There’s no reason that the Fast and the Furious series should be on its seventh installment. It was on the same direct-to-death’s-door path that most action franchises careen down when their major stars and original energy leave before executive’s are done milking the name-recognition, but then Paul Walker and Vin Diesel returned for a rebranded fourth movie – no number, cool new ampersand – and global success improbably followed after.
Community is now the Fast and the Furious of television. It constantly talks about the importance of family, Jeff wears t-shirts that are one size too small, and it’s risen from the wandering wilderness years to renewed glory. Unfortunately, it’s at a pretty crappy new home.
Let’s get that out of the way first. Yahoo Screen saved the entire planet from being destroyed by an errant asteroid, but the watching experience is a tortured one now. Maybe that’s the price we have to pay in order to have Dan Harmon’s brilliant show at all, but it’s still frustrating. Yahoo’s streaming is obnoxious. It’s shoddy, glitchy and advertisements often load in a way that cuts off the show’s button lines. It’s not my connection, either. I watched a 2-hour Vimeo screener with zero problems before tuning in to watch the gang’s self-aware antics, so, yes, it’s irritating that one of the largest tech companies in the world can’t nail down something like moving images.
As for the show itself, Harmon and Chris McKenna and the crew have pulled off a resurrection that doesn’t feel zombified at all. Pierce is gone, Troy is gone, Shirley is gone, Duncan is gone. This Community is very little like Community, but what show in its sixth season ever looks like its younger self? It’s undergone great changes, and the result is a safer, more sustainable show.
The first two episodes of season 6 are online now (Yahoo Screen is posting new episodes every Tuesday in a marriage of the new and old school releasing structures that should do more to generate digital water cooler talk among fans than an indiscriminate, binge-y dump), and both “Ladders” and “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” feature comfortably contained ridiculousness. The first episode uses a neglected item on the Saving Greendale to-do list in order to destroy the school’s roof and introduce the insurance company-dictated presence of Frankie Dart (Paget Brewster). She’s an accountant type who describes herself as boring and draws Abed into her alluring web of normality.
She’s also the best possible new addition the show could make. Brewster is strong among the chaos, and Frankie is indicative of the show’s regular genius of twisting tropes into fun new shapes. Any normal sitcom would be desperately mining comedy from her straight-laced frustration, but Community isn’t a normal sitcom, so while she’s level-headed, she also accepts the gang’s insanity at face value. She’s calm about it all. A guardian angel that absorbs drama. She’s a solid foil, and she doesn’t have to get Oliver Hardy red-faced in order to make it work. It’s also great to see a new hierarchy created where she sees the gang as harmlessly absurd and acceptably destructive as the gang sees Dean Pelton.
Her subdued nature fits in well with the scaled-back antics, too. In the first episode, the gang rebels against their new, normal committee member by opening a speakeasy, but it doesn’t spiral out of control the way the old show would have. It’s not like the entire campus descends into a moonshine gangster turf war; the wackiness is constrained to montages.
The second entry is a half-bottle episode where most of the conflict involves Dean Pelton slapsticking in a low-rent virtual reality machine. Presumably there’s a budget issue here – and maybe they’re saving up for a climactic, paintball-esque blowout – but the reduction also makes tonal sense. These characters have been through a lot without taking a breath, and now that passing a midterm isn’t important anymore, the plotlines have to come from whether or not the school has room in the budget for the best tech of 1995. This is where my Fast and the Furious comparison falls part completely. The Rock would make an excellent addition to the show, though.
(And, yes, the other casualty so far is the broader ensemble nature of the show that blossomed in the third season but has dried up almost completely now.)
It’s a little disappointing that Community continues to focus on “saving Greendale,” which is exhausting at this point. We just saw an entire season of that. Meta awareness has taken over to the point where Greendale is no longer an entity, but a blank slate perpetually in need of rescue solely for the purpose of acting as a regular meeting point for a study group without something to study. Greendale has been reduced to a MacGuffin.
However, the show hints that all of Harmon’s demons and fears of cancellation were purged with the first episode’s roof cave-in (be careful stepping over the symbolism there). If “Ladders” and “Postnatal Care” created a pattern, it’s that the main storyline will involve a lesson for one character (Abed testing out blandness, Britta grimacing through reconciliation with her parents), and the secondary storyline will involve some minor administrative issue facing Greendale. Again, it’s a bit safer, but more sustainable, and I hope that it takes the time to give us character-centric stories even as Jeff and Frankie begin an inevitable, age-appropriate romance that will enrage the Jeff/Annie shippers of the world.
For the best illustration of how restrained the show has become, compare these two episodes to their post-credit scenes. Even though they are callbacks to minor references (like they’ve always been), the absurdity gap has grown considerably. Compared to earlier conceptual episodes, these feel downright normal. Maybe Frankie has become the show’s new spirit animal. At least until they do a show made completely out of macrame.
The great news about the sixth season of Community is that Jeff is still confidently sarcastic, Annie is still passive aggressively bubbly, and Abed is still Abed. The jokes are as quick as ever – including a blink and you’ll miss it one-liner that made me laugh so hard I had to pause the show. Doing so naturally crashed my browser (thanks, Yahoo), but it was worth it.
Even though there have been changes, the show retains its heart. It’s core nature is still lovingly in tact, which means we could be in for the best new season of Community in years.