Community: The Little Show That Could

On March 17 the sixth season of Community airs on the relatively new platform offered up by Yahoo. For five years the brainchild of Dan Harmon has had a chaotic life on NBC, but the in-show ‘six seasons and a movie’ joke that was subsequently co-opted by fans and creators alike became a rallying cry that might become an eventuality now. The show has never drawn a massive fanbase, its unique and off kilter style drew in much of the hardcore fans but also is perhaps one of the reasons it never found a larger audience amid its contemporaries. But despite the rough road the show has walked it continues to live and be loved, and on the eve of the new season and distribution format, I thought now was as good a time as any to cover one of my favourite shows.

For those who don’t know Community, here’s a quick rundown. The show is about a group of down-on-their-luck people who have walked different paths in life and come together at Greendale Community College in the form of a Spanish study group (formed by seminal lead Jeff Winger in order to try and get with Britta). It follows the misadventures of Jeff, Britta, Abed, Troy, Annie, Shirley and Pierce as they make their way through their courses. While this sets the scene, it quickly forms little more than the background basis for the group’s adventures and does little to explain the true wackiness of Community. That can be best displayed in the season one episode ‘Modern Warfare’ which more than any other put the show on the map. The episode takes the group and college setting and forces it into a trope driven action movie satire in the form of a paintball game gone wrong, with pop culture references in high supply.

These left of centre episodes form much of the appeal for long term fans and potential barriers for new fans. The ‘Modern Warfare’ episode might be looked at in a positive light for drawing in new fans, but if your first introduction to the show is the Dungeons and Dragons episode/s, or the war documentary spoof, it might be difficult to get into, because so much relies on established knowledge and understandings of the characters involved. You can follow a more regulation episode plot with little prior knowledge, but the added dynamic of the ‘genre’ episodes may prove more troublesome and disorientating.

The weirder ideas work because of the strength of the characters. Season 3’s Remedial Chaos Theory, viewed by many fans as the best episode in the series, is brilliantly orchestrated but only works because of the foundations of characterisation built over the previous seasons. The subtle changes in their reactions to events across the timelines work because you already know them. And while Abed is the most notable, each character brings something unique to the group and affects the dynamic accordingly. The show is at its best when the group is interacting and playing off of these dynamics, and the weaker episodes are when we aren’t getting the most from them. Unfortunately the show has visibly struggled over the past two seasons, and part of the reason is the void left by Donald Glover (Troy) and Chevy Chase (Pierce) leaving the show. With Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley) not on board for this upcoming season, it is worrying that nearly half the group won’t be present.

It hasn’t been a smooth run for the show. Viewership was promising early but it suffered going against the brutal competition of sitcom monster The Big Bang Theory. And while the issue of accessibility isn’t as problematic as it used to be in television (serialised programming is at the forefront of the modern revolution of the small screen despite it being less welcoming of new fans than the procedural) it is a concern to distributors. While the current climate encourages binge watching thanks to the advent of Netflix, relying on this format for new fans to catch up with can restrict fans from jumping on mid-season in the initial televised run, which hurts a company like NBC if numbers aren’t going to grow on an already fringe show. But the fans have been more than vocal in campaigning for the continuation of Community, which in truth has been instrumental in the show even making it this far.

The show nearly didn’t make it to season six. After threats of near cancellation and the firing of showrunner Dan Harmon after season three (leading to the fourth season, largely viewed as the worst of the five, being known as the ‘gas leak’ year), the show was seemingly dead on its legs. NBC decided against a sixth season, and with literally hours left before contracts would be voided (making a revival all but impossible) Yahoo picked up the rights for the show and kept it alive. If only Firefly had that kind of luck. But Yahoo recognises the value of the Community ‘community’. It has a hardcore fanbase and the acquisition of the cult favourite drew much needed attention to Yahoo’s new streaming capabilities.

The struggles of the show reflect the characters within its borders. The group are loved by those around it, but really they aren’t as significant to the rest of the world as they think they are (the group’s dramas are often addressed in universe by supporting characters as troublesome and tiring). There is a constant uncertainty to their futures, but they are misfits and have come to be proud of it, and continue to push on despite the odds.

There really is nothing like it on television right now. The constantly winding meta-narratives, pop culture references and community college dynamic with crazy teachers like Chang and Dean Pelton provide the show with boundless oppourtunities. Its ability to turn the seemingly mundane into real dramatic tension approached Seinfeld levels without ever feeling like Seinfeld. That was a show about nothing, but Community use long winded arcs of nothingness like the cult-like Air Conditioning Repair School. So much in the show shouldn’t work, but it does. The weirder episodes better resemble a writing technique, where you take the characters you are writing and drop them in a different genre or setting to better understand them and how they react. It is just Community does this (dropping the group into a Western genre piece for example, with one foot always by the fourth wall), but then films it rather than just leaving it conceptual. Like the show, it is something that probably shouldn’t work, but it does and it makes the show that much better.

But again, it comes back to the characters. What is equally impressive is the fact that they all grow throughout the show’s run but it feels natural. For example, Troy comes into the show as a clueless but arrogant jock, but it doesn’t take long until the Troy & Abed bro-mance to rival Turk and J.D from Scrubs. Although the show still ultimately runs around Jeff as the primary protagonist as it was framed from the beginning, it branches out from the restraints of viewing his stories as primary, even if many of the end of season arcs heavily centre around him. Everybody gets the chance to be the hero, and everyone also gets a turn at being the villain. No matter which character is your favourite they will get a chance to shine, even someone like Annie who was a relatively minor character within the group at first.

It is a shame that the last two seasons haven’t matched the brilliance of the first three. Much of the problems of four were blamed on the lack of Dan Harmon, and while some of the characterisation did feel off season five wasn’t without its flaws either. Glover’s departure hit the show’s run harder than expected there, especially in the confines of thirteen 20 minutes episodes (of which he was there for five of them). It made it difficult for the show to really find a new footing, although the send off episode for him was Community at its most Community, a campus wide game of ‘ the floor is lava’ that became Mad Max esque, all on the meta-narrative of Abed being afraid to lose his friend. Season six will only be thirteen episodes, matching the previous two, but hopefully with a new distribution setting in Yahoo and a bit of time to properly craft the season they can find their groove. Community will continue to be Community as long as Abed and Jeff are there, who form the narrative pillars of the group, and given what the show is capable of there is still potential for a great season.

I love this show. I would hate to think how many times I’ve watched through all the episodes. The last two seasons haven’t been perfect (though there are episodes like ‘Herstory of Dance’ that succeeds in spite of the troubles of the season) but there is still much to love about Community. It has benefited from a great cast that love their job (even though someone like Alison Brie may be held back by the commitment the show requires, which is a big reason why Donald left) some of the episodes can comfortably rank as some of the most ingenious and hilarious in modern television. It is the kind of show that will live on long after it eventually dies, retaining a hardcore fanbase that can always count on it for a laugh.

If you’ve never seen it before, it is worth a trial, but go from the start. Judging by the season six trailer, it is going to be as left of field as ever. I would imagine the first episode of six will be fairly welcoming of new fans because of the new format, but I expect it to be no holds barred quickly after that, and an understanding and appreciation of what came before it will probably be necessary to properly ‘get’ the show. If you don’t, you’ll just have to live with being streets behind.

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