There’s no way to fill the void those singular characters left, and it would be wrong of Harmon and the writers to try. Instead, they smartly embrace the change, introducing two fresh faces and tweaking the feel of the show just slightly.
There’s Frankie Dart (Paget Brewster), a specialist brought in to “fix” Greendale after the study group (now just Joel McHale’s Jeff, Alison Brie’s Annie, Gillian Jacobs’ Britta, Danny Pudi’s Abed and Ken Jeong’s Chang – when they acknowledge him, that is) failed to do so, letting accumulated frisbees on the roof cause an expensive cave-in. Frankie is pragmatic, grounded, level-headed and ordinary – the straight-man foil to a group of misfits that has become increasingly disconnected from reality.
In adding her to the show, Harmon seems primed to tackle the study group’s delusional, snobbily exclusive nature. Of course, Frankie has some quirks of her own, and her over-the-top response to the discovery that the study group has constructed a Prohibition-era speakeasy in response to Frankie banning alcohol on campus (a sublime Miller’s Crossing-meets-The Great Gatsby homage) is hilarious. The character’s relative normality, in addition to Brewster’s very strong performance, is what keeps her from feeling like a last-ditch effort to strengthen the cast. By being so different in a show teeming with personalities, she fits in just fine.
The other new addition is inventor Elroy Pathashnik (Keith David), whom Jeff summons to force the Dean out of Elroy’s virtual-reality headset (a ridiculous office organizing tool) and back into reality. He only shows up in the second half of “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” – an episode that also introduces Britta’s unexpectedly charming parents, played by Martin Mull and Lesley Ann Warren – so he has less of a chance to make an impression. Only time will tell whether Elroy can be absorbed into the study group as comfortably as Frankie, but David’s work is solid enough that viewers will want to see more of the guy, if only in hopes that Abed will ask him to build actual Kickpuncher body armor at some point.
The study group’s nutty escapades in both provided episodes are vintage Community – in the premiere, the group is fractured by Frankie’s no-nonsense approach to fixing Greendale, and the second episode finds Britta horrified to learn that her friends are familiar with both her parents while Jeff and Frankie struggle to break the Dean’s obsession with virtual reality. Laughs abound, and it’s a huge relief that Harmon hasn’t lost a shred of Community‘s uniquely meta humor in the transition to online. Two episodes in, Community is still an joy to watch. The darkest timeline, which was either cancellation or the disHarmonious fourth season, has been averted, and with its move to Yahoo Screen, the show seems more rambunctious than ever.
In particular, “Ladders” is deliciously self-referential, with Harmon addressing fans’ concerns about the heart of the series (through Abed, of course) even as he admits to sharing them. In addition to absurd in-jokes about Portugese Gremlins and Abed’s uncanny impersonations, the premiere finds Chang, of all people, noting Shirley’s absence is just the latest case of a non-white cast member finding the exit. “You have my word as leader of the white people, there’s no cause for alarm,” Jeff drily responds. On one level, it’s a classic Winger snark, but on another, it trusts audience members to know what’s going on behind the scenes. With fans as passionate as Community‘s, Harmon’s right to bet that they’re on his wavelength.
Community has always thrown random yet terrific in-jokes and references at viewers to distract from its increasingly silly premise and changing cast, but in season six, it seems more honest and able to face its own flaws head on. All that, and it’s still one of the most unabashedly fun shows still running right now. With a paintball episode and some delightful celebrity cameos in the pipeline, season six seems ripe with possibility.
To fans, the show’s revival may bring to mind a Troy and Abed quote from “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps,” a very funny season three episode: “You tried to destroy us, but you only made us MORE AWESOME!” Community, against the odds, is still alive and kicking – and that it’s retained its wit and wonder this long is nothing short of miraculous.
In the immortal words of Troy-and-Abed-sewn-together: "You tried to destroy us, but you only made us MORE AWESOME!" In its sixth season, Community remains a witty and wonderful oddity, and now that it's found a supportive new home in Yahoo, the show's creative future seems bright.