‘Community’ Review: Creator Dan Harmon Finds Better Balance Between Character and Crazy

First two episodes of Season 6 on Yahoo! Screen introduce new cast members Paget Brewster (“Criminal Minds”) and Keith David (“Enlisted”)

Last Updated: March 17, 2015 @ 8:21 AM

“Community” has weathered major changes before, both in cast and showrunner, but this is the first time it’s actually felt lean. Creator Dan Harmon returns again to helm the cult favorite’s revival online at Yahoo! Screen (premiering Tuesday), but not everyone was able to join him at the old/new Greendale.

Yvette Nicole Brown bid farewell to the show to care for her ailing father, ultimately joining the cast of the multi-camera CBS sitcom “The Odd Couple.” She followed Chevy Chase and Donald Glover off of the show and away from the study group, leaving the core ensemble with only four members. To make matters worse, Season 5’s cantankerous addition, Jonathan Banks, also left for a more familiar role on AMC’s “Breaking Bad” spin-off,” Better Call Saul.”

And suddenly, the study group of seven is whittled down to four: Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi and Alison Brie. Sure, Ken Jeong floats around, but he’s always been a peripheral character, and that looks to continue on this sixth season despite the clear openings for someone to step up and take a more central role.

Jim Rash remains delightfully daffy as Dean Pelton, but he is and always will be Jeff Winger’s (McHale) main foil on the show.

And so, the final season in the show’s internal mantra of #sixseasonsandamovie — though there could be many more seasons to come — begins and my first impression was to wonder if it was a good idea for it to do so. Looking at that half-empty table, I wondered what was the point? Thankfully, the show seemed to be asking that same question, while starting to provide some answers.

The first two episodes of the show’s 13-episode sixth season serve both to reestablish the setting of the show and introduce its two new cast-members. Paget Brewster (“Criminal Minds”) joins as Francesca ‘Frankie’ Dart, a character so bland and boring she acknowledges it and revels in it. Will this season be about her inevitable descent into madness. Is it possible to be a part of the study group without going a little mad?

The second introduces Keith David (“Enlisted”) as Elroy Patashnik, though before he can join the ensemble, he has a key role to play on the season’s first “out there” episode. Dean Pelton blows way too much money on an outdated virtual reality program, designed by Elroy, to which he proceeds to become addicted. And so, it is up to Jeff to try and get the school’s poor investment back.

That’s right. it looks like the show is going to mix silliness (the Dean trying to delete a file in VR is hilariously ridiculous) with more down-to-earth reality like fiscal responsibility … I’d love to see the budget for some of the show’s zanier exploits. On the second episode, things get real for Britta (Jacobs), as the show digs deeper into her dysfunctional, resentment-filled relationship with her parents, played by Martin Mull and Lesley Ann Warren.

In this regard, it looks like Harmon is trying to bring “Community” back to what it was in its earliest seasons, when it first started to develop its cult following. The meta/wacky stuff is very entertaining, but it isn’t particularly inviting to newcomers. Seasons 3 and 5 (we don’t talk about Harmon-less Season 4) were brilliantly entertaining for everyone in on the joke, but anyone stumbling across the show on NBC was more than likely more lost than entertained.

Ironically, with the show now on Yahoo, Harmon could probably get away with going even deeper into the meta and bizarre, as the older episodes are readily available for our binge-consumption (even if they’re not on Yahoo! Screen itself), so it’s interesting that he’s actually consciously scaling it back. That said, Abed spends much of the premiere talking about the show and coming about as close to breaking the fourth wall as possible, so meta is still a big part of the joke.

But this has always been one of the more ingenious aspects of “Community”; it joins in our conversations about the show in real-time. Wondering where Shirley Bennett (Brown) went? Abed (Pudi) has the answer, and it’s a startlingly accurate explanation of the actress’ post-show journey. Wondering about Abed’s girlfriend? Yeah, he knows you are.

Ready to call out the show for replacing a character of color with a white one? No need, Chang calls the show out for you on that regard in the premiere.

Through Abed, the show takes a look at itself in its premiere, assessing Brewster’s new addition by wondering how she differs from Annie (Brie), and what personality quirks she’ll bring to the ensemble to make her a worthy addition. It’s like an on-screen job interview for both the actress and her characters.

Brewster and David are both stellar performers, which is encouraging. I’m curious what Harmon and company plan to do with Brewster’s bland character, while David looks like he’s coming in with plenty of history and personality already. Ensemble shows thrive on the chemistry between characters, so it’s always a little scary when some of its main ingredients change. However, this new iteration of “Community” at least seems to have some direction and a clearer idea of its voice.

There are plenty of familiar faces still hanging around as well. Most notable on the first two episodes are perpetual student Leonard (89-year-old Richard Erdman), who is as deliciously wacky as he’s been since his introduction to the series, and sad sack Garrett (Erik Charles Nielsen), who makes his Season 6 debut under a deluge of roof frisbees. This scene also shows just how long Leonard has been attending Greendale. Could there be something brewing with the fringe characters?

Maybe getting cancelled by NBC was the best thing that could have happened to “Community.” It feels familiar and fresh, with myriad possibilities in front of it thanks to smart new cast additions and a renewed focus on those characters over just getting lost in the creatively inane.

New episodes of “Community” Season 6 will premiere on Yahoo! Screen every Tuesday. Episodes are ad-supported, so no subscription is necessary to watch.