Community, producer Dan Harmon’s increasingly self-aware sitcom, has become less and less about a band of community-college misfits and more and more about being a television show. Perhaps it’s fitting that a show about being a show continues its odd life with a move from NBC to Yahoo Screen, where the first two episodes are now available.
It’s a move that makes sense in a few ways, some of which have to do with the show’s tricky history: for one thing, it could free Harmon from some of the pressures of arguing with higher-ups who famously bounced him and then brought him back. Even more importantly, it frees the show from even the charade that it’s trying to become popular and allows it to be what it had become by its second season at the latest: a niche product for a small (by broadcast standards) but almost fanatically devoted audience. It also takes the show from an underperformer at a network that’s trying to make hits to a marquee offering from a streaming service that’s just trying to establish its relevance.
Community thus goes from being treated like a drag to being treated like an queen, which makes its fans potential goodwill ambassadors rather than the ticked-off, sometimes defensive army that years of life on the bubble could make them seem to be.
The first two episodes are still dealing with the fallout of cast departures: Chevy Chase has been gone a while now, Donald Glover (who played Troy) left partway through the last season on NBC, and Yvette Nicole Brown (who played Shirley) departed before the jump to Yahoo and is now on CBS’s The Odd Couple reboot. The big addition to the regular cast is Paget Brewster as consultant Frankie Dart, who’s brought in to essentially provide adult supervision to the Save Greendale Committee into which the show’s original study group has morphed. Brewster is a versatile comic actress with a great feel for blasts of absurdity (as you know if you’ve ever seen or heard her work on Thrilling Adventure Hour), and she quickly proves to be a great fit for Community‘s tendency to whip back and forth between banter comedy and straight-up foolishness.
The first episode feels a bit like throat-clearing: establishing that the show is back, what the arrangement of personalities is, and what role — secretly not-so-bad scold — Dart is there to play. The second, though, is significantly funnier, particularly when it sticks the Dean (Jim Rash) in a ’90s-vintage virtual reality machine, a bit that seems like it cannot possibly have even one tenth of one leg left after all these years (I mean, this has been a thing since Mad About You had Paul fooling around with Christie Brinkley), but one with which they have a surprising amount of fun. While the headset gag is as old as the hills (and older than The Hills), the angle turns out to have more to do with increasingly fancy ways to perform simple tasks, and that’s something that certainly still happens.
There’s so much talk (and talk and talk) about changing business models in television and how the future is going to be a paradise in which we all get exactly what we want for the price we’re willing to pay, but the truth of the matter is that it’s very early. When it comes to television — both the content and the delivery mechanism, which are different but often conflated ideas — anybody who claims to know what things are going to look like in two years, let alone ten years, ought to be prepared to back it up with an avalanche of data.
What Community is right now is a useful experiment that helps get at a tricky question: Can a show with a fan base limited in size but unlimited in vehemence transition from broadcast to narrowcast as a late-stage alternative to cancellation? There have certainly been shows that have jumped outlets (either network to network or network to cable), and there have even been shows that were grabbed by online outlets before (like AMC’s The Killing, which went to Netflix). But this is a transition that seems to have more to do with stage of life than anything.
We’ve talked a lot about whether there are shows that belong online rather than on networks, and certainly about whether there are shows that belong on cable rather than on broadcast. Here, you have a show that started out feeling like it could be a successful broadcast comedy and wound up being brilliant at building passion in people with a very specific sensibility and both unsuccessful at and uninterested in making itself fit into a network lineup (and strategy). It’s an interesting path, and trying out interesting paths is, at the very least, potentially a way to get to new places.