It’s an insufficiently appreciated fact that for five seasons, television’s most highly conceptual, self-referential, pulverize-the-fourth-wall show was carried by a television dinosaur – NBC, the oldest of the big broadcasters. That show was “Community,” and while NBC may not have been entirely happy with it – the seasons got shorter and farther apart, and the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, was banished for Season 4 – the network stuck it out for 97 episodes of sometimes forced but often sweetly hilarious metacomedy.
It pulled the plug last year, however, and now Harmon (who returned as show runner in Season 5) has taken his series to one of the larger but more remote outposts of online video. A sixth season of “Community” began this week with two episodes at Yahoo’s free video site, Yahoo Screen. New episodes will be posted weekly.
And darned if Harmon, free of the light reins of NBC, doesn’t double down on the self-referentiality in his first Yahoo episode. “Community” story lines have often had little in the way of a story or real-world action, but the Season 6 premiere may set a new standard: The entire episode is essentially about the addition of a new character to the show.
That character is Francesca Dart (Paget Brewster), a new “administrative consultant” at the fictional Greendale Community College. She takes the place in the show’s central cast of Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), the singing single mom, but she’s not allowed to sit in Shirley’s seat at the study-group table. It’s no problem, however, when she takes the seat of the unlamented Pierce (Chevy Chase, who left after Season 4).
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Francesca is a hardheaded problem solver, and Abed (Danny Pudi), the show’s monomaniacal Ariel (the sprite, not the mermaid), gets right to the point with her: “My umbrella concern is that you as a character represent the end of what I used to call ‘our show,’ which was once an unlikely family of misfit students and is now a pretty loose-knit group of students and teachers.” (In that clever way that “Community” has, he also provides a precis of Seasons 1-5.)
“All right,” she tells him, “this is the first I’ve heard that I’m a character on a show, I’m excited to be one, but I agree I’ll be a boring one. Quirks are not my strong suit.”
It looks mighty twee on the page, but as “Community” fans know, Harmon – who actually takes a writing credit on the premiere – has a knack for turning countercultural whimsicality into affecting, fast-paced comedy. He pulls it off again in the premiere, which is funny moment to moment while also being a thoughtful referendum on the nature and style of “Community” and whether it needs to change.
Of course, it isn’t the same show – Brown, Chase and particularly Donald Glover, as Abed’s foil, Troy, are missed. Scenes in the new season can feel a little sparse. As Francesca, Brewster is game, but she’s not the loosest of comedians, and it’s not clear how well she’ll mesh with the core players, Pudi, Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs and Alison Brie, who have a seemingly telepathic rapport.
At least one key thing hasn’t changed, though: Jim Rash, as the charmingly flamboyant Dean Pelton, still makes you laugh every time he walks on screen. The season’s second episode is a little flat overall, but the scenes in which Rash is strapped into a pair of cut-rate virtual-reality goggles, navigating a computer landscape out of the “Tron” era, are worth the effort of finding Yahoo Screen.