check out the podcast or watch the Harmontown documentary now streaming on Netflix.)

On Community Harmon, along with co-executive producer Chris McKenna, has managed to pull off a similar trick. Strip away the meta-commentary, theme episodes, and paintball wars and you have a similar group of misfits. Over six seasons, Greendale Community College has come to be a place where the sad weirdoes of the world can find a home and a family.

Season six continues the efforts of the study group — now the Save Greendale Committee — as they face an ever-increasing level of insane problems. The season’s third episode, and strongest so far, has the group managing a PR debacle following the revelation that college granted a degree to a dog.

In the face of such absurd stories, the cast continues to be incredibly game, both selling the insanity and keeping the show grounded as needed. Through all its ups and downs, Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie, Danny Pudi, Jim Rash, and Ken Jeong have remained committed to this show and its characters. That love comes through in their performances.

Newcomers Paget Brewster (Criminal Minds, The Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast) and character actor Keith David fill out the vacancies left by departing cast members Yvette Nicole Brown and Daniel Glover.

Brewster adds a bit of sanity to the show as Frankie Dart, a stick-in-the-mud consultant who gets pulled into the Greendale universe. David, who for me he will always be the voice of Goliath from Gargoyles, plays Elroy Patashnik, a scientist who has yet to do much more than hang out on the show’s periphery. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. David’s lack of connection to the group has yielded some good laughs as he comments on its odd dynamics.

New episodes have been solidly entertaining, but have yet to approach the brilliance of the show’s early days. Season five, while consistently funny with some definite strong points — was similarly ho-hum.

Regular Harmontown listeners are privy to Harmon’s creative process. Onstage, he often will express his frustrations and anxieties about “Community.” One such concern has been his uncertainty about whom he is keeping Community alive for, himself or the fans. While the new season so far does not feel like fanservice, Harmon’s affection for his audience is undeniable. The promise of #SixSeasonsAndAMovie can easily become a burden for a man who doesn’t want to let those people down.

Another concern Harmon notes is that his new freedom at Yahoo has resulted in the lack of creative adversity. Harmon is someone who doesn’t like being told what to do. However, that conflict is also where he draws his energy. Harmon frets that the absence of a network suit meddling with his show has created a vacuum. Harmon may genuinely appreciate Yahoo’s full-throated support of the show, but he also worries that same support might somehow affect the product.

Three episodes in, it remains to be seen how much of an effect Yahoo has (or has not) had on Community. Like I said, it’s been pretty good so far. It’s still a fantastic show with a great cast and creative team that still manages to do fun, interesting things on a regular basis. This show is not for everyone, but if you are part of the club, you know there’s nothing quite like it on TV.

New episodes of Community premiere every Tuesday on Yahoo Screen. Watch past seasons on Hulu Plus.

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