So the big question with Community: Is it still good? Is it even better? Has the jump to Yahoo changed it? The answers, respectively are: Yes; kind of?; not really.
It is still a great, solid sitcom about a group of wacky friends and their hilarious misadventures. The test with these kind of shows is simple, and sounds kind of dumb when you say it: I missed Greendale, and I was glad to spend time with these characters again. The plots were the usual mix of important things (like Britta’s need to grow up) and silly things (like the Dean suddenly becoming obsessed with early-90s-style VR). The only downside is that after five seasons, the important plots can’t help but feel a bit reheated.
In the first episode, “Ladders,” we check in with the remnants of the study group, and we get to see Garrett in an adorable parody of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Original Shirley’s spirit lives on in the form of her sandwich shop, which is now being managed by Britta (I’m using the term “managed” extremely loosely) who claims that each burned sandwich is an attack on the patriarchy. Plus, we get to meet a new cast member, introduced as “New Shirley” (her name is actually Francesca), who quickly takes over the Save Greendale committee. Now, my least favorite trope in all of fiction is the authority figure who’s an asshole for no reason. (There are deeply rooted personal reasons for this hatred.)
Maybe my other least favorite trope is “asshole authority figure is proved to have a good point because the wacky people they’re oppressing are SO wacky that they cause real damage to the thing they supposedly love” because I find that really lazy. So at the beginning I was worried, because I know that Dan Harmon, for all his faults is not a lazy writer, but it seemed like the show was heading straight for a collision of those two tropes. But, my faith was rewarded, since instead the show questions the whole idea of authority figures and how they should act. Plus we got another few moments of Abed questioning just how detached he wants to be from reality. That was the serious part of the show, but it takes a backseat to the real action: the greatest homage to montages that I have ever seen. Seriously, I want to make a montage to homage the montage homage.
In the second episode, the silly plot revolves around The Dean purchasing a VR set-up from a guy who consulted on The Lawnmower Man. The more serious plot centers on Britta, her plan to move in with Annie and Abed, and her constant struggle against being the worst. It turns out that Mom and Dad Perry have been helping out with Britta’s bills, but since she won’t speak to them because of past injustices, they’ve been giving the money to her friends. This is some pretty pathological territory to grapple in 20 minutes. On the plus side, we finally get to meet her parents (Martin Mull and Lesley Ann Warren! Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet got married and had Britta!!!) and they mostly live up to our expectations. For instance:
Britta’s Dad: If you were on Tinder, your mom and I think you’d be the prettiest!
Britta’s Mom: Absolutely. The boys would be swiiiiiping right.
Britta’s Dad: Or girls! Whatever you want!
But on the not-so-plus-side, their niceness makes Britta a little too ridiculous. Over the past five seasons seeing her try, screw up, and try again has been solidly comical, and kept us on her side. But watching her lash out like a bratty teenager when her parents try to help pay for her stuff? It sort of makes her a jerk. Especially since we already got the “girl rebels against oppressive infantilizing parents” arc with Annie a couple seasons ago, with a real emotional payoff and some actual nice moments with Pierce. The show has already commented on the fact that Season One Britta changed from a cool, socially-conscious young woman into Season Two’s well meaning but incompetent flake. Do we need her to also be an ungrateful failure? Does she need to get lectures on maturity from Winger, of all people?
Because, as Troy once said, she’s not the worst. She’s the best. And I want the show to give her a good arc to play with.
As for the elements of Community that are even more powerful than before:
The parodies are sharper, and there are more of them! The references are nearly constant, and range from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to Blade Runner to The Shining to Gremlins. On top of that, there are multiple 80s buddy cop show parodies, but this leads to a different thing I notice, which isn’t really a problem, but it is something that stuck out to me. Apart from the VR stuff with the Dean, almost all of the pop culture gags are centered on 80s references—most of it actually before 1985. This is starting to get weird, given that Annie should be, what, 24? And Abed seemed to only be a little older than her at the beginning of the show? Even 40-year-old Winger should have been in college during the 90s—shouldn’t more of his jokes center on that decade? Was he just blackout drunk during the 00’s? Please don’t misunderstand me, I love all the 80s jokes, but it’s worrying me a little, too. Is this some meta-commentary on the idea that Winger hasn’t grown emotionally since high school?
Which leads us directly into the last question: Has the jump to Yahoo changed Community in any significant way? No, which may be part of the problem going forward. When this show started, the arc was supposed to be about a group of misfits becoming friends, gong to school, and changing their lives. It was supposed to be about growth. Not just Jeff finally getting a real law degree, or Shirley starting her business, but really growing as people. And it has slowly become, explicitly, about the ways Greendale holds them all in its thrall. Is this still a comedy? Or has it become an incredibly funny horror story?
I might be overthinking this.
The show is still hilarious, and even some of its slowest moments are better than most of what’s on regular broadcast TV right now. I just want it to become even better, and not just be a comfortable entertainment placeholder that offers tiny epiphanies and incremental character growth in place of real innovation. The list of Greendale classes is one of the best things EVER. Also, I want to point out that Jim Rash is a comedy messiah, the two new additions to the cast, Paget Brewster and Keith David, fit in well, and the show has finally finally finally figured out how to use Chang to his best effect, as a walking non sequitur.
I love Community. I’m glad its back. And I still want that movie.