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#CommunityLivesOn: Why Moving to the Small(er) Screen is the Best Thing to Happen to Community

©Yahoo Screen
©Yahoo Screen
©Yahoo Screen

Last summer, Community fans around the world collectively rejoiced at the news that the prematurely axed show had been picked up by Yahoo Screen for a long anticipated sixth season. Joining an elite group of shows ‘saved’ from network cancellations by online platforms such as Breaking Bad and Arrested Development, fans were both excited and nervous about what lay ahead.

In retrospect, perhaps we shouldn’t have been so worried. After all, on paper, putting Community online makes sense. Famous for its screwball, meme-ready comedy, ‘meta’ self-awareness and a passionate fanbase, it perfectly appeals to the Internet generation. Perhaps other shows wouldn’t translate as well to the net, but the rebirth of Community has proved to be a success story in more ways than most could have hoped.

It’s incredibly heartening to see such renewed investment, both financially and emotionally, in the show.

Firstly, the relaunch of the series has ignited a fervent burst of renewed buzz around it. Yahoo have admirably grabbed the opportunity to host Community with both hands, embarking on a publicity campaign of the likes NBC never bothered to invest in for the show. Community has been treated to a brand new website, active social media accounts and hashtags that fans are encouraged to use while live-tweeting each week’s episode, as well as exclusive clips and extras available online. Using Community’s tongue-in-cheek allusions to product placement as a launchpad- remember Subway?- a partnership with Honda means that both parties can promote each other without smashing the fourth wall too much.

As a fan, it’s incredibly heartening to see such renewed investment, both financially and emotionally, in the show. There is the real sense that Yahoo wants Community, and wants it to do well: unlike NBC, who seemed to treat the show as an afterthought with lacklustre publicity and a well documented rocky relationship with showrunner Dan Harmon.

A potential pitfall could be found in the reduced budget away from NBC; however, this could actually work in the show’s favour. Halfway through the new season, we are yet to see any of the crazy, exaggerated ‘because-we-can’ scenarios that many have criticised previous seasons for relying too heavily on: absent are puppets, explosions and unnecessary CGI ‘darkest timeline’ adventures, which arguably can only be a good thing. Community has always been stronger when playing off its cast’s chemistry, employing a combination of slapstick visual gags and witty wordplay. It doesn’t, in my view, need to push the envelope as far as it sometimes has: it has all the ingredients it needs, and the latest season seems to be following a pared-down recipe with success. Excitingly, on Yahoo episodes are also a full ten minutes longer than on broadcast television, enabling us to see what might have been slightly rushed storylines play out to a richer conclusion.

Aside from the technical implications of the move, the show has creatively been reborn. Increased artistic freedom surely plays a role; Alison Brie (Annie), for instance, has praised how ‘Everyone from Yahoo who visits is like, ‘We get it. Just do your thing.’ It’s refreshing.’ (©Digital Spy). Similarly, showrunner Dan Harmon has joked that his new bosses are ‘down for just about anything’ (©Digital Spy).

The new season does appear to be less creatively censored; for example, the episode ‘Queer Studies and Advanced Waxing’ deals with the mystery of Dean Pelton’s (Jim Rash) sexuality with a boldness that it’s hard to imagine would have occurred on NBC’s watch. Community was always something of a wildcard with its ironic gestures to ‘PC’ issues, but this new acknowledgement that the Dean doesn’t fit to a conventional sexual binary suggests that the rein has been loosened for the writers to introduce a more nuanced politics of the personal to the show. None of this, brilliantly, has the effect of making the episode less funny: on the contrary, there is the sense that Community is finally telling the jokes it wants to tell.

Core cast changes also add to the atmosphere of revival. Many fans were concerned about how the show would fare without three of its main cast- Donald Glover (Troy), Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley) and Chevy Chase (Pierce)- but Community has bucked expectations by adapting the group in a way that feels self-reflexively natural. In typical ‘meta’ style, the series pokes fun at its ‘replacement’ characters with a running gag referring to ‘the new Shirley/Pierce/Troy’, signalling to the audience that while admittedly the show is different, it will go on.

In fact, the two new characters slot into the group so well it almost feels like they were there all along. Paget Brewster (Criminal Minds) is pitch-perfect as Francesca ‘Frankie’ Dart, the group’s new ‘straight man’ with hidden quirks of her own, while Keith David (Platoon) brings effortless gravitas to the role of failed inventor/occasional IT lady Elroy Patashnik. Pierce, Shirley and Troy are sincerely missed, but the show has undergone a necessary shake-up in terms of character development. Where the study group dynamic could have become stale, the writers now have endless options to explore amongst their core players. It’s not ‘old Community’, but the new chemistry at play in season 6 is certainly refreshing and exciting.

Happily, the season is also marked by a revived prominence of Greendale veterans like Leonard, Garrett and Annie Kim. Their background contributions are key to retaining the classic Greendale vibe that could easily have dissolved with all the upheaval to the show’s foundations. The series continues to reel in fantastic guest stars, including Lesley Ann Warren (as Britta’s mother) and Castle’s Nathan Fillion as an enigmatic repairman. Community 2.0 feels both different and the same: it might take some getting used to for seasoned fans, but with only six episodes left to go, it definitely seems to be paying off so far.

Making the move to Yahoo Screen is less a giant leap for mankind than a casual roll from one procrastination spot to another…

Though it’s an American platform, with some Internet jiggery-pokery it’s easy- and free!- to access Yahoo Screen using the Hola! plug-in for Google Chrome. New episodes are released on Tuesdays around 8am UK time, with all the previous episodes available to watch at any time. Perfect for an extracurricular binge-watch (ahem- sorry Mum, I mean a brief essay break…). In terms of viewing experience, is the smaller screen and web platform a turn-off? The answer: not in the slightest. Let’s face it, you’ve probably already watched the whole series on Netflix; for most 2015 viewers, making the move to Yahoo Screen is less a giant leap for mankind than a casual roll from one procrastination spot to another. While the mid-episode advert breaks can feel a bit tedious compared to the commercial-free haven of Netflix, they’re thankfully short and are ultimately worth watching to support the show (#SaveGreendale!).

For the less tech-savvy, the season is also showing on UK television screens through the SonyTV channel, with new episodes every Wednesday at 10pm (less than 24 hours after the original release). Whichever method you choose, it’s worth using the hashtag #CommunityLivesOn to share your thoughts with the fandom online.

In terms of commercial success, the jury is still out on whether the online platform will work for Community. Viewership figures are yet to be released and are likely to be kept private, unlike most network shows; ratings aside, though, the show feels creatively refreshed and vibrant after six seasons on the air, something most series fail to achieve. What Community’s digital success story- so far- tells us is that if networks hope to remain relevant, they must adapt or risk losing the shows they neglect. Rather than turning the tide of online streaming, it’s better to capitalise on that opportunity and take a chance on genuine quality rather than just revenue.

I, for one, am happy to welcome the new generation of Community: after all, we’re one step closer to #sixseasonsandamovie than we were before. So come on, NBC. Get it together. Or you might find all your shows end up jumping ship to the World Wide Web…