"You bet your sweet ass I saw Lawnmower Man! I consulted on it!"
So far, Community has done a pretty good job of distracting you away from its dwindling core cast of seven study group members. When Chevy left, it was barely noticeable, especially in the two S4 episodes that were shot after he was fired (sorry, "quit"), where they just had to say he was off somewhere with Gilbert - it wasn't really much different than the several episodes where Pierce would just disappear after the opening scene. Donald Glover's departure was bigger, but since they knew about it in advance they had time to give him a proper send-off (and unlike Pierce, he wasn't killed - though by now if those pirates haven't released him I guess he's probably dead. Or a pirate), and Hickey, plus the returning Duncan, were brought into the fold before he left, making the transition somewhat seamless.
But in the first thirty seconds of "Ladders," the show's sixth season premiere, the series feels truly smaller for the first time. Not only did we lose Hickey (and Duncan, again) in the off season, but Shirley is gone as well, and given a quick explanation why (she's become a chef for a detective in New Orleans; in real life, the actress just moved on to another sitcom that still airs on a traditional network). But before that, the Dean makes one of his traditional PA announcements where he catches up with the study group members... and it only takes like 10 seconds, as only Jeff, Britta, Abed and Annie remain. Since it's outside and our characters aren't actually speaking, it's easy to remember the pilot's similar scene where we see everyone for the first time, and it was at that moment that I started worrying that the show had lost too many actors over the past 15 episodes (yep, that's all it's been since the whole cast was accounted for).
However, the four members that DO remain have proven to be interesting enough to lead their own shows should the need arise, and it's not long before we're introduced to Frankie (Paget Brewster), who is brought to Greendale in order to truly "Save Greendale" after an incomplete task from last season's committee results in yet another school disaster. Interestingly, the only one who takes to her is Abed, while the others rebel against her attempts to clean up the school to the extent that it's "not Greendale anymore" (i.e. not weird). And when she removes all of the booze in the teacher's lounge, Jeff, Britta and Annie do the most obvious thing - they build a speakeasy bar in the basement and begin wearing prohibition era clothing. Like many a new character, the writers mine comedy gold simply by having Frankie be incredulous at how ridiculous Greendale is (when Britta believes someone tattled on their bar, she questions why this would require someone tattling - "Lumber was involved!"), and while Brewster sometimes trips on Dan Harmon's dialogue (her heart to heart with Britta in the second episode is particularly clunky), I'm fine with her addition as long as she never stops being confused and yet kind of game with the way the school works. When she breaks down the bar, she brings along four guys in silly police costumes (and one carrot one; "they ran out" of cop uniforms), figuring that's how they'd WANT their bar to get closed, if it came to that. It's a fun way to keep things hilarious without her instantly just becoming as goofy as the rest of them, though at this point I can't say I'd be excited about an episode that focused entirely on her.
More promising is Elroy Patashnik, played by the great Keith David (late of the terrific, under-appreciated Enlisted, and of course, The Cape*). He is the designer of a remarkably boring virtual reality system that the Dean spends too much of the school's budget on, leading Jeff to track him down and try to get a refund. He's less grouchy than Hickey, and not as daft as Pierce, but he fills in the requisite "guy whose glory days are behind him" role nicely, and since he's only introduced in the second episode and doesn't interact with many of the group (Jeff introduces him to them in the final scene), we will just have to "tune" in next week to see how he acquits himself around the study table.
Speaking of the table, it's not seen nearly enough in these two episodes. If they wanted us to feel "at home" despite all of the changes (including new sets; the cafeteria looked okay to me but the study room is "off"), they could have found a way to work in the show's most beloved setting a bit more than they did. They also frame it differently, especially in the first episode (directed by Rob Schrab) - the angles are slightly askew from the standard they've used for five years, so that took some adjusting (and like S5, the show seems like it had its lighting budget cut in half). It's nice to see them going outside (and in the second episode, to at least two new locations), but I hope the changes to the show's look are the result of the new location (they're at CBS now instead of Paramount) and not any attempt to make it stand apart from its network style. The editing is also awkward; no longer restrained by the 21-minutes a network demands, Harmon and co. have let these two episodes run over 27 minutes, and I couldn't help but notice things that would/should have been gone. Sure, it's better than being cut to the bone like many of the episodes were in previous seasons, but seeing gags go on forever isn't much better. The "I'm sorry" montage in the first episode and Jeff's overlong "No one say's 'who's asking' if they're not the person" thing in the second are two good examples of things that would have been chucked if they were trimming down, and I hope it's something they get a handle on as the season proceeds. I've always said the shows should be longer, but 27 and change seems a bit much - 24, 25 minutes is probably the sweet spot. Apparently the UK will get traditionally timed episodes - any readers see those? Report back!
That said, the extra time allows for funny gags to go on longer as well. Dean's exaggerated movements when trying to make the font bigger in his virtual reality "game" were priceless, and you know we only would have seen half of them if the show was on a tight leash. And the narratives aren't rushed, either - the B story in the second episode ("Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care") concerns Britta discovering that her estranged parents have been secretly giving her friends the money she owes them, and are also supplementing her rent when she takes up residence with Annie and Abed. We finally learn why Britta ran away from them in the first place, and I love the idea that they've befriended all of her friends over the years (even Jeff - he enjoys their bacon potatoes despite his opposition to carbs). In the old days, they'd have to race through all of this plot development (and the "Jeff's in on it too" element would be left out entirely, focusing just on Annie and Abed's role), but it can breathe now - there's even a scene where they talk about her moving in before they actually do it (instead of having the episode open with Britta walking into their apartment and saying "Thanks for letting me move in, guys!" and then finding out about the money twelve seconds later). Sure, this means you sometimes have to wait a little longer between jokes, but we're here because we love these characters, and thus it's nice that we don't have to see their development hampered by too-tight runtimes.
As for the jokes, no problems there. I laughed out loud just as often as I usually do with an average episode (which is what these are; let's recall that NONE of the seasons have begun with a knockout - it's usually three or four episodes in that produces the first classic), and none of the characters felt off. Britta in particular is as good as she's been since S3; her bit about what "Frankie" said about Annie was priceless, and Gillian Jacobs deserves some sort of award for pulling off a scene where - in an act of defiance - she steals a kid's tricycle and drives down the street. Joel McHale has also found the ideal version of Jeff for this period of his character's life - he's finally given in to the fact that he's "stuck" at Greendale and seemingly relieved that he doesn't have to worry about getting out of there anymore - he even volunteers to help Dean with something (in order to get out of helping Britta move, but still - old Jeff wouldn't have helped either of them without being guilted into it first). And while the writers still don't know what the hell to do with Chang, they at least seem to KNOW that and use it for humor - one scene plays out with him just saying random shit during a conversation, without anyone paying attention to him. In the second episode he gets bitten by a cat and spends the episode wandering around looking for a nurse, which isn't particularly funny but Jeong's expressions provide the chuckles, and the running gag pays off when it's revealed that he too has become friends with Britta's parents (who are played by Martin Mull and Lesley Ann Warren, a nice get for all you Clue fans out there). And Todd shows up, so there's a guaranteed laugh right there - I love that guy.
Ultimately, my biggest problem had nothing to do with the show - just how I had to watch it. I'm a stickler for TV viewing over online, and I was hoping to enjoy these episodes on TV via the Yahoo Screen app on the Xbox 360 (they don't have one for the Xbox One, for some reason). However, even though the episodes had gone up online and on Roku and the like, they were still MIA on the Xbox app as of 12:45 am today, forcing me to watch them on my computer screen after all**. Worse, the ad breaks aren't timed right, and so an add will either cut in before it's supposed to, trimming a second or two off the last line before the break, or they'll come in late and you'll miss the first line when it comes back. It's not as bad as Hulu (and if you skip around it doesn't make you rewatch ads, it seems), but I think the show has earned a better presentation than this. I'm glad they're not dumping all of them online at once, as it makes it feel more like the older (better) days of having to pace yourself, but I sincerely hope that they make improvements to the "Yahoo Screen experience" by the time the next episode drops. We didn't come this far to have our enjoyment stunted by outdated software and ugly streams.
*He's also been on Community, albeit as himself (as a narrator), so it's not troubling. However, Paget Brewster also appeared on the show last season as a different character, which is a little odd (and they even bring back a certain character introduced in that same episode, as if to remind us of the discrepancy). But Frankie mentions that she moved to the area to take care of an insane family member, so I guess we can assume that her S5 character, being a Greendale employee, is the insane person (and twin?) Frankie was referring to.
**Your mileage may vary, someone on Twitter assured me they were showing up on his Xbox, but even after signing out, shutting down, etc, I was unable to see anything beyond the recaps and the S6 trailer. I'll check again tonight to see if it's there yet, perhaps it was something they rolled out to Xbox accounts?
"You bet your sweet ass I saw Lawnmower Man! I consulted on it!"