Let’s be honest for a moment. Community doesn’t need a sixth season. Really, it only needed a fifth in order to wash the nasty taste of the fourth out of our mouth, but despite some occasionally memorable episodes and excellent performances by Jonathan Banks and John Oliver, last season’s version of Community had, at times, the same sense of humor that the show always had, but little else to recommend it. That may sound like enough, but it was still a letdown given what the show had been. Reasons for the cast to stick around Greendale were at best half-baked, even as the actual actors fled the show, and as the first episode of the sixth season runs its theme song—which feels more poignant with every disappointment—half the credits are filled with random illustrations because not enough people are around. Yes, this is still Community, but only barely.
I don’t really blame Community’s cast and crew for what happened to the show. Its fourth season really did screw things up, and what’s more, it did so at a particularly vital time for the show. Community college degrees only take so long to achieve, even in the most ridiculous of situations, and unfortunately for what the show was trying to accomplish Community was always built around a premise. Slowly that premise has gotten dismantled, but without it giving some sort of structure to the show, what’s left is just the accumulation of quirks and meta-commentary, making it into essentially the parody of itself that critics have accused it of being since day one.
All of which leads us to Season Six’s first episode, “Ladders,” which begins with a sequence heavy on CGI that looks so bad, Sharknado would be embarrassed to use it. What’s worse about this gag of so many frisbees landing on Greendale’s roof that the building collapses, though, is that it’s not just ugly, it’s also lazy and not at all funny. “Not a great way for the season to kick off” would be an understatement. This happens over a meta-announcement filling us in on what the cast is up to, “catching everyone up,” and we’re already into an insular world. Before we even get past the theme song, the message is clear: this season of Community is going to be for fans only, and in-jokes are going to trump actual, humorous jokes.
The Dean, due to insurance-related reasons, brings in a consultant, played by Paget Brewster, to solve problems around campus. I’m a big fan of Paget’s and as an actress she certainly fits the mold for Community’s world, but she’s also given very little to do here. No one likes her because her ideas aren’t stupid, except for Abed, who understands that good ideas are in fact good ideas. Yet for this story to work, everyone in the cast (including Abed, strangely enough), needs to act out of character. Jeff, for instance, is dismissive of her instead of being happy about having someone else doing his job for him. Also: he’s apparently become alcoholic since we last saw him, which feels pretty cheap. With no more daddy issues for him to work out, instead of coming up with something organically, suddenly he’s a new character.
Most of the cast teams up to work against Paget’s character, who eventually finds herself out of a job, and the school functions briefly without insurance (along the way there’s a speakeasy, but aside from featuring the cast in costumes, this is pretty much wasted). Things go haywire and Annie gets injured, but all of this feels like it was designed for story first, and characters second. When Community works, its premises and characters mesh perfectly, but if there are problems, it’s generally because it needs characters to do certain things that just aren’t natural in order to get a story to hit every beat. That’s exactly what happens here, and instead of the fun of hanging out with characters we enjoy, it feels like we’re being led around by the nose. This also undercuts a lot of the show’s humor, because it’s distracting when characters don’t act like themselves. It just feels wrong, and that’s a sentiment that can really sum up the entire episode.
Ultimately, Community has written itself into a hole that I’m not sure it will be able to dig out of. Its characters are so predictable that either a story feels rote, like almost everything from the fourth season where they were just allowed to play broad stereotypes, or they go this route and act out roles that aren’t natural for these characters. Neither way really works, and the only saving grace of many episodes last season was the pathos of real storylines from the past and the sheer quality of joke writing. The fact is that the increasing cartoonishness of the show hurt it, most likely irreparably, and the result is an episode like “Ladders.” Yes, it’s funny that there’s a course that’s just about ladders, but it’s also kind of predictable. Wouldn’t it be more surprising if, for instance, Greendale had a real course?
Paget’s character seemed, at first, like an attempt at solving this problem. Community briefly flirts with giving her a Frank Grimes (Homer’s enemy from The Simpsons) sort of role, punching a hole in Community’s insularity, but instead it chickens out and says that she’s in fact a quirky character, too. No, we don’t know how she’ll react to every situation yet, but it’s hard not to feel like after two or three more characters, she’ll feel as tired as the rest of the cast.
The sad thing is that Shirley’s non-existent spin-off looked a lot more exciting than what we had here. It would be nice to see Community start Season Six off as strong as Season Five, but as it stands it feels like the show isn’t sure why it’s really hanging around, either. Yes, new wacky hijinks will ensue with every episode, but if no one in the cast is really the same character they were in Season Two, do we really care?