Community, “Ladders” (CREDIT: Yahoo! Screen)

These reviews were originally posted on Starpulse in March 2015.


“Weird, passionate, and gross”

“Community” season premieres have usually made sure to cover what has happened behind-the-scenes since we last visited Greendale.  In Season 4’s “History 101” and Season 5’s “Repilot,” that meant winkingly commenting on all the personnel changes that had occurred.  With an actual cancellation and a subsequent move to online streaming, “Community” would now seemingly have the most to say about its recent transitions leading up to the Season 6 premiere.  But “Ladders” pretty much jumped right in exactly where Season 5 left off.  An exact time frame was not specified, but with this episode opening with the Dean thanking the Human Beings who saved Greendale, it could not have been too long after “Basic Sandwich,” when that actual saving took place.

The thing is, the work of the Save Greendale Committee in Season 5 portended a new status quo, and “Ladders” followed through on that.  It did not have to go out of its way to be different.  It could have gone out of its way to clearly define what this new normal is, but instead it chose to just plow forward into its latest adventure.  It did not have to specifically define itself, but the fact that it didn’t left things in a weird place: it is not clear why everyone, save for Professor Winger, is still at Greendale.  They do not appear to be students, at least not primarily, and any job they have seems to be merely informal.  This may all be beside the point, or leaving it unaddressed may be the point, as Greendale can be a haphazard place.

Interestingly enough, while “Ladders” did not address its online transition head-on, it did address its cast departures more directly than expected.  Shirley, it turned out, had moved from Greendale to care for her sick father, just as Yvette Nicole Brown had left “Community” to care for her sick father.  This made sense, because the cast turnover really had more of an effect than the format change.  As newly hired administrative consultant Frankie Dart, Paget Brewster immediately upended the dynamics of this tightknit group.

Frankie does not fit into the mold of any other prominent “Community” character thus far.  Abed initially had her pegged as too similar to Annie in both purpose and appearance, but he quickly realized that was not quite right.  She is the straight man, obviously not of a piece with the weird, passionate, and gross denizens of Greendale, but she is not in opposition to the quirkiness.  Results may be her strong suit over quirks, but in a weird way, that lack of quirkiness made her interesting, or at least embraceable.  She was definitely an ally; any ill will she may have sown was absolutely unintentional.

The worry driving this episode was that Frankie would be too effective and unwittingly improve Greendale to the point that it stopped being Greendale.  Jeff, Annie, and Britta were all naturally concerned that Abed would freak out over the change.  But the recent history of “Basic Sandwich” should have taught them that he has lately been the most resilient and adaptable he has ever been.  It was surprising that Annie was not similarly accepting, though this was probably because she was offended that Frankie was stepping on her toes.  She also probably bristled at her new colleague’s lack of passion with her efficiency.

Abed’s partnership with Frankie led to the funniest gag of the episode.  He was keenly aware that the tasks that were being asked of him would likely make for boring television, so he made sure to choose jobs that could be edited into a quality montage (a.k.a. “a movie apologizing for reality”).  When Frankie reminded him that she asked him to send e-mails, he demonstrated his adaptability, constantly changing his outfits to work around the difficulty of making a montage of such a stationary task.  When Frankie nixed this idea as well, though, it was clear that the dynamic was not quite right.

Frankie’s discovery of the speakeasy in the back of Shirley’s Sandwiches was a conflict the likes of which really had never before been seen on Greendale.  The shenanigans were just as elaborate as ever, but they were unusually free of headaches.  And basically never before has such an endeavor been confronted so matter-of-factly as Frankie noting that it is hard not to notice that lumber has gone missing.  Her patronizing tone towards Abed proving to be the final straw did feel a little rushed, unfortunately.  But it did make sense not as a revelation of how she truly felt, but as an indication of how she had not yet bought into the Greendale mindset, which was absolutely necessary.

The subsequent campus-wide, drink-fueled free-for-all had a vibe of the idiots running the asylum, paralleling “Community” trading out the yoke of NBC for the supportive freedom of Yahoo!  It was especially telling how tolerant Jeff and Annie were of all the insanity.  Jeff was the most patient, nay – encouraging – he has ever been with these shenanigans.  He loves Greendale in all its ridiculousness and is able to embrace it as an integral part of his life.  As for Annie, it is hard to imagine that at any other time she would have willingly accepted a drunken Ladders class, even after ending up in a neck brace.  There was a level of dangerous control that Greendale exploited with a sense of invincibility, making it clear just how needed a straight man like Frankie was.

The rallying cry of “six seasons and a movie” has led many to believe that this will be the last new batch of “Community” episodes, though Yahoo! has not said anything official, and Dan Harmon has indicated that he would be on board for several more seasons.  Either way, this did not play out like the first episode of a final season.  There was no rush to deal with essential plot and character development.  In fact, this felt very much like a show that is comfortable with sticking around, indefinitely telling whatever stories it can think of.  In one way, it is still the same old “Community,” but in another, more profound way that is currently hard to fully explain, it is different and weirdly experimental in a manner that it has never quite been before.

Notes & Quotes:
-Hopefully the tag is not the last we ever see of Shirley, but “The Butcher and the Baker” with her and Steven Weber was a mighty fine way to go out.
-The flashback to a young, hippie Leonard, combined with the disintegrating Frisbee was a weird and wonderful sort of poignant.
-“Abed’s not comfortable with C-H-A-N-G-E.” “Hey, screw you, I can spell!”
-“Simply put, Mr. President, in 12 hours, these dinosaurs will become…” “Mind if I sit here?” “Timeosaurs. Go ahead.”
-“Don’t think of it as bad baking, think of it as a crushing blow to a gender stereotype.”
-“I’m a little tired from all the drama, the heroes, the villains, the monsters.” “Pokémons.”
-It was nice to see Duncan acknowledged, but with John Oliver’s busy schedule, Abed wiping down his nameplate might be the most we see of him this season.
-It is always a delight to hear the “high as hell and you’re about to get shot” song.
-One way Frankie proved her “Community” bona fides: sticking it to Jim Belushi.
-R.I.P. Fatboy Slim’s DJ School


“Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care”

“Community’s” budget actually increased under Yahoo!, and the show chose to utilize that surplus by almost immediately wasting it on a storyline that almost entirely takes place within the Dean’s office.  This could very well have been another meta-commentary: just as the Dean blew Greendale’s budget with the purchase of a mostly useless virtual reality system, so did “Community” throw its money around for the sake of the Dean covering his face and running around on a moving platform for an entire episode.  But of course Jim Rash was an absolute delight in doing so.

The virtual reality system was a thorough technological achievement, but it was only worthwhile in and of itself.  Its features could all be accomplished much more efficiently by smaller, more practical devices.  Dan Harmon and “Community” have a knack for criticizing outdated technology that never made it very far in the first place.  They most recently went this route with last season’s “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing.”  Virtual reality probably holds more promise than VCR games, and it appears to be making a comeback, though it is still at the stage at which mocking seems warranted.  Maybe one day these systems will prove to be useful beyond damaging nineties cinema, but in the meantime Dean Pelton will have no trouble finding plenty to be happy about it.

This plot was actually mainly a bizarre means of introducing the latest new regular character: washed-up inventor Elroy Patashnik.  Keith David did not have a whole lot to do in his first appearance as Elroy, other than remaining defiantly confident in the face of doubt all around.  For now, his decision to enroll at Greendale spoke more about Jeff’s situation than anyone else’s, as Professor Winger worried out loud that he would never get out of this place.  Thus, “Community” took the bold step in its Yahoo! infancy of positioning Greendale as a sort of purgatory.

Instead of spending time on this weird (but funny and totally worthwhile) VR plot, this episode could have focused entirely on the introduction of Britta’s parents (Lesley Ann Warren and Martin Mull).  The revelation that Deb and George Perry had been secretly supporting their daughter through her friends could have tracked as illogical, but it has seemed for a while like these characters have been living beyond their means.  So retroactively it makes sense that at least one of them has been getting a little help.

The fact that Britta’s parents were so nice and not abusive was hardly surprising.  They may have discouraged her transgressive choices when she was younger, but she was probably just as needlessly defiant then as she is now.  It is hard to know for sure when it is appropriate to support your child and when she should be allowed to be completely on her own, but Deb and George definitely now had their hearts in the right place.  They were so firmly in the right in this episode that it ran the risk of Britta coming off rather badly.  But ultimately this was an opportunity for her to confront her lingering immaturity, and this will hopefully portend well for her development this year, after a Season 5 in which she could have had more to do.

This episode portrayed Annie, Abed, and Jeff as “poor friends” of Britta, but more importantly they were good friends.  With the Greendale Seven now down to the Core Four, it is heartening to see how pleasant and supportive their Season 6 friendship has been so far.  It has been especially nice to see Annie and Abed’s roommate bond in full force after some unscrupulous behavior revealed last year (catfishing, skimping off extra rent money) and to see no lost affection between Jeff and Annie following Jeff and Britta’s hasty marriage announcement.  When a generally positive show reaches its sixth season, it simply would not make sense for the main characters’ friendships to not be safe and secure.

Notes & Quotes:
-Chang has mostly so far this season been used as a side character who gets into weird situations tangentially related to the main plots, which works perfectly well because Ken Jeong knows how to play, among other things, the creeping sense of dread related to a swelling, animal-bit hand.
-The Portuguese “Gremlins” (or, “Knee-High Mischiefs”) trailer was one of the best, most detailed, and inexplicable end tags of the whole series.
-Jeff commented that Frankie is not the new Annie, but the new Abed.  Although, she may be more like the new Britta, insofar as she fits into the unnecessarily harsh, antagonistic role early on.  Hopefully she will receive the same eventual softening.
-Jeff’s breakdown of “Who’s asking?” has been a long time coming.
-“A hole in the head is something that you don’t need.” “She said through a huge hole in her head.”
-“We mock what we don’t understand.” “We also mock what’s silly.”
-“Are you strong or angry?”
– “I put a tilde on this ‘n’! I can do añything!”