I’ve eulogized Community twice now and, like the recipient of one of Jeff Winger’s long-winded monologues, I’ve finally learned my lesson. After yet another shock resurrection — news broke late yesterday that Yahoo had agreed to finance a sixth season — I’m officially out of the prognostication game. Some shows are simply unkillable. A hashtag actually can change the world.
Or it can at least help with Dan Harmon’s mortgage payments. The embattled creator, who seemed uncharacteristically blasé back in May about the chances of returning to Greendale, will be at the helm once again when Community makes its online debut this fall. Chris McKenna, Harmon’s longtime deputy, is in talks to return as well. Though no cast deals have been announced, it’s assumed that the core will all be back. Yahoo wouldn’t have ponied up without the approval of star Joel McHale (his backstage power was made plain when he led the reverse-coup to get Harmon his job back after the disastrous fourth season), and while John Oliver is busy on HBO and Jonathan Banks has returned to Albuquerque, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, and Alison Brie were all under contract for a potential sixth season as long as it was announced by yesterday. Which it was. (This must sting at least a little for Jacobs, who seemed to be all set to step into Love, Judd Apatow’s potential upcoming Hulu series. Just when she was about to bag her dream job, she finds out she’s still a few credits shy of graduating.)
Lost in the expected chum of online high-fiving, however, is the rather inconvenient fact that Community, in the last few episodes of its fifth season, was a shell of its former self. Though the writing still surprised and the esprit de corps still sparkled (no cast on television appears to be happier doing its job than Community’s, especially after the departures of malcontents Chevy Chase and Donald Glover), it was impossible to avoid the sense that Greendale no longer needed saving. The show had always impressed me with the way it pushed Abed’s obsession with comfort and stasis, forced him to reckon with the world the way it was, rife with disappointment and doubt, and not the way it appeared on the back of a Kickpuncher DVD. What was remarkable about Community was the way it constructed immaculate dioramas of indulgent geekiness — splattered with paintballs, draped with blankets — and then hit them with a Leonard-size wrecking ball of reality. (Or whatever it is you call that thing where people die, friends leave, and alternate-timeline doppelgängers appear armed with bone saws.) But as Community teed up its umpteenth high-concept half hour and overcame its latest existential threat (be it in the form of Subway™ sandwich–hawking goons or network executives flush with the job security only James Spader can buy), it began to feel more and more like the show was becoming the one thing Dan Harmon hates more than deadlines. Community started to feel safe.
I’m not sure if it’s good or bad news that none of this matters to Yahoo. Under the stewardship of CEO Marissa Mayer, the online something-or-other has been doing its best to spend its way back into relevance. Buying a sixth season of Community and funding it at NBC levels is the quickest way possible for Yahoo to get its name mentioned in the same sentence as Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and the rest of the power players in TV’s suddenly raging online war. Even if it never earns a single dollar for Yahoo, the press it’s getting this week alone makes it a solid investment. That this may prove to be a Willie Mays–on-the-Mets kind of situation doesn’t bother Mayer in the slightest, nor should it. Before yesterday, I bet most people didn’t even know she was fielding a baseball team at all. (Not only that, Yahoo appears also to be making postseason plans. An interview with Zack Van Amburg, president of programming and production for Sony Pictures Television, Community’s tireless studio, suggested the long-promised movie might also be in play — as are potential, as-yet-unhashtagged future seasons.)
Dan Harmon would probably be the first to agree that a combative, self-destructive perfectionist like himself is a poor choice to helm a network sitcom. Among the many things that made (makes?) Community so unique was the way the best episodes chafed and snarled at the leash of traditional broadcast standards and practices — not with expletives and nudity but with a creeping sense of nihilism and dread. The penultimate episode of Season 5, in which nothing happens — and not in a cute, Seinfeld way! — had me thisclose to calling NBCUniversal Headquarters to see if someone had fallen asleep at the switch. I have a feeling Yahoo wouldn’t even blink if Harmon devoted two entire episodes to Magnitude literally twiddling his thumbs.
But I hope he doesn’t. The scant optimism I have for the upcoming sixth season stems from the idea that Community, as we knew it, really did die last May when NBC canceled it (and/or the meteor that Abed prophesied struck the earth). Whatever emerges this fall ought to be something even weirder and riskier. Think late-period Groundhog Day when Bill Murray’s Phil has finally realized that death has no interest him and thus he can basically do whatever he wants. (I’m not saying Abed should learn to speak French but I’m also not not saying it.) In the past, Community has often been good, and occasionally truly great, but it’s also gotten a lot of goodwill for being the most creative thing on a frustratingly uncreative network. When it returns, Community will finally be free of the executive-suite boogeymen who inspired all of the gleeful nose-thumbing that at first felt challenging but eventually just started to seem spiteful. Early in his career, after getting burned by a network for the first time, Harmon licked his wounds and recharged his batteries with a fledgling Internet TV concern called Channel 101. There, amid the crooning Yacht Rockers and searing laser farts, Harmon’s target audience was reduced to the person he saw in the mirror every morning. Let’s see what he comes up with now that he once again has absolutely no one else to answer to — and no one else to blame.