There are but a few truths held sacred by TV fans. The Simpsons has gone downhill, but those first seven (or eight) seasons were something else. The Wire's final season was fine, but paled in comparison to what came before. Community's first three seasons are unmatched by its later efforts in terms of sheer creative spirit and comedic force.
And now that the show has probably ended its run, due to the fact that its actors are too expensive to afford on a cheap TV budget anymore, that opinion seems likely to solidify. But that opinion is wrong.
See, with season six, the people behind Community produced something that matches up to — and even surpasses — those first three seasons in some ways. They just did it off in the hinterlands of Yahoo Screen, which closed up shop shortly after Community completed its run, making it very hard to find the sixth season of the show.
But good news! You can now watch season six at Hulu, which has a much better player than the frequently stalled Yahoo player. And if you were ever a fan of this show, you should seek it out.
Season six wasn't as inventive as the first three seasons. It sometimes seemed a little confused that it even existed. It wasn't as funny, although there were still had great jokes in every episode. Most installments played like sequels to other episodes that aired throughout the series' run. In short, it had a lot of things stacked against it.
But season six dug in deep and delivered something weird and different from the prior five seasons. Instead of going for broke on comedy, Community went for broke on being beautiful, and that made all the difference.
Indeed, it was the show's best season since its second.
Season six probably reflects the show NBC thought it was getting when it renewed Community for season two
Central to Community's mythology of itself is the fact that NBC, the network that originally commissioned it and aired its first five seasons, didn't really know what to do with it.
The network yanked the show from its schedule in season three, then ordered only 13 episodes each for seasons four and five, after ordering 22 episodes or more for each of the first three seasons. It also played some role in the removal of series creator and showrunner Dan Harmon between the third and fourth seasons — but didn't stand in the way when Harmon was rehired for season five.
Ultimately, though, NBC actually aired Community for five years. What's more, it gave the show a hefty promotional platform early in its run, when it aired the show after then-hit The Office for a handful of episodes. NBC didn't do everything it could have to make Community a hit, but it also wasn't actively discouraging the prospect.
But the network also clearly didn't understand what it had in Community. It seemingly kept wanting the show to be a big-hearted, mainstream sitcom about a bunch of lovable misfits at a community college — Cheers, but with jokes about how the characters knew they were on TV. And it sort of had that in season one, the show's warmest and most accessible to a larger audience.
That all changed in season two. What Community wanted to be was a wild cult show that frequently abandoned its template to do elaborate movie homages or allow Harmon to riff on whatever philosophical ideas he was interested in that week. In the tension between what NBC thought it was getting and what it actually got, much of Community was formed.
What's downright odd, then, is that once the show left NBC, it essentially became what NBC thought it was getting. Yes, season six still features the wild conceptual episodes Community is now known for, but it also contains far more grounded adventures that simply tried to treat Greendale as an organic world, a place where the show's characters have found each other — and in each other found a home.
And what makes season six so terrific is how it wraps all of that in a surprisingly resonant thematic blanket. Season six is about impermanence. It's about leaving home.
How much change is too much change?
Community's fifth and sixth seasons are marked by cast change after cast change. Members of the original ensemble cast departed for other ventures, and even some of the new actors brought in to replace them similarly went on to other things. The show's low budget has never allowed it to develop new characters who could permanently replace the ones who'd left, which essentially turned the show's central study table into a revolving door.
Season six leans into this. With the original cast of eight characters whittled down to just five — and only four of those in the show's core ensemble — it was forced to introduce yet another set of new arrivals who seemed destined to last just a season, in Paget Brewster's Frankie Dart and Keith David's Elroy Patashnik. The two characters brought fun new energies to the group, but it wasn't difficult to see parallels between Frankie and Elroy and the characters they replaced.
Because this is Community, the show addressed this, sometimes endlessly. But it also slowly turned the story of the season into one about whether protagonist Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a man who only enrolled at Greendale to get his degree, is destined to be the only person left at the school after everybody else gets their shit together and moves on. His friends are all mulling other opportunities as the season ends — as are the actors who play them. Is it worth keeping everybody around, just because Jeff wants them there?
This level of questioning — the exploration of what Community's characters need in order to be emotionally and psychologically whole — has always been encoded in the show's DNA. But season six explicitly examines what it might take to make Greendale the best it could possibly be. The school becomes an idyllic oasis, of sorts, that not all of the characters can stay at forever. Paradise is only paradise if it doesn't last.
Don't worry, there are still plenty of jokes
As Harmon himself has gotten older, Community has dealt more and more with notions of mortality, especially as Jeff has approached and then passed 40. And season six laces this theme into every single story it tells: Abed (Danny Pudi), who sees his world as an extended TV show, is forced to grapple with the origins of his need to turn everything into a story, and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) finally forgives her parents and, by extension, herself (if only in increments).
Of course, these weightier storylines are tossed together with some really great jokes, if fewer great jokes than in previous seasons. Harmon, his co-executive producer Chris McKenna, and the rest of Community's writers often seem dedicated to throwing their comedic muscle behind long, weird riffs that have very little to do with the episode at hand, as in a lengthy closing scene involving a man who ordered a giant fiberglass hand on the internet slowly spelling out the tragedy that led him to this point.
But when it comes to Greendale, the overall tone of season six is something along the lines of "wistful." Harmon appears to be trying to capture something that's already gone, and in the season (and possibly series) finale, he gives every character some sort of ending, as Jeff finally makes peace with the fact that even if he's forever stuck at Greendale, watching things change around him, he can be happy like that.
Change is inevitable, both for humans and for TV shows, season six argues, but it doesn't have to destroy you. You can have it all. You just can't have it all forever.
The sixth season of Community is streaming in its entirety on Hulu.