COMMUNITY’s Return Basks in the Sweet, the Virtual, and the Near-Impossible — Season 6 Episode 1, “Ladders”/Episode 2, “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” Review
There are as many spoilers here as there Frisbees on Greendale’s roof.
And we’re back! Despite the will of NBC, the American public, and perhaps God himself, Community has returned for the sixth season Abed prophesied with his cape many parodies ago. Its continued existence flies in the face of the laws of television established long ago by Beaver Cleaver, the Nightly News, and Camel Cigarettes. Its insistence on being very good is downright television sacrilege.
If the two episodes that dropped at 2 AM Central Time are any indication, Community’s shift from underserved network sitcom to flagship of the Yahoo! Screen army has left it none the worse for wear. In fact, Season Six seems to have been injected with a strange new creative life, if a bit of an unwieldy one. Maybe it’s the increased budgets. Maybe it’s that the Save Greendale Committee can actually go outside again. Maybe it’s, as new committee leader Frankie Dart asserts, that “TV shows must grow and change. I’m guessing. I don’t own a television.”
Without the taxing environment of working for the slave-driving peacock, showrunners Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna seem very willing to follow whatever strange comedic impulse they can conceivably conjure. There is no fear of the strange, or the cartoonish. We seem to have on our hands a Community that is exceedingly willing to venture into the almost impossibly idiosyncratic. Think a Community more willing to lean into concepts like Jeff’s bursting ego apple from “Celebrity Impressionism,” or the slate of wacky NBC shows that closed out “Basic Sandwich.”
But let’s just get into this already, and talk about each of Community’s new episodes as it came to us. So damn late at night.
“Ladders” is Community’s greatest season premiere to date. Season Two’s return struggled under the fallout of the multiple cliffhangers of “Pascal’s Triangle Revisited.” “Biology 101” was a Dan Harmon introducing a dark season while coming off of a tremendous break-up, and the show was shaky in those first few episodes.* “Ladders” is the spiritual companion to Season Five’s “Repilot,” as the show must again deal with cast departures and redefining exactly what Community is about. But “Ladders” handles this with much more grace and (most importantly) ample humor. It roars out of the gates as a season that will at least go to some new and intriguing places.
*We will not here, or anywhere, speak of the Season 4 “Greendale Babies” premiere that I defended at the time, a fact that is most likely the principal mistake of my young life.
The standout of this episode is actually its newest addition. Paget Brewster has proven herself to be a welcome new member of the main cast. Probably best known to the world as one of the Minds on Criminal Minds (or as Sadie Doyle on The Thrilling Adventure Hour if you’re cool), her Frankie Dart is funny, driven, and can deliver a Dan Harmon joke about as well as our more seasoned Greendale students. She had more than her fair share of quality zingers tonight (I am particularly fond of her assuming a construction worker’s name was Tony) and if one is trying to introduce a new character into a seasons old sitcom giving them some solid jokes is most likely the best way to do it.
Though her role within the cast dynamic is not yet solidified (a question that Abed himself posits along with “Where does the Study Group get its disposable income?” and “When exactly will they get their diplomas?”) she sewed some solid conflict in “Ladders” and provided some welcome advice for Britta in “Lawnmower Maintenance.” It’s incredibly unfair to ask a character we have known for an hour to be as defined as those we have known for many. My beloved Britta didn’t find her place until at least the three-quarters mark of Season One. If Frankie Dart’s purpose on this show is to disrupt Study Group’s fun by bursting into the room with four old timey cops and a carrot, well that is just fine by me.
I don’t believe that every moment of “Ladders” works. The reveal of Frankie’s pandering to Abed is forced — in character, but forced. The show is still at a loss as to what to do with Chang, as it has been since he stopped teaching Spanish. But I laughed. Hard and often. This show is still distinctly Community. A single-shot throwaway joke about a class called “Ladders” from a fake flashback episode three years ago can come back and be a dramatic focal point. It can be the title of an episode. Leonard, forever a background staple, can be used as a layered storytelling device. He can receive his own flashback; throw down a solid Bladerunner reference; and be used to lay the groundwork idea that, yes, once you enroll at Greendale you never truly leave it. I love you, Community. Thank you for coming back.
Episode Grade: A-
Best Line: “Shut up, Leonard! I once mistook six different people for you at a pharmacy!”
Moment of Brilliance: Gotta give it to Shirley’s spinoff show “The Butcher and the Baker,” starring Steven Weber, a slimmed down Shirley, and a noose with an agenda
–Want to address critical concerns of your show? Just have Abed literally ask about it.
–What exactly are Leonard and Garrett planning against the Study Group? And might they bring Vicki, Magnitude, or Red-Haired Guy into their fold?
–Only good things can come from Britta controlling Shirley’s sandwiches. Only good things. And I would go to the Speakeasy she tended bar at every day.
“Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care”
If “Ladders” was a showcase for some of the main pros we will see from Yahoonity!, “Lawnmower Maintenace” was a set-piece of some of the cons. Directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (whose film The Way, Way Back I adored), the second episode of the fabled sixth season runs a little flabby. Unlike in the premiere, the expanded twenty-six minute runtime—a full six minutes longer than a standard Community episode of yesteryear—lets “Lawnmower” drag a bit in its middle section.
Almost none of this is the result of the Britta storyline. Perhaps I am biased. It is well documented everywhere from this review, to my review of Season Four’s best episode, to on at least every other page of my dream journal that I love Britta Perry. She is a unique force in the world of sitcoms and Gillian Jacobs has always given this often embarrassing role the absolute Julliard Best. Although she took the longest of the principal cast to find her place and sometimes gets lost in the group among the Jeffs, Troys, and Abeds that it is much easier to develop plots around, no one shines quite like a Britta. She was incredible in “Geothermal Escapism” and “Modern Warfare.” A truly good Britta plot forces her to confront her limitations up against the noble standards she wants to set for herself. This is your “bounce a check to Kunta Kinte” plots in “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” or your discoveries that she is remarkably good at planning weddings in “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts.”
“Postnatal Care” offers up exactly this sort of plot. What starts out as what could have been a tired idea that Britta is rebelling against nothing is flipped on its head. Britta was right to rebel. Perhaps she did it in her typically irresponsible Britta fashion, but her parents were indeed unkind and uncaring to their young daughter and really turned her into the weaponized decrier of injustice she has become.
Frankie’s little speech about our parents and how we must look at them was truly effective, and Britta’s resulting speech to her folks (both Clue alumni) was inspired, funny, and honestly touching. Hers’ is a realization that many must come to: that our parents are not who we thought they were or, certainly, who we want them to be but part of growing up and moving on is accepting that, for good or for ill, and dealing with all of the very human implications that come with that. It’s a very human moment, the kind that has kept Community grounded even as the roof collapses under the weight of a torrent of Frisbees.
No, (that “No” being in reference to my earlier assertion that the middle of this episode truly drags) the drag in “Lawnmower Maintenance” derives from its trip into virtual reality. Don’t get me wrong, I laughed a tremendous amount at this section of the episode. Jim Rash is a true force for comedic good in the universe and manages to wring so many laughs out of being strapped into a ridiculous virtual reality machine. There’s just… too much of it. Just as there was perhaps one too many montages in “Ladders,” “Lawnmower Maintenance” could have been served by cutting perhaps a few minutes of the Dean’s journey into the Third Deanmention. It was all funny—I laughed a tremendous amount—but there are some benefits to the incredible cutting necessary on network television. Much like Dan Harmon peer and Community guest star Mitch Hurwtiz learned when he revived Arrested Development for Netflix, sitcom editing is important and necessary. Keeping things linear and tight like a great theatrical farce prevents things from feeling overlong or outstaying their welcome. I fear that we might find this to be a common problem going forward. As long as it’s this funny it shouldn’t have any kind of derailing effect on the show we love so much, but it is the sort of evil we must face when a creative force is given complete control. They give Scorsese and Nolan carte blanche to make whatever they want, and they both choose to make things that are sixteen hours long. But such is the way of things.
Episode Grade: B
Best Line: “JESUS WEPT!”
Moment of Brilliance: Britta riding away on a child’s Green Meanie brings me a simple, personal kind of joy
–How great is it to have Keith David on this show? A recent comedy veteran of Fox’s Enlisted and my beloved Saints Row IV, David gets a hell of an introduction as Elroy Patashnik and seems as game for Community’s weirdness the Jonathan Bankses and John Olivers that he is replacing.
–Every season of Community that we are allowed to speak of openly produces its share of classics. History shows we’re going to get our first one in a week or two. I can’t wait.
Did you miss me? After reviewing Season Four religiously, I took a break from Season Five for personal, homework-based reasons. But now I’m back and will be here every week to guide you through the new and terrifying world of Yahoo! Screen.
You can find Kevin’s reservoir of Community reviews here. He is also a filmmaker and comedian. You can find his short film It Didn’t Take here, his podcast Talking Back to the Movies here, and his Twitter right here.