I can still remember when I watched the pilot episode of Community way back in 2009; the realization that something special was happening was immediately apparent. Most mortal shows air a pilot that is only a vague representation of what it will eventually morph into. Over time the actors become comfortable in their roles, the writers find their comedic stride and everyone generally becomes familiar and comfortable with the universe
that they are creating.
Those shows aren’t Community.
From the first drum fill of the show’s brazenly optimistic indie rock intro everything was in perfect sync. The actors were on point, the script had the confidence of an episode #4 draft and the production value was near the top for NBC (take that however you will). Looking back it’s obvious that the reason for its drag race start is show creator/control freak Dan Harmon, who is a god/asshole and also the main creative force behind the scenes and a large reason for the show’s – er – success.
Since that day I’ve known one thing: that as long as Dan Harmon was at the head, Community would be a great show.
Then he got fired.
He probably had that coming (see section “God/Asshole”) since he decided it would be cool to publicly humiliate Chevy Chase, who may be washed up as an actor but still did not deserve to be treated that way. If that’s how he hangs his actors out to dry in public then I can’t even fathom what was going on behind the scenes with NBC executives and the poor writers and crew back on set. Needless to say we all felt that Community was dead. And for a season, it was. (I’ve heard myths that a season 4 exists in the ether – and sometimes, when a vicious storm is raging, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with cold sweats and shards of goofily written scenes seared temporarily into my mind,but I suppress them with strong alcohol and episodes of “The Wire.”)
After Harmon was let go at the end of season 3 we all began to shuffle around in lethargic despair, hoping that we would bump into another suitable comedy elsewhere…BUT SUDDENLY, the stone was rolled back and the God/Asshole emerged from his tomb! Resurrected and reinstated back as the show runner by NBC Harmon ferried our weary souls back to the cool and refreshing waters of Greendale Community College. Season 5 was a strict return to form. It was almost as though nothing had ever interrupted its flow; though there was an even stronger premonition making itself felt through the scripts that Harmon believed Community would not survive another season on NBC. That prophecy proved true. NBC dropped the guillotine and dispatched our beloved show into the afterlife.
And if that cruel act had occurred 10 years ago….that might have been the end of Community.
But while the networks were fretting and wringing their hands over ad space and Nielsen ratings another force was growing in the darkness. Streaming services had spread throughout the land, reviving award winning comedies and blazing trails of original content that snared millions of viewers across the globe. And so it was that the lifeless body of Community was brought before them. What happened next is remarkably similar to that scene in Game of Thrones where Danerys Targaryan has her husband Khal Drogo resurrected by employing the skills of a witch. (Forget about the part where she basically turns him into a retarded horse.) The Internet giant Yahoo stretched forth it’s benevolent and equally desperate hand towards Community and pressed it’s thumb to the pallid and still chest.
And lo there was life once more.
Having cheated death twice, was it still possible for Community to be great? I think back to my original declaration, “As long as Dan Harmon is at the head, Community would be a great show.” But it had been maimed. Despite being brought back from the dead it was devoid of 3 original cast members, each so crucial to the wonderful chemistry built over the years. Pierce died, Troy left to sail the world and Shirley moved away to care for a sick friend. Most people lament Troy’s (Donald Glover) departure the most and I would hands down say his loss is felt the greatest as far as the amount of comedic moments he supplied goes, but what any GREAT show needs is confrontation and character development, and nobody was a better catalyst for that than Pierce Hawthorn (Chase). He pushed, prodded and bullied others into changing by creating confrontation and dilemma wherever he went. So after such great loss, how can a show maintain a perfect track record? (season 4 doesn’t exist remember)
The bittersweet answer is that it can’t. Too much has happened and the show has experienced too much turbulence to be the centered, confident, revelatory force that it once was. And while Sony has proclaimed that the budget was in no way cut, the show’s production value has slipped noticeably as well. Though many of the issues Community is experiencing would outright kill a lesser show, it hasn’t completely crippled them. Sure it’s not reaching the heights of season 3, but it is still gallingly clever, endlessly thoughtful and engaging!
There was a lot of housekeeping to do during the first few episodes of season 6. Essentially you have a brand new cast to introduce and are re-premiering the show as if it were for the first time…and this go around…it definitely feels like a regular pilot episode. We have to take time to reorient everybody with the universe and mind our P’s and Q’s, which can be a real bore to watch. Harmon knows this and tries to make it as painless as possible but you can hear the show groaning under the stress of all the changes that have been made in the past few years.
But as I mentioned earlier, while this may kill a lesser show, it doesn’t kill Community. Once the foundation is laid we are permitted to re-immerse ourselves in Greendale. Episode 4 is where we reach greatness again. Ben Chang breaks out and offers more than just a bit of psychosis, Dean Pelton goes through a MASSIVE transformation while representing the gay (he’s only 1/7th gay) community and we are allowed to finally feel the cocky and quirky edge that endeared us to the show so long ago. The social commentary is scathing and the observations on human behavior are clinical and delightfully digestible for the audience. Dan Harmon is capable of miracles. I truly can’t think of anybody who could weather as many storms as he has and make it out on the other side still helming a tv show.
Here at the halfway point of Community season 6 I think I can answer the question of whether it is still any good – It is. It’s not the greatest season yet and is very far away from it’s worst season, but it is incredibly lucky to not be the worst offender of all, perfectly mediocre. It is still special. It still sparks and froths and whinnies with ecstasy when allowed to sprint down it’s absurdist tangents. And as long as it is allowed to do that you’ll have me there, waiting on that movie
While it's not flying as high as it once was it's still a mark above most other current comedy offerings on the market. I'll watch as long as Harmon and Joel McHale feel like showing up to work.