Community has always been about a group of misfits who find themselves in a miserable place only to come together against, well, modest odds. So perhaps it's fitting that the show has now ended up at Yahoo, the tech company whose brightest stars go nowhere.
Community is the start of Yahoo's venture into TV-length original series
Last year, Community should have been due for a resurgence. It had just been reunited with its creator after a season away, but instead, the show found itself losing two main actors and all sense of plot and purpose. The season had its highlights, but it was largely a lifeless affair. You could blame NBC for a lot of Community’s problems in its embattled five seasons, but by the end, you couldn't blame the network for canceling it.
That’s where Yahoo found the show: all but dead. Last year, it agreed to give Community a new home at the eleventh hour, right as the cast's contracts were set to expire. The pairing is all too fitting. Both Community and Yahoo are desperate, and both are looking for a new start.
Community, quite literally, is going to be part of a new start for Yahoo. Yahoo has been building toward the launch of TV-style original content for a year now, and that all kicks off on Tuesday with the release of the first episode of Community's new season. Even though it was never a huge ratings success, Community is still a meaningful name for Yahoo to grab. It has a cult following. Critics loved its early seasons. And it's already brought Yahoo good will and tons of attention. The only remaining question is: will it also bring Yahoo a good show?
Having seen the first two episodes of the new season — which were provided in fuzzy, pre-release video streams — I can say that Yahoo should be pretty pleased. In its new season, Community feels like it's taken a moment to breathe and collect itself, and it's now trying to take a firm step forward again.
There is a bit of bad news for the show coming right into episode one: it's lost yet another main cast member — this time, Yvette Nicole Brown, who played Shirley. Also gone is Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks, who was brought on last season to replace Chevy Chase but never really fit in (he's also busy with Better Call Saul). So the show is still without a sensible premise and is now down to four core characters, but things are different this time around. This time, rather than trying to force the change, Community is willing to talk about its problems.
The first episode of Season 6 is self-referential in all the right ways
Of course, that's all too sensible for this show. Community has always been self-referential, constantly commenting on story tropes and sloppy narrative techniques, and here it does just that while looking at itself in order to level with us.
During the first episode, a stern new school administrator named Frankie, played by Paget Brewster, walks up to Abed and asks if he has concerns about anything. Naturally, Abed discusses the show in response. "I'm worried you're not distinct enough from Annie, both in terms of physicality and purpose," he says. "I can't determine if you have any specific flaw, quirk, or point of view that makes you a creative addition to the group."
So yes, things are a mess, but Community knows how we're feeling. There are just enough nods like this to give you faith that the show knows what it needs to do to pull itself together. There's also more of the wordplay, jokes that veer way off on tangents, and out-of-nowhere entertainment references that helped to make this show so fun in this first place.
Can Yahoo actually get anyone to watch?
That's not to say the show doesn't have other things to worry about. Its core characters still feel like caricatures, and Yahoo's lack of time constraints seems to have made these episodes a touch less sharp (each runs about four minutes longer than usual). But, altogether, it seems like Community is in a better place than when we left it last year. It’s starting to feel like itself again.
That’s good news for fans, but it's also good news for Yahoo. According to The New York Times, Yahoo's recent push into "digital magazines" (read: websites) and online video may not be going as well as it hoped. Its highest-profile venture has been hiring Katie Couric as an interview anchor — reportedly paying her $5 million per year — but the Times says that, as of last June, "Yahoo’s users weren’t clicking on the videos." (Yahoo paints a different picture, telling Backchannel that Couric’s videos were off to a "slow start" but are now growing. Its magazines are reportedly growing as well.)
Netflix and Amazon have already proven that TV shows don't have to be on TV: people are willing to watch them wherever, as long as they're good. Yahoo already has a huge audience to put shows in front of, which means that it may just be fighting for quality. But that's still an uphill battle. Community probably isn't going to gain many fans in its sixth season — especially since Yahoo doesn't have the rights to air any of the previous five. And Yahoo’s next original TV show, Sin City Saints, is a comedy that doesn’t look very funny.
Yahoo lucked out by getting the chance to pick up Community. Getting started with original TV shows isn’t easy — just look at how many failed series Amazon had before it found Transparent — and launching with Community means Yahoo gets to skip some of that. Whether it works to prime the pump for the rest of Yahoo’s series is, ultimately, up to what Yahoo does next. Either way, at least Community got that sixth season.