Yesterday was pretty crappy, even by Monday standards: like most women I know, I spent most of it fuming over the Hobby Lobby decision, calming down, looking at Twitter, and getting furious all over again. So while Yahoo’s 11th-hour decision to bring Community back from the brink of cancellation didn’t salvage my mood entirely, it did take the edge off. Dan Harmon’s capable of brilliance wherever he lands (see Rick and Morty, in which animation allows Harmon and co-creator Justin Roiland to go even further afield), but Community has always been his most beloved project, not least because it’s constantly in danger of dying out.
Those who’ve stuck with Community long enough to care about its revival likely know the general arc of Harmon vs. Sony vs. NBC (other parties include Chevy Chase and fans displeased by Harmon’s comparison of Season 4 to “watching your family get raped on the beach”). A Hollywood Reporter profile from last year lays out the story up through Season 5: Harmon drank on the job, slept on the job, and sometimes skipped the job entirely, a style that didn’t keep him from creating a sitcom that stood out even from network peers like 30 Rock but also didn’t endear him to the higher-ups at his studio. Harmon was sacked, replaced by the more dependable, less mercurial duo of David Guarascio and Moses Port, and left to focus on other projects as Community slid in both reviews and ratings.
And then, weeks after NBC renewed Community for a fifth season, Harmon was re-hired. The show’s survival was still in question — Season 4’s premiere had been pushed back to midseason with a shortened order of 13 episodes instead of a full 22, and Season 5 was given the same vote of lukewarm confidence. But Harmon set out to both fans and the powers that be a “palate cleanser” and “an unbeatable argument for a sixth season.”
To many viewers, including this one, Community‘s follow-up to its “gas leak year” was exactly that. Season 5 often felt like a 13-part argument that Community is irreplaceable. Who else would dedicate a tribute episode to ’80s-era GI Joe cartoons? Who else would center an entire episode around the premise that it has no premise? And who else could pull off cerebral stunts that sound like MFA program homework assignments without alienating its audience, or sacrificing its focus on the study group and the relationships between its members?
Harmon and his writers’ room even managed to wrap up Season 5 in a way that could serve as a satisfying end to the series, if it had to. Hence why many critics had mixed reactions to NBC’s decision not to renew the show; between Harmon 1.0 Community, Mort and Guarascio Community, and Harmon 2.0 Community, Greendale Community College has had its second chance, and its third. Negotiations with Hulu only served to get fans’ hopes up, then sink them. Even the news of its renewal hasn’t brought around many of those who’ve already said their goodbyes; the Washington Post‘s Alyssa Rosenberg worries that it’s an example of television as crowd-pleasing, with networks “playing to their bases rather than developing new ideas.”
It’s true that Community is the third, and thus trend-making, example of a non-traditional TV outlet resurrecting a popular show. Netflix has Arrested Development and The Killing, and now Yahoo has Community. (Re-dos happen on regular TV too, of course; Family Guy and Futurama have both enjoyed successful second outings.) The phenomenon ostensibly creates a win-win situation for providers, creators, and viewers, allowing Netflix and Yahoo to make a name for themselves while series have a chance to make up for their untimely — and, often, unsatisfying — deaths.
Rosenberg’s right that the incentive behind these new incarnations of old series is getting eyeballs to Netflix and Yahoo, not breaking creative ground. And if Arrested Development is any indication, revivals may prove more successful at the former than the latter. I’ve written before about why I found Mitch Hurwitz and company’s insanely hyped comeback so unsatisfying, but a year later, I doubt even die-hard fans consider its impenetrable plotting and tweaks to Michael’s character as integral to the show’s legacy as the show’s first three seasons. Arrested Development‘s reincarnation helped put Netflix on the map as a prestige TV outlet to make HBO watch its (iron) throne. But did it successfully expand AD‘s already titanic influence on contemporary comedy? Not so much. And that’s why I didn’t, and still don’t, believe more Arrested Development is the best use of Netflix’s original programming money.
But Community is different, however much its situation superficially resembles Arrested Development‘s. The Netflix season of Arrested Development was our first quality time with the Bluths in seven years, and thus the audience’s first opportunity to evaluate how Hurwitz’s brainchild stands up to its successors-turned-competitors. Thanks to Season 5 of Community, though, Harmon’s already proved that the saga of Jeff Winger and friends has yet to run out of the ideas that are Community‘s lifeblood.
That’s a subjective judgment, clearly. Yet I honestly believe that underneath all the guest stars and the running gags and the umpteenth episode in which a school-wide competition flings Greendale into chaos, Community‘s fifth season felt like a show that’s more than the sum of its gimmicks. Considering, whatever its difficulties, that it’s a comedy with five seasons and nearly a hundred episodes under its belt, that’s no small feat. I don’t see a sixth season as manipulative fan service; I see it as a chance for Dan Harmon to keep delivering what he gave us right up until NBC pulled the plug.