Going into Season 6 of Community, which premiered in the middle of the night with a pair of episodes on Yahoo Screen, the obvious question was whether the clever and wonderfully weird sitcom would lose anything in jumping from NBC to a website that’s known more for being a punchline about ancient technology than for its streaming content. While it can surely be argued that NBC didn’t treat Community as well as it could have, the comedy certainly belonged there, particularly during the earlier seasons, when it was a “Must See TV” staple along with the equally smart and weird 30 Rock, The Office, and Parks and Recreation.
Yahoo is an unlikely place for any show to wind up (though its investment in Community does make some sense), and it was unclear how exactly Harmon and co. would deal with the move — particularly because so much of the series’ weirdness came from its meta takes on NBC (and broadcast television as a whole), its obsession with its own perpetually impending cancellation, and the uniqueness of seeing big, feature film-like parodies on network TV. If the first two Season 6 episodes are any indication, the show is handling the move gracefully, even though it suffers somewhat from the smaller cast size.
Season 6 begins by catching us up on what everyone has been doing since the Season 5 finale, via Dean Pelton’s school announcements. This makes it clear early on that Season 6 will have a narrower scope; we only get updates on Jeff (still a teacher), Britta (homeless), Abed (who wrote the announcements), and Annie (still saving the school). Troy (Donald Glover) and Pierce (Chevy Chase) were already gone last season, and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown, now seen on The Odd Couple) left — or spun off, as Abed put it — to become the personal chef and assistant to a brilliant but troubled detective. Recurring characters Professor Hickey (Jonathan Banks, returning to his AMC roots with Better Call Saul), Professor Duncan (John Oliver, presumably busy with Last Week Tonight), and Abed’s girlfriend Rachel (Brie Larson) are nowhere to be found. (Later, Abed makes a passing reference to Rachel, to the effect that there’s no real explanation for her disappearance).
Despite the increasing empty seats around the empty table — Chang notes that only minority characters are disappearing — Season 6 tries its best to retain a familiar feel. For the most part, it succeeds. The Troy-and-Abed antics will always be missed, as will Shirley’s habit of occasionally knocking the group back down to earth, but Season 6 does introduce a new character: Frankie (Paget Brewster, previously seen as a different character last season), a consultant for Greendale Community College who is brought in after a frisbee disaster. She’s bland and straitlaced (and, Abed points out, not very different from Annie’s character), but that’s the point. She is there to try to end classes like “Ladders” and “When Is It OK to Shake a Baby?” as well as to stop Dean Pelton from keeping a $5,000 outdated virtual reality machine (the main plot in the second episode).
Brewster is a welcome addition to any show, and she’s the sort of actress who can easily find humor in playing decidedly humorless characters like Frankie. There’s a good chance that Greendale will break her down as the season progresses — she already has one quick breakdown at the end of the premiere — and she’ll fit in better with the group, but for now at least, she works well both a peer and a foil. Through Frankie and Abed, we get a lot of requisite self-awareness, as Abed points out the fundamental changes to the show: It was once about “an unlikely family of misfit students” but has evolved to follow “a pretty loose-knit group of students and teachers, none of whom are taking a class together.” This, along with the college’s increasing normalcy, prompts all sorts of questions about the characters’ finances or when they’ll finally graduate.
But fortunately, Greendale isn’t ready to go full-normal just yet. As we learn in the season premiere, Britta has taken over Shirley’s sandwich shop even though she’s a horrible cook (she claims her cooking is a “crushing blow to a gender stereotype”), but underneath the shop is a secret speakeasy (where Britta is a horrible bartender). It’s a nice little intro back into Community‘s world, where anything that seems normal is always a little bit weirder.
There’s much more of this in Episode 2, “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” featuring Keith David (who will be a very welcome regular this season) as Elroy Patashnik. Elroy is the inventor of the virtual reality machine that Dean Ambrose bought and subsequently (immediately) becomes addicted to — even though the “power” of building “worlds upon worlds” is really just moving a bunch of file folders around. It’s this quirkiness that Community was built on, and that will stick with the series until its end — which may be farther into the future than many of us thought; I can’t imagine Yahoo canceling the sitcom after this season. The episode balances the Greendale insanity — there are numerous sequences that take place inside the virtual reality machine and the graphics are intentionally, amusingly dated — with the Greendale realness and depth that anchor the sitcom, as the B-story focuses on broke Britta, who learns that the awful parents she has rebelled against have been secretly supporting her financially through the study group. (Hey, there’s the answer to one of Abed’s questions!)
The first two episodes of Season 6 aren’t perfect, but Community has rarely been perfect, which is one of the show’s many charms. It’s a messy, ambitious, and rebellious sitcom. It’s a sitcom that antagonizes its home, that shoots for impossible highs — and often hits them, but even remains funny when it completely misses the mark — and that has basically forced its continued existence through sheer will and simply refusing to stay down. But it seems like Community has figured everything out, free from ratings pressure and NBC’s demands, and on a site where it’s wholly comfortable. The only thing stacked against it is the question of where it’s going to go from here, especially since so many of the once-over-the-top characters seem to be calming down. But, in true Community fashion, it’s even self-aware about this. As Jeff asks, “How much can you improve Greendale before it stops being Greendale?”