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Saturday, March 21, 2015

COMMUNITY Climbs "Ladders" on Yahoo Screen

Article originally published as TV Review: 'Community' - Season Six Premiere 'Ladders' and "Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care' on Blogcritics.

Community is back! NBC tried to kill it after a mere five seasons, prior to its prophetic fulfillment of the hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie, but Yahoo Screen has revived the odd comedy about the teachers and students at Greendale Community College, and the first two half-hour episodes are live on their website today. The show’s budget seems to have increased a bit, with more exterior shots than I remember seeing in awhile! Plus, the episodes are no longer confined to a strict twenty-two minutes, which gives them room to breathe, and the writers are using those additional moments wisely.

C3Some significant things have changed when the first episode “Ladders” begins. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) has moved away to take care of her father (like the real Yvette, who is now starring in the less time-intensive The Odd Couple), and then got herself wrapped up in solving crimes with a man in a wheelchair (unlike the real Yvette, presumably). The idea that Shirley is starring in a spinoff makes sense for the universe as it exists in Abed’s (Danny Pudi) head, and even provides a fun little tag with Steven Weber (Wings, Helix) so fans can see her one last time. But her presence is deeply missed. The group protecting her seat in the library and running her sandwich shop in her absence illustrates that, and makes one hope her absence is temporary. There is, after all, still a movie needed to finish the hashtag, and if she, Troy, and Pierce don’t return, along with the large recurring cast, it will be most regrettable.

Hickey (Jonathan Banks) and Duncan (John Oliver) are nowhere to be seen because Banks is starring in Better Call Saul on AMC and Oliver has Last Week Tonight on HBO, though neither really feel like a part of the main ensemble, anyway.We do see Abed polish Duncan’s nameplate, so presumably he is still around. Still, because they are essential in founding the Save Greendale Committee, and Duncan has been on the show off and on since season one, I miss them.

They are replaced by Frankie Dart (Paget Brewster, Criminal Minds), who is said to be ‘white Shirley’ when the minority members of the group feel their numbers slipping, but is more like ‘grown up Annie,’ an administrator who likes the weird people, and seeks to keep things running smoothly. Frankie is completely unlike any other character on Community, including Brewster’s previous role on the show, in that she likes being boring. This completely shifts the dynamic of the ensemble, since it seems Frankie will be a central player in season six.

The first thing Frankie does is eliminate some of the kooky, wasteful things at Greendale. For instance, there’s a class called “Ladders,” the episode’s namesake, that she feels is a waste of time. In order to push her agenda, she latches onto Abed, who likes the idea of her grounding the school in reality, something he sometimes seeks to do to himself.

C2Is this the end of Abed as we know him? For five seasons, Abed struggles with the fourth wall, a character seemingly self-aware that he’s on television, even as his friends just see him as weird, which is saying something when he is compared to the other bozos around. While Frankie does try to break him of making montages, though, she does seem to stop short of ruining Abed, so that alone makes me think she’ll be a good addition to Community, rather than a villain.

Jeff (Joel McHale), Annie (Alison Brie), and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) don’t welcome Frankie as easily as Abed does, opening a speak-easy underneath Shirley’s when Frankie bans alcohol on campus. When Frankie eventually breaks them up, though, it’s not because she’s just found out about the project. This is another reason I’m not afraid Frankie will screw up Community, as Jeff and Abed end up wooing her back to campus after she quits. She may seem normal, but is weird in her own ways and is just trying to help. Thankfully that is realized in time to keep her.

There is a small part of “Ladders” that makes me wonder what the series is planning for the rest of the season. Garrett (Erik Charles Nielsen) is glimpsed glaring at Frankie and the group, as if he has some big beef with them. Maybe he’s mad about the Frisbee tidal wave that swept him away after the Save Greendale Committee failed to clear the roof of the plastic toys, their single failure since inception? But Leonard (Richard Erdman) scares him off and offers a thumbs up to the camera. Is Community‘s most frequent recurring player protecting out heroes? I want to know more about this interaction.
The second half hour, “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care,” does not go back to things as usual, though I’m not sure Community ever really has a definable status quo. Instead, it has two main stories, one of which uncovers a long-secret conspiracy, and introduces viewers to the second major character to join the cast this year, alongside Frankie.

The conspiracy story involves Britta’s parents (Clue‘s Martin Mull and Lesley Ann Warren), who have been secretly funding Britta’s life through her friends. Apparently, throughout the run of the entire series, anytime Britta has been borrowing money from the rest of the group, she’s really been taking it from mom and dad, whom everyone else is familiar with. They know Britta needs to rebel, but they have found a way to support her anyway. The secret comes out when Britta moves in with Annie and Abed and is presented with a brand-new sleeper sofa.

I love the idea that there’s been something happening all this time on Community that has never been mentioned. I don’t know if anyone could ever go back and pick up any dropped clues that this is going on, but it seems perfectly in keeping with the show’s tenor to find this out now, as well as to have everyone except Britta treat it like it’s no big deal. Plus, “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” has great actors playing Britta’s parents, so there’s little reason to complain about the story.

C1In the second major plot, The Dean (Jim Rash) buys a virtual reality system that the school can’t afford. Jeff and Frankie try to return it, but The Dean won’t come out of his fantasy world. Finally, Jeff tracks down the inventor and seller of the unit, Elroy Patashnik (Keith David, The Cape, Platoon), who not only refunds Greendale, but decides to enroll as a student since he’s not doing anything better with his life.

The Dean is always getting into ridiculous situations, and this is just the latest one. I do think “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” wastes an opportunity to show all of the characters in a new format, as they have done with clay-mation and 8-bit-animation, among other styles, in the past, but it’s still a fun little bit that is consistent with Community in general.

I also like Elroy. We haven’t yet seen him in the Save Greendale Committee, which he will surely join, but he already seems quite intriguing. Here, we have someone with world experience and supreme intelligence who has wasted his life, which makes the college seem like the perfect place for him. He’s not mean and rich, like Pierce. Instead, he’s worked hard and just not made it. That’s a story many of the main cast members can relate to, and Elroy comes at it from a fresh angle.

Besides the obvious stuff, Community drops what feels like a hundred little gags and one-liners into “Ladders” and “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care,” often referencing past events on the show, and just delivering its trademark humor in general (not to mention a great cameo from Nathan Fillion). The series remains darker than it used to be, creator Dan Harmon having returned after being fired for season four with a more somber atmosphere, which he’s translated into the natural aging process for the characters. I think these new installments are close enough to what’s come before them to satisfy fans, while still allowing forward movement to keep the show from growing stagnant. Two episodes into season six, Community feels very alive, if possibly building towards an ending.

The first two episodes of Community are available now on Yahoo Screen, with a new half-hour dropping every Tuesday. Check back on Blogcritics for my weekly coverage of future installments.

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