Six seasons and a movie! It's a throwaway line that became a call to arms for an ardent fandom to man the virtual barricades — and the kind of quixotic notion that has marked Community, Dan Harmon's well-loved but low-rated sitcom, both onscreen and behind the scenes. After five seasons on NBC, the former staple of the Peacock Network's must-see-TV comedy lineup was unceremoniously canceled last year. But, surprisingly, not for long: That fabled sixth season is really and truly happening, making its debut on March 17th on a whole different platform — Yahoo Screen, the legacy Web portal's new-ish streaming video service.
And what a long, strange trip it's been to get here — one marked by battles with the network (and one ornery cast member), an ever-changing roster of core players, the ever-looming threat of being sent to that great sitcom graveyard in the sky, even a season [shudder] sans its original creator/showrunner. But, like Kickpuncher or the Ass Crack Bandit, we always knew the Greendale Community College gang would be back for more.
For his part, Harmon's still reeling. "What's it like to be on the sixth season of this show and how weird is it that this is happening?" he says with a laugh. "I haven't answered those questions yet. That's one for my shitty memoirs."
Fans would probably pay good money to read that tell-all — the story of how an idiosyncratic comedy about a group of somewhat likable losers at a cut-rate community college came to be one of the most critically adored, fan-beloved and TV exec-abused sitcoms in recent memory.
The show launched in 2009 with Harmon at the helm and seven characters around its study table, led by former lawyer and current charming asshole Jeff Winger (Joel McHale). It rapidly gained a cult following thanks to snappy writing, a comically gifted ensemble and a propensity to send up every story genre under the sun. But Community's fan base was deep but not wide, and the show operated under the constant shadow of the network ax.
"Every year, good or bad, we've always had something happen to the show," says Danny Pudi, who plays Abed Nadir, the study group's resident socially awkward pop-culture expert. "We haven't started a season very much like ho-hum really since...Season Three, maybe? Two? I don't even remember. Even back then, there was the always the threat of cancellation. This year it's nice, because we're coming back with a group that is truly confident and excited about our show."
There's an attempt to make Greendale a real place, not a Smurf village that can be taken over by sandwich companies or someone that dresses like Napoleon.
Pudi is one of the four members of the original core group who's been with Community through all six seasons, in addition to fellow study-group alumni Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie and McHale. Jim Rash and Ken Jeong, who play the school's dean and the resident professor-turned-megalomaniacal bad guy, respectively, have also stuck it out all the way through. Chevy Chase departed the series after a very public falling-out with Harmon in 2012, while Donald Glover left in 2013 to pursue his music career under the name Childish Gambino. The most recent departure was Yvette Nicole Brown, who opted out of season six for family reasons.
This season, the show will fill the hole with two new members of the study group, played by Paget Brewster (Criminal Minds, American Dad!) and Keith David (Enlisted, Crash). Brewster plays Frankie Dart, a consultant tasked with whipping Greendale's abysmal finances into shape; David's character, Elroy Patashnik, is a has-been tech whiz who enrolls at the college for a fresh start.
According to McHale, change is an essential part of the show. "Dan Harmon has always said: A community college, a bar, an office is a transient place. People come and people go," the actor explains. "And I think that a lot of people go, 'Oh, is it gonna be the same?' No, it's not. It's still going to be Community, but it's not going to be the same. You get new things to play with and whole new avenues to go down."
And there is a lot to play with. Under Yahoo Screen, the show is shooting on a different lot, has an extended episode run time, and has been given unprecedented creative freedom — something that was a constant strain when the show was on NBC. "It's like…I would say night and day, but those things happen on the same planet," Harmon says. "We have more creative freedom than a kindergarten class. If we said we needed more popsicle sticks, the teacher would go out and get them; she wouldn't just say, 'No, make your Thanksgiving turkey with what you've got.' Yahoo is beyond enabling, and undoubtedly will be thoroughly punished for it."
Harmon is using that liberty to return the show to its emotional roots, working in the realistic, grounded atmosphere that the meta-sitcom had during its first season. In later years, for better or worse, the series began to fly higher and higher into the wackiness stratosphere. (Over the seasons, Greendale has played host to everything from post-apocalyptic dystopias to messianic takeovers.) With this batch of new episodes, Harmon hopes to bring the study group back to earth. "There's an attempt — knowing that we will always charmingingly fail in any attempt — to make Greendale a real place, not a Smurf village that can be taken over by sandwich companies or someone that decides to dress like Napoleon," he says. "There's an attempt this season to reset the laws of reality. That was a decision that went as far as me saying to the production designer: 'Let's feel the filth on the walls a little bit.' There's a more cinematic, grounded feel to the show overall."
So what's coming up for our study buddies? We return to a cash-strapped college, where Jeff is continuing in his role as a professor and chair of the beleaguered Save Greendale Committee. The Dean is still making delightfully frivolous purchases (the second episode sees him gleefully lose himself in an outdated virtual-reality game), and Jacobs' character, Britta, has moved in with Abed and Brie's uptight character, Annie. We'll also get to meet Britta's parents, played by comedy vets Martin Mull and Lesley Ann Warren.
However the wind changes, the essence of Community remains the same that diehard fans of the show fell for in the first place: the story of a group of people who are diverse as they are dysfunctional, who, come hell or postapocalyptic paintball shootout, will always return to hunker down around that same battered study table.
"It's a family that loves each other and drives each other crazy, and are the only ones who really understand each other. I think that's the real heart of the show," says Jacobs. "I'd like to think that the show assumes nothing about you as a viewer — politically, spiritually, sexually, chronologically — and simply tells stories about how weird it is to be a human being," Harmon adds. He credits the show's success in large part to his cast of actors: "We were very, very lucky to stumble into a cast of incredibly acrobatic performers who are able to do stupid things serious and serious things stupid, and who are willing to show up to set having no idea what the hell is going on and adapt to it during rehearsal," he explains.
So what comes after this year wraps up? More seasons? Or, dare we say it, a movie? Harmon has no plans to call it quits. "I think creatively about it as if it's the sixth of a thousand seasons," he says. "I don't think Community is going to go down in history as the show that nailed its actual finale — because Community has to go down in history as the show that never knew how long it was gonna live."