There are few shows that have ridden the rollercoaster that Community has. When it first hit the airwaves on NBC, it very quickly accrued a small yet devoted audience. But after three seasons of subpar ratings, things started to go south. Showrunner Dan Harmon was unceremoniously replaced, reduced episode orders that essentially cut seasons in half became the norm, and the word “cancellation” was bandied about on a regular basis.
Harmon eventually returned to the fold for Season 5, the show’s final turn on network television. But after a brief period of residing in cancellation limbo, Yahoo! stepped in to bring it back to life once again. Season 6, having just kicked off this week, is now the latest in a long string of series reboots. Season 4 was its first with showrunners other than Dan Harmon. Season 5 marked the return of Harmon, beginning with an episode entitled “Repilot.” Season 6 marks yet another new beginning for a show that hasn’t felt whole in a long time, but it’s hard to deny that television is far better off with its continued existence in any form.
Where Community finds its real strength is in its almost oppressive level of self-awareness. Abed Nadir spends a large portion of Season 6’s premiere making offhand comments about all the ways the “show” he’s on needs to improve and evolve, voicing the very real concerns of us as an audience. It’s meta-comedy to the nth degree, and in some ways it reassures us that the show itself knows exactly what it is and what it’s doing.
This self-referential brand of comedy has come to define a show that’s had to “repilot” a lot in the last three to four years. Starting over is never easy, but this is a show that’s made a habit of it on a yearly basis. As AV Club said in their review of Season 6’s first episode, “Community has started each year like a cat that just emerged from a cursed burial plot.” It always ends up feeling a little uneven at the beginning, if not simply because square one is the order of the day. That being said, every time it’s gotten into a rhythm, this series has been a force to be reckoned with.
At its best, Community is a nuanced show about the way people co-exist. It only loses sight of this when it leans too hard into its more gimmicky aspects, and away from telling stories about human beings (it’s no coincidence that the mascot of the fictional community college is “the human being”). Season 6 appears to be trying to recapture this spirit, but still has a ways to go. It lost Yvette Nicole Brown and Jonathan Banks, and the study group we grew to know and love has dwindled down to four of its original seven characters. It remains to be seen how replacements like Paget Brewster and Keith David will mesh with the show as a whole, but early returns are at least promising.
In the midst of all this, it’s important to remember one simple fact: Community is back. Fans no longer have to constantly worry about network ratings prematurely ending the ride, Dan Harmon doesn’t have NBC looming over his shoulder anymore, and the spirit of the show remains largely intact. As the season stretches out, it’ll need to redevelop that creative rhythm that defined its greatest episodes, or find itself cancelled for the umpteenth time.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest