It hasn’t been a fruitful season for comedy on NBC. A To Z and Bad Judge met with swift cancellations, and the fates of Marry Me and About A Boy remain undecided. At mid-season, the network programmed an entirely comedy-free Thursday night, rendering the former home of Must See TV a non-sitcom zone for the first time since the fall of 1980. While the Lorne Michaels empire ensures NBC’s dominance in late-night laughter, the network’s big splashes in primetime comedy have involved letting shows go: Parks And Recreation’s stellar final season, or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s break for Netflix (and immediate second-season pickup). This trend was heralded by Community’s last-minute stay of execution, granted not by the broadcast overlords who saw fit to reinstate creator Dan Harmon for season five, but by Internet giant Yahoo. Beginning Tuesday, March 17, the show’s prophesied sixth season (whither the movie?) begins rolling out not on TV, but on the same online platform that hosts 40 years of digitized Saturday Night Live.
A show about the risks and rewards of starting over, Community has had plenty of opportunity to practice what it preaches. Its first reset went bust, but the return of key creatives Harmon and Chris McKenna provided the show’s fifth-season comeback with steady hands and a familiar tone. Born again for the web—whose denizens have long treated the show with more enthusiasm and kindness than a traditional TV audience—Community’s sixth season faces the daunting task of acclimating to new surroundings while simultaneously navigating significant cast departures. The change felt within the season’s first two episodes is less bracing than the “same show, different voice” chill of the Harmon-less fourth season, but the sense that Team Community was still re-re-finding its footing in the early goings is inescapable.
The behind-the-scenes shifts characteristically bleed into the narrative of the season premiere, which translates network relocation and casting moves into the makings of another chaotic school year at Greendale Community College. Lacking Community’s most reliable punchline machine (Donald Glover) and its moral compass (Yvette Nicole Brown), these new episodes are laser-focused on the people who’ve been left behind. While Abed (Danny Pudi) does some meta-hand-holding for the startled faithful, Britta (Gillian Jacobs) gets some much-deserved character rehab. And slowly but surely, the empty seats at the study-room table are occupied: Offseason acquisitions Paget Brewster and Keith David each make an auspicious debut, slotting comfortably into Greendale’s atmosphere of the “weird, passionate, and gross” (to borrow the phrasing of Brewster’s consultant character, Francesca “Frankie” Dart).
But the holes in the call sheet are felt beyond the physical absence of Glover and Brown (or Jonathan Banks or John Oliver—hell, even newly minted CSI recruit Charley Koontz is missed). Working with a main ensemble of four saps some of Community’s essential energy, introducing slack into what’s otherwise one of TV’s quickest-witted series. Brewster and David will presumably lend a hand in that department as the season carries on—as will returning support players Ken Jeong and Jim Rash—but not having enough characters to sustain a C-story is one of season six’s biggest adjustments. That, plus run times in excess of the standard 21-minute broadcast “half-hour,” makes for episodes that feel longer and slower than they actually are.
And that’s where the premiere’s other spot of self-awareness comes in. Free to be their weirdest, most passionate, grossest selves, the students of Greendale wind up learning some critical lessons about self-regulation. It’s not conventional fodder for a laugh riot, but that’s Community, a show that has always adhered to convention only to rise above it. Episodes can run longer, the pop-culture references can go denser, the joke-telling devices can (and do) get stranger—but there’s still an established “reality” that the new, made-for-the-Internet Community must honor and abide. Testing the limits of that reality makes for some of the funniest material in the new episodes, but these tests also threaten to literally and figuratively destroy Greendale. It’s a place undergoing its own rapid and monumental refresh, but the students and faculty of the Save Greendale Committee remain strong enough to prevent complete structural overhaul. These episodes are not their finest half-hours, but they’re laying a foundation for greater things to come.
Back on the Peacock home planet, a form of Jack Donaghy’s “Make It 1997 Again Through Magic Or Science” strategy plays out in the second hour of Tuesday’s primetime lineup. Successes in the fields of sports, event, singing competition, and Dick Wolf programming have come at the expense of TV’s most storied comedy brand, but the sitcom has one final refuge in the night that was once home to Must See TV’s less flashy, less splashy younger siblings like Frasier, NewsRadio, and Wings. With Undateable returning for a second season, NBC is pairing the multi-camera, more-charming-than-its-promotional-campaigns-imply comedy with One Big Happy, the story of a single lesbian (Elisha Cuthbert); her straight, male best friend/roommate (Nick Zano); and the British expat (Kelly Brook) whom he marries shortly after donating his sperm to artificially inseminate the other woman in his life. Not the tidiest elevator pitch in the world; it’s an easier sell with the imprimatur of executive producer Ellen DeGeneres. (Creator Liz Feldman, late of 2 Broke Girls, previously worked at DeGeneres’ daytime talk show.)
It’s also, if you squint hard enough, a watered-down version of Ryan Murphy’s one-and-done sitcom The New Normal, with the caustic, Norman Lear lite social commentary swapped out for shared-living-space headaches and light romantic capering. In other words, it’s exactly the type of thing that became popular when Lear’s topical sitcoms started falling out of favor in the ’70s. One Big Happy is a variation on Three’s Company with less farce and more jiggle, in which Jack is actually gay, Janet’s a dude who eloped with Chrissy, and the Ropers aren’t nosy landlords—they’re Jack’s snoopy sister (Rebecca Corry) and doofy brother-in-law (Chris Williams).
Despite its progressive ingredients, One Big Happy has more in common with the rerun crowd than it does with other, more distinctive sitcom depictions of a modern family. (You know, like Modern Family.) Its sense of humor is vintage bawdy, with the newlyweds’ healthy sexual appetite a frequent source of studio-audience laughter. In particular, Brook’s Prudence feels like an unfortunate throwback, a free spirit who seemingly happened upon an ever-shifting bundle of quirks while fleeing from a Benny Hill Show sketch. (She loves science fiction! She drinks whiskey by the bottle! She has a colorful background that’s practically a fairy tale!) Though the scripts treat former Happy Endings cohorts Cuthbert and Zano charitably, a gag about being “accused of smuggling melons” is par for Prudence’s course.
Yet One Big Happy’s biggest problem is that it’s a premise sitcom with one premise too many. Cuthbert and Zano raising a kid as friends is fine enough on its own, instantly establishing the depths of their bond. As Luke, Zano is a blank slate, but the camaraderie he sparks with Cuthbert’s Lizzy is authentic and lived-in. For her part, Lizzy is the next step forward in Cuthbert’s comic reinvention, displaying a command of the character’s control-freak tics that suggests she paid close attention to Eliza Coupe’s fussbudget antics on the set of Happy Endings. Channeling Lizzy’s nerves through a twitchy, expressive physicality, she’s a born multi-camera performer.
But pairing Zano off with Brook means there’s always a third wheel in the One Big Happy family. At its best, the pregnancy story complements the quickie wedding story, and vice versa. At other times, you’d forget Lizzy is carrying Luke’s kid if it wasn’t the source of at least one joke per act. That tension produces an emotionally potent two-part arc at the end of the first season, leading to a finale cliffhanger that blows up the show’s status quo. It’s a ballsy move to pull off in the sixth episode of a midseason replacement, a bravery that that the show could use more of—and at an earlier date. Unfortunately for One Big Happy, the only early dates it can accurately hit are those of a bygone era, one whose fortunes NBC is unlikely to rediscover anytime soon.
Created by: Dan Harmon
Starring: Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie, Danny Pudi, Ken Jeong, Jim Rash
Returns: Tuesday, March 17, on Yahoo Screen (New episodes post every Tuesday)
Format: Single-camera sitcom
Two sixth-season episodes watched for review
Reviews by Joshua Alston will run weekly.
One Big Happy
Created by: Liz Feldman
Starring: Elisha Cuthbert, Nick Zano, Kelly Brook, Rebecca Corry, Chris Williams
Debuts: Tuesday, March 17, at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on NBC
Format: Multi-camera sitcom
First season watched for review