By Robert Lloyd
Los Angeles Times
When last we saw “Community” nearly a year ago, Greendale Community College had narrowly missed being sold to Subway, the sandwich people. Typically, it was a metaphor for the show itself, which had struggled to survive throughout the years; “Save Greendale!” was the fifth season’s hashtaggy theme.
Also, the show was then on NBC, a television network. It returns to the world this week via Yahoo Screen, which is something you need the Internet to watch.
But unlike Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu Plus, it doesn’t require a subscription. (It’s free, people! Free!) Apart from the venue and some changes in the cast, it is the “Community” you may know and maybe love. (I am ardently fond of it myself.)
That the series lasted as long as it did on broadcast TV does seem something of a miracle. It was the last to premiere of a Thursday night group of self-aware ensemble comedies that also included “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” that were for a time all that NBC had going for it in the way of prestige. Mostly low-rated, they shared a golden moment when the geeks and the weirdos were allowed run of the school.
“A show set in a community college,” to steal a description of the show from the show itself, “Community” continues to achieve a tricky balance of cynicism, sentiment and surreality. Series commander Dan Harmon, who seems from afar to present an unusual mix of dishevelment and perfectionism, and who spent the fourth season fired from his own creation, maintains a firm hand on the wheel.
As before, it stars Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Dani Pudi, Alison Brie, Ken Jeong and Jim Rash as a collection of geeks and weirdos allowed run of the school. Gone from the cast are Yvette Nicole Brown, who played Shirley, along with last year’s recurring players John Oliver and Jonathan Banks.
New regulars offset the loss. Keith David (lately of “Enlisted”) brings back the AARP demo that Chevy Chase once represented and, ethnically speaking, redresses the loss of Brown and the earlier loss of Donald Glover. As Jeong’s Ben Chang asks early in the season premiere, “Have any of you white people noticed what’s happened to this group? Do Abed and I need to be concerned?”
Paget Brewster plays Frankie, a financial consultant assigned by Rash’s Dean to work with the other characters’ study group/committee room, to their near-unanimous disapproval. At first, she seems to come from a more conventional, well-organized reality — her even-tempered effect is something new for “Community” — but we will later see that this is not exactly the case.
“My umbrella concern is that you as a character represent the end of what I used to call ‘our show,’” Abed (Pudi) tells her cautiously.
“This is the first I’ve heard that I’m a character on a show,” says Frankie — who is, of course, a character on a show — and suggests that “Good shows change, I assume — personally, I don’t own a TV.”
“Community” is not the first show to make a point of its own artifice. But something special does happen here; the show lives in consciousness of its own construction in a kind of existential but also dramatically meaningful way.
Somehow, with all its genre parodies, cultural allusions and self-referential knowingness — not despite, but because of them — it becomes a show about the struggle for authenticity and connection, as lived both by the characters within and the creators without it.