“How much can you improve Greendale before it stops being Greendale?”
That’s the question Abed (Danny Pudi) asks Greendale Community College’s new administrative consultant Frankie Dart (Paget Brewster) in the season six premiere of Community. And it’s a good question. While Abed is referring to the original relationship dynamics of members of his study group, which have morphed from a close-knit rag-tag group of students to a loose assemblage of teachers and students, the big Meta question with a capital M that is looming over this premiere is whether the behind-the-scenes details influencing the beloved cult-classic series will change the overall DNA of what makes Community the show that fans have stuck by for the previous five seasons.
Honestly, it was a concern I had prior to watching this season’s first two episodes, “Ladders” and “Lawnmower Maintenance & Postnatal Care.” And not without reason. Since the beginning of season five, the Series That Could has had a whole host of cast shake-ups: Chevy Chase appeared only in one cameo in season five, while Donald Glover left after five episodes. At the start of season six, Yvette Nicole Brown’s Shirley has moved on, while Jonathan Banks’ Professor Hickey, a new addition to the cast last year, is gone without a mention to his absence.
And the biggest elephant in the room is whether or not the Community fans knew and loved could survive those changes on top of its move from TV to the Internet on Yahoo! Screen. Would the new platform alter the show into something unrecognizable?
As it turns out, our fears were without warrant. Community season six, if the premiere is any indication, is a master class by showrunner Dan Harmon and the rest of the cast crew on how a sitcom can grow and evolve while still delivering what made a series what it is at its heart.
“Ladders” hits the ground running, with Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) reintroducing the audience to the rag-tag group of misfits we’ve grown to know and love for the past five seasons. New and older viewers are caught up on who Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), Abed, and Annie Edison (Alison Brie) are while giving a quick update of their situations when we meet them again at the start of the season. Annie and the crew saved Greendale by addressing its myriad of problems last year… almost. Annie neglected the dozens of Frisbees on the roof of the school, which eventually causes a cave-in that could cost the college thousands of dollars in liability. While Jeff, Chang (Ken Jeong), and the other members of the Save Greendale committee assemble to decide on a plan of attack, the Dean introduces the group to Frankie, who has been brought in to tackle the school’s issues from a more professional bent.
The addition of Frankie is a surprisingly welcome change to the cast of characters as the administrative consultant that Greendale has obviously needed for years. Brewster plays the role with a just enough no-nonsense that makes her effective at her job, but at the same time with such an intensity that shows that her disarmingly assertive nature might make her the right fit for the school. She also fulfills a groundedness that Shirley did for the group dynamic, but in a way that’s more adversarial than nurturing. She plays a foil for the normally-reactive study group and gives someone for the Dean to clash with, which worked incredibly well for the character when he sparred with John Goodman’s Vice-Dean Laybourne. Frankie isn’t just the “new Shirley,” as Dean Pelton calls her, but a fully-realized character who brings a new dimension and a new set of eyes looking into the compulsively crazy campus.
And really, the evolution of the cast as exemplified by Brewster’s joining the gang is commentary on how Community can continue to grow without losing its heart. Jeff Winger can still be selfish, but will put aside his petty concerns for the school when it really counts. Chang, who’s been a tad insane in recent seasons, can become a voice of reason and sanity. And Abed can turn the magnifying glass on himself to learn where he grow beyond the niche personality he’s constructed.
Pulling something like this off can be a crapshoot. That’s always a danger, as seen in the awkward ninth season of Scrubs. However, “Ladders” illuminates the best parts of what made the best episodes of Community so special: mixing the insane and meta with a heart and a message of growing within the confines of your tribe and community.
So, yes Abed, Greendale can improve and still be Greendale. And so can Community.
- Chang questioning “Do any of you white people notice what’s happening to this group?” was self-referential and made me guffaw out loud.
- Look out for a special guest star Yahoo! Screen asked reviewers not to reveal.
- Frankie describes Greendale as “weird, passionate, and gross. Like the good John Belushi.” Sounds about right.
- A sampling of classes at Greendale includes “When Is It Okay to Shake a Baby” and “Magic Wand Class.”