Season premiere review: ‘Community’ – ‘Ladders/Lawnmower Maintenance’

“Community” is back for an improbable sixth season, now on Yahoo Screen, and I have a review of the season's first two episodes(*) coming up just as soon as the score in my head changes from Trent Reznor to Johnny Cash doing Trent Reznor…

(*) Note: the rough cut versions that critics saw of both episodes were deliberately missing the end credits tag on the first episode, so if Donald Glover or Chevy Chase or someone else made a surprise appearance in it, I won't know until I wake up on Tuesday and check it out on Yahoo.

“Community” at the start of season 6 has lost its original network, three of its original castmembers, plus several notable recurring players. (John Oliver and Jonathan Banks are otherwise occupied at the moment, and even the actor who plays Fat Neil is off scaring your parents about the internet on “CSI: Cyber.”) It's certainly not at the phase where we ask  whether this is still “Community,” but the show is definitely experiencing some bumps as it adjust to all of its new circumstances at once.

“Ladders,” like last season's first episode, is so busy dealing with exposition and meta-commentary about departed actors and changed situations – though, weirdly, the focus of that humor is much more on the absence of Shirley than on the show now coming to you via the series of tubes(**) – that it doesn't have a ton of room for big laughs, even as it wisely only tries to introduce Paget Brewster's Frankie into the ensemble, saving Keith David's Elroy for “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care.” The latter episode's the sharper and funnier of the two, giving strong material to both Gillian Jacobs and Oscar Winner Jim Rash, but both installments feel fairly tentative, like Harmon and McKenna are still adjusting to the new earth beneath their feet.

(**) It may just be that Harmon and McKenna assume the bulk of their audience was already watching the show online, so the only real difference is the slightly longer runtime for each episode.

Of our new cast additions, David gets the more overtly comic material to play – and does very well with it, as he did throughout “Enlisted,” and for the other points in his career when casting directors have realized what that voice, that smile and that sense of timing can mean in a lighter setting – but I appreciate that Frankie's not a villain, despite Jeff, Annie and Britta's attempts to treat her as one for much of “Ladders.” She is sane and sensible and potentially without a sense of humor – which maybe doesn't seem like the best use of Brewster's skills, but I also don't expect her to stay in full Lilith Sternin-Crane mode for long – but she also quickly takes a shine to Abed, which isn't essential for a newcomer to fit in (Buzz didn't get along with him at all at first), but certainly helps. Also, as with Buzz, pairing Abed with a more grounded character does wonders for bringing out new facets of him after all this time, as we saw him struggle to apply his usual pop culture-infused approach to life to Frankie's more mundane version of same, with the montage of him confirming the emails with Diane.

The exposition of “Ladders” out of the way (along with an Abed meta monologue about the way the show is becoming “increasingly grounded” that's so long and rapidly-delivered by Danny Pudi that I gave up trying to transcribe it after the third pass), “Lawnmower Maintenance” gets to be a more traditional episode, with mixed results. Chang dealing with the effects of a cat bite is the latest symptom of the show not knowing what on earth to do with that character, but Rash went to town on the Dean's virtual reality-inspired megalomania, and I like that the show continues to explore how far Britta has fallen since joining the Greendale 7. When you are stealing a kid's Green Machine to get away from the parents who are – or have at least over the years become – perfectly nice and understanding human beings, you have fallen about as low as you can go without turning into Leonard. I do wonder if the plan is to have her pull out of the tailspin at some point, or if she'll continue to make the other members of the group, old and new, look more impressive by comparison.

Were these vintage episodes of “Community”? No, but I don't know that I would have expected that in season 6 even if the whole original cast was here (if anything, Frankie and Elroy create new dynamics among the remaining characters), and even if there had been consistency of network and showrunner the whole time. Shows get older. It happens. That said, I laughed, I was happy to see Abed and Britta and everyone else, and I'm hopeful that the newbies will become as quickly assimilated into the group as Buzz and Duncan were last season.

Some other thoughts:

* Which fake spin-off would you want to see more of: “Hard Drive & Wing Man” or the Portuguese “Gremlins,” aka “Knee-High Mischief”? Wonderful as the trailer for the latter was, I think I may have to go with the former, if only because its theme music is Eric Clapton's “It's In the Way That You Use It,” which was from the same “Color of Money” soundtrack that “Community” once dipped into for “Werewolves of London” during Jeff's billiard-playing days. Then again, if “Knee-High Mischief” episodes were introduced by Annie doing her Gremlin impression… UPDATE: Okay, I've now seen the tag to “Ladders” and have accordingly added “The Butcher and the Baker” to this query. Based on early comments, I suspect that's going to win in a walk.

* The Dean has apparently seen “Die Hard,” but not recently enough to realize that Hans is referring to Alexander of Macedonia, and not Jesus, when he gives the quote about him weeping, “for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

* Apparently, Let's makes pretzels, too? Hmmm…

* Nathan Fillion makes a brief cameo as Greendale's head custodian, but perhaps more interesting from a “Community” continuity perspective was the return of Todd, last seen at Jeff's graduation ceremony at the end of the gas leak season. Apparently, the group trusts him enough now to be the lookout for their speakeasy, even though he is generally viewed as even worse than Britta.

* Though Britta's TV dad Martin Mull has plenty of sitcom experience (from the highs of “Fernwood 2Night” to the lows of “Dads”), her TV mom Lesley Ann Warren only half-hour experience of note was on “Will & Grace” a decade ago. Though she certainly has played plenty of comic roles, including her great turn in one of the best movie comedies ever.

What did everybody else think?