Community is a mutant version of itself now.
Watching the one-hour, sixth-season premiere (now on Yahoo Screen after five years on boring old conventional "television" via NBC) is like watching one of those time-lapse videos of the snake emerging from its old skin, shimmering in the sun. It's similar to what was, but you can also see the husk of what was left behind. This is a show constantly in the process of becoming something else.
Naturally, because this is Community, one of the most self-referential shows in TV history, the series is going to comment on that process over and over and over again. This is an episode that underlines every single change the show has undergone in red ink, then highlights it for good measure. Nobody is more aware that this could feel like something other than Community than the show itself is.
Shirley's gone after being on the show since season one? Let's suggest the character is living in her own spinoff. (Yvette Nicole Brown, the actor who played her, left to deal with some family issues and is now starring on The Odd Couple remake over on CBS.) The gloriously sarcastic Paget Brewster is joining the cast as a bit of a fussbudget? Let's discuss where she fits in the show's overall taxonomy (to say nothing of sitcom taxonomy as a whole). Keith David, he of the wonderful deep bass voice, is also here? Let's tie his return to an over-the-top gimmick that might have taken over the episode in days gone by but is now shunted off to the side of things.
This being Community, however, all of this change and mutation and growth is buried in one major theme — maturation and growing up. And this being Community, that theme is mostly expressed via jokes.
Here are five of the best jokes of the premiere — and ones that point the way forward for season six.
1) "Shirley went to look after her dad in Atlanta and ended up taking a job as a personal chef to a brilliant but troubled Southern detective."
This is said by Britta (Gillian Jacobs) in the season's first big scene around the study table. The study table is the center of Community. When I interviewed him after the show's second season, creator Dan Harmon said it was intended to be like the bar from Cheers. Thus, when a scene is set at the table, the audience knows to expect that it will be important, either underlining the episode's central ideas or introducing important information. This scene does both.
The biggest change Community has to deal with up front is that Brown is no longer in the cast. After the show lost Chevy Chase in season four and Donald Glover in season five, Brown's exit could feel like the show's essence is slowly draining out of it. (Also worth noting: Jonathan Banks and John Oliver, who were pseudo-regulars in season five, are not going to be in season six.) Thus, this study table scene needs to underline two things: the show is aware of how this looks, and it's going to make sure things stay vaguely similar to how they were before.
This is accomplished via Abed (Danny Pudi) suggesting that maybe Shirley has been spun off into her own show — the sort of conclusion TV-savvy Abed might jump to. Of course, she hasn't, since we're not all watching Shirley! right now. But at the same time, the scenario Britta lays out above is exactly what a spinoff might look like. It's a tricky way of acknowledging the episode's balancing act — change is inevitable; change is not always something we can see.
2) "Three themes emerged: weird, passionate, and gross. Now you want to hang on to that grouping."
This is said by Frankie (Brewster), one of the show's two new characters, in the same scene outlined above. She's telling the study group that Greendale needs to hang on to what makes it such a special place if it's going to survive the many struggles that have befallen it. (The latest is the collapse of the cafeteria roof under the weight of too many Frisbees thrown atop it.)
This is also how the show chooses to acknowledge that, well, it's airing on the internet now, on a platform many of its viewers never would have imagined as a platform for a show like Community. If change is inevitable, we still have things we wish wouldn't change. One of those things, in this case, is the idea of Greendale Community College being a wacky, weird place where wonderful things happen.
The question hanging over "Ladders" (the first episode in the premiere) is whether Community can still be Community with all of this change floating around it. Is there a point when Community mutates into another show entirely? Has it done so already, slowly but surely? The argument Frankie advances is that so long as the show is "weird, passionate, and gross," it will be fine. Brewster, a terrific comic actor, proves such an able addition to the cast that it's possible to feel very good about the state of things.
3) "My umbrella concern is that you as a character represent the end of what I used to call 'our show.'"
This is said by Abed to Frankie, in a longer discussion of how the show's character dynamics work and how she will fit into them. Abed has always served as a way for Harmon to talk about the show within the actual action of the show. Abed is aware, on some level, that he's a TV character and that everybody else around him is enacting the arcs of a TV show. Yet he plays along, rather than irreparably break his universe.
What's notable about this exchange is that it seems actively concerned about the thought that the level of change that has come to Greendale is unsustainable. Harmon and his fellow executive producer Chris McKenna, who wrote the episode, are toying around with the question of whether Community should even continue to exist — or exist as a show named Community, at the very least. From the first, Community has felt deliberately constructed, yet in the last few seasons — which have involved Harmon being fired and rehired, along with all of that cast turnover — the series has had to wing it more than usual.
Maybe the question isn't whether Shirley spun off to new territory. Maybe the question is whether the other characters all spun off into a new show entirely without realizing it, leaving Shirley and the other departed characters behind on what was once known as Community.
4) "You're describing a system for animals. Terrestrial slobs, bound to the Earth by their meaty feet. I designed a system for gods."
This is said in the premiere's second episode by our other new character, David's Elroy, a tech entrepreneur who wasted whatever talents he possessed on a virtual reality system that's, well, kinda crappy. The Dean's immersion in said VR system makes up what would have been the "gimmick" portion of the episode in prior seasons. Instead, it proves just an amusing footnote and a chance to spoof The Lawnmower Man, which is a thing that is so pointless to spoof that the VR scenes' existence becomes amusing, rather than enervating.
If the first episode is about whether Community can still be called Community, then the second episode is all about how impossible it is to actually grow up, especially when you're a character on a TV show who could break the series by changing too much. The idea Elroy talks about here is that of transcendence, of humanity literally becoming gods, capable of building and destroying worlds. It's the ultimate end of mutation and maturation, the last stop on our evolutionary process.
Of course, on the way there, we have to grow up. Which means ...
5) "It doesn't matter how mature we are or what resentments we carry. All that matters is that we're all going to die!"
This is said by Britta, a character the show often uses to discuss the major theme of the week, though it usually couches that theme in a joke about how she misses the point or is otherwise terrible. (Britta is my favorite character, largely for these reasons.)
But here's the big theme for the second episode, for the whole premiere, maybe even for the show as a whole — you can't escape change entirely, because the final change (death) comes to us all. So along the way, you need to adapt as best you can and preserve what relationships you find along the way. As such, the episode writes in Britta's parents, from whom she's been estranged for years, so that she might repair her relationship with them. (Her friends have been talking to them for years.)
You're going to die someday. The best way to spend life, then, is to form those bonds and make them as firm as possible, so that you'll have some sort of legacy after you go. And that's as true of individuals as it is of beloved cult sitcoms, resurrected for unlikely seasons on previously unknown online streaming platforms. Everything changes. Best to embrace it, rather than run away from it.
You can watch Community over at Yahoo Screen. Come back tomorrow, as Dylan Matthews and I chat about the season premiere.