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Community is back, and we miss Shirley more than we thought possible

Dean Pelton (Jim Rash, left) and Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) bid farewell to their new acquaintance Elroy (Keith David). This being television, it won't be for long.
Dean Pelton (Jim Rash, left) and Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) bid farewell to their new acquaintance Elroy (Keith David). This being television, it won't be for long.
Yahoo Screen

Community's sixth season premiered Tuesday, March 17. Here's a discussion between Vox's Todd VanDerWerff and Dylan Matthews on the first two episodes and where the season is headed from here.

Todd: Pretty much every review of Community season six has focused on how the show is intensely aware of how different it seems now that it's abandoned the inhospitable lands of NBC for the warmer climes of Yahoo Screen. (Yes, I will insist on calling it that, because I am needlessly pedantic.) That list of reviews includes mine.

What's interesting is how "Ladders" and "Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care," the two episodes that make up the premiere, both seem at once energized by the prospect of starting over and a little terrified by it.

It would be one thing if Yahoo had contracted creator Dan Harmon and executive producer Chris McKenna to just come up with a new show, maybe even one set at Greendale. It's quite another for the two to have to resort to some vague half measures, sticking to the four core cast members they have and adding Paget Brewster and Keith David around the edges. Heck, by the end of the second episode, we don't even know if David's character — a tech entrepreneur named Elroy — will be back. We just know his face and have the Dean's word that he will return.

So I'll start there, Dylan. Does this semi-Community feel like "real" Community to you? Are you just grateful for the show's continued existence? Or do you miss Shirley and fear the howling existential void, as we all must?

Dylan: Honestly, I wasn't expecting to miss Shirley as much as I did. With some rare exceptions, like her conflict with Abed when they try to make a religious film together in "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples," or the reveal in "Mixology Certification" of a past drinking problem that delights her friends but fills her with shame, it mostly felt like she existed outside the main dynamics of the study group.

At worst, she veered into a caricature of a Christian zealot that wouldn't plausibly be friends with the rest of the gang (remember when she tried to give Annie a surprise baptism?), but more often it just felt like the writers were struggling to think up plots to give her, a problem that also came up frequently with Chang and Pierce. There were times I wondered whether a show focused on Troy, Abed, Jeff, Britta, and Annie would work better and spend less time on unproductive B-plots.

But in Shirley's absence, the show's focus narrows in a way that concerns me slightly (and not just because her and Troy's departures have left the cast substantially less diverse, a point Chang and Abed raise in the pilot). While Jeff and Britta are older than Abed and Annie, they're all young adults with similar sets of values and similar kinds of problems: What do I actually want to do with my life? What do I want out of a partner? These aren't Shirley questions. Shirley knows what she's doing with her life; she entered Greendale to start a restaurant, and as of season five she had done just that. She knows what she wants out of a partner; her husband Andre failed her deeply, but since season two they've been firmly committed to each other.

Having her — and Pierce, for that matter — around allowed the show to be about more than just twenty- or thirtysomething singles' problems. This is a show about college, but it's not college-set sitcom Undeclared, and the students are varied enough in background that it can strive for a universalism in its themes that regular college shows can't. I'm not ready to say it's given up on that just yet, but the world of Community feels noticeably smaller.

Community

Should we have talked about Britta (Gillian Jacobs) riding around on the Green Machine? Probably. Did we? No. (Yahoo Screen)

Todd: That's what's so interesting to me about Frankie and Elroy, though. They're dealing with the problems of early and late middle age, respectively. Frankie worries she's led her whole life one way and it might have been the wrong way, only to find that her particular skill set is just what Greendale needs. And Elroy is looking back on life, mostly, and finding it's a life that's been wasted. Except he's got to keep living, which is a very Community thing to be dealing with.

Dan Harmon is nothing if not someone who thinks, endlessly, about how the various elements of his show fit together. In Frankie and Elroy, he's created two characters who plug various holes in the show's setup. It's a bit crude, but it works more than it doesn't, I think.

Dylan: I'm reserving judgment on Elroy — he's only been in a small part of one episode at this point, after all — but I'm impressed with how well Frankie's personality works as a springboard for Harmon-style one-liners. Take her discovery of the speakeasy the gang constructs in the premiere: "In what world do you see this as covert enough to require tattling? You built a bar in a school. There was lumber involved." That's a great punch line on its own terms but also feels earned, and supported by her characterization. She is exactly the kind of person who sees a ridiculous display like that and immediately moves on to discussing the details of its construction.

But I'm somewhat skeptical that her concerns are that dissimilar from the rest of the group's. Jeff pegs her as the "new Abed"; Joshua Alston from the A.V. Club compared her role to Ben Wyatt's initial role on Parks and Recreation, as the outsider competent adult who points out how insane the show's internal universe is but also gets gradually seduced by that universe. There's something to both of those analogies, but I like to think of Frankie as bizarro-world Jeff Winger, a vision of what his life could have been like if he had played by the rules and didn't take shortcuts. Intriguingly, that hasn't made her a successful professional; she works for Greendale, after all, and seems to be too self-serious to nail a job interview anywhere more respectable. ("Who talks like that?" one prospective employer asks. "Why would anyone hire someone so pompous?")

This is somewhat off-topic, but deeper thematics aside, I was impressed by how outright funny both episodes were, especially the first. The entire "Ladders" class sequence — complete with the bow-tie-clad professor shotgunning a beer and screaming, "WHO WANTS TO SEE THE LADDERS PROFESSOR GO HIGHER?" — could stand up with the best scenes of the first three seasons.

Todd: Here. I GIF'd that for you, because this is the internet and that's how we do things here.

Community

(Yahoo Screen)

Dylan: You've seen more sitcoms than I have, but in my experience raw laughs are the first thing to go as a show declines, followed by the deterioration of the relationships and ideas that keep the series together. That's roughly what happened in season four of Community. So seeing jokes consistently land in these episodes was very heartening.

Todd: Absolutely. But I have always taken as received wisdom something I read a long time ago from former Entertainment Weekly critic (and current writer for many great publications) Bruce Fretts: shows are good through season five or episode 100, whichever comes first.

Fretts' Rule holds up remarkably well. It's hard to think of too many shows that went past one of these marks (or, God forbid, both of them) and stayed at their highest level of quality the whole way through. The Sopranos, for instance, finished strong but had a whole lull at the start of its extended sixth season, and Parks and Recreation had a solid final season but got a bit lost in the seasons preceding that.

Fretts' Rule makes an exception, however, that applies to Community in interesting ways: a show can be good through season five or episode 100, unless there's substantial cast turnover. There's certainly been a good amount of that on Community.

Changing up the characters allows the writers to find new ways to tell stories and jokes. (Examples: Cheers, which switched female leads midway through; Mary Tyler Moore, which switched up female supporting characters midway through; Law & Order, which was always changing everything.) Even if losing all those members of the original cast feels like a problem right now, it could end up being Community's saving grace.