Danny Pudi, Joel McHale, Alison Brie, Paget Brewster, Jim Rash

Community is able to evolve each season and bounce back from significant cast reshuffling for the same reason the show is susceptible to inertia. It’s not a show about characters, it’s a show about characters as they relate specifically to Greendale Community College.

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The emphasis on place over people has intensified as Community has been forced to pivot from the characters’ individual educational and career paths to their shared investment in the ongoing health and reputation of Greendale. The show still focuses on a diverse group of people, thrown together by chance, who probably would have no other occasion to meet. But whereas once the Study Group was a support system for each other as they plotted their own distinct journeys, the Save Greendale Committee’s members are basically co-parents raising a child in the form of a mediocre community college. More than ever before, season six is Community as Three Men And A Baby.

“Basic Crisis Room Decorum” wouldn’t be a great episode of old Community, but it’s a great episode of this version of the show, one that succeeds as many of the show’s best episodes do, by cramming everyone into the study room and letting them bounce off each other. “Decorum” doesn’t match the quality of “Cooperative Calligraphy” or “Cooperative Polygraphy,” but it echoes those episodes with all of the characters—even Vicki!—confined to the study room to solve a problem.

Here, the problem is a negative ad from City College calling attention to the inconvenient fact that Greendale once awarded a four-year degree (or 28-year degree, depending on your math) to Ruffles the dog. In a hilarious cold open, Annie alerts Frankie, who delegates the job of alerting the rest of the committee to Dean Pelton. The Dean’s unilateral love affair with Jeff has gone through phases of varying efficacy over the years. The subtle version in early years was funny, then it became irksome at times, but it’s back to being funny again now that it’s gotten so far over the top. The Dean’s text conversation takes a detour as we see Jeff has given the Dean not just any fake number, but the cell phone number of a Japanese teenage boy who does to the Dean whatever the Japanese call “catfishing.” It’s a long cold open, and the tag is incredibly long too, which isn’t necessarily bad, but will take some getting used to as a component of the longer episodes.

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The gang convenes in the study room, which turns into a political war room as they discuss how best to respond to the attack ad, ultimately landing on a plan to discredit Ruffles the dog. It seems like the simpler plan would be attacking City College, but it’s sillier and more satisfying for the Save Greendale Committee to turn into an opposition research team consumed with digging up dirt on a dog. Frankie finds the silver bullet, an unpaid bill for library fines which would have precluded Ruffles from being awarded a diploma. Annie is horrified by the plan to smear Ruffles and decides she wants to transfer to a school where the administrators would sooner prevent degrees from going to dogs in the future than find a technicality on which to claim it never happened in the first place.

“Decorum” is reminiscent of Parks And Recreation’s “Campaign Ad,” in which Leslie Knope demonstrates her integrity by trying to prevent her campaign from employing a strategy predicated on tearing someone else down. The story worked better in Parks because while Annie’s objections are well-taken, the idea of Ruffles the Student becomes less workable when Annie becomes concerned about protecting a dog’s reputation. If it’s silly to confer a college degree on a dog, it’s possibly sillier to act as though there are real-life consequences to besmirching a dog’s good name. Though the story threatens to become the wrong kind of goofy, Monica Padrick’s script crackles with the kind of rapid-fire dialogue that is a joy to watch whether or not you like what’s being said.

For the third episode in a row, I’m pleasantly surprised by how naturally Paget Brewster has blended into the cast. She’s done as impressive and as quick a job of making herself indispensable as did Jonathan Banks, and Frankie gets as much of a showcase in “Decorum” as Banks’ Professor Hickey got when Padrick paired him with Annie in “Analysis Of Cork-Based Networking.” That said, it’s a little unsettling how overtly the writers are making Frankie similar to Jeff. Frankie and Annie talk as they sort through Greendale files for dirt on Ruffles, and as Frankie rifles off her logical-to-a-fault observations, I said to myself “She sounds exactly like Jeff” mere seconds before Annie says the same thing. After watching the season premiere I said I hoped the writers weren’t planning a relationship between Jeff and Frankie, but that seems to be the direction we’re headed, and I’m slowly warming to the idea if only because Brewster is already such a firecracker.

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“Decorum” shows that it may be a while before the new Community wraps its arms around its new character dynamics. Keith David’s Elroy still feels superfluous, which is unfortunate because David is such a phenomenal performer. Even with very little to do, he manages to score one of the episodes biggest laughs with only a slowly lowered eyebrow after Frankie announces she doesn’t own a television. Elroy doesn’t feel connected to Greendale and seems like a generic codger filling Community’s crazy, old guy slot. Professor Hickey didn’t face the same problem because having him already based at Greendale made him feel instantly organic to the story. While I applaud Dan Harmon for resisting the urge to unearth never-before-seen professors every time a new character is needed, Elroy’s disconnection from the world demonstrates the advantage of that approach.

Community’s biggest focus this season needs to be redefining these relationships for the audience. Are they still friends, or are they now more like co-workers? Is there still a romantic spark between Jeff and Annie or has that dynamic been abandoned completely? Who or what is Chang? There’s more to solidifying Community’s sixth season than randomly plugging in a couple new characters, but if anyone can make these characters’ relationships feel genuine and dimensional, it’s Harmon.

Stray observations:

  • Yahoo Screen is seriously becoming the bane of my existence. Maybe I’m using the wrong browser, but for the second week straight, the video player has acted possessed. Not only does it randomly clip the act breaks, the player will randomly insert commercials into the middle of scenes, and even resume a completely different episode when the commercials end than was playing when they began. I need Yahoo to fix these issues immediately, and also to accept my pledge to visit both London and Wales if they promise to leave me alone about it.
  • Abed: “Jeff wants me to make an attack ad. So why is he a pedophile?”
  • I have no idea what to make of the Britta story, in which she stumbles around drunk and has a brief musical dream sequence.
  • That said, Natalie Is Freezing is an amazing title for a generic ‘90s alternative band. “Pillar Of Garbage” could easily be a Sixpence None The Richer song.
  • Brenda’s doing better!

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