Back to School

After an extended winter break, classes resume on NBC’s cult comedy ‘Community’

From left, “Community’s” Joel McHale, Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Gillian Jacobs and Danny Pudi. The NBC series’ future is uncertain as it resumes episodes Thursday.

“Community’s” finest trait may also be its biggest fault: a lack of consistency. “The show is so awkwardly ambitious because it never trusts itself to stick with something that works,” series creator Dan Harmon says.

It’s nominally about seven misfit friends at the fictional Greendale Community College, but there’s no “normal” “Community” episode. Tune in any given week and you could be in the middle of an all-out paintball war, a gleeful Christmas musical or an elaborate story with seven different time lines.

For fans of the half-hour comedy, it makes the show as rewarding and rich as a serialized drama. For NBC, it’s been a marketing nightmare.

Though “Community” has a devoted and vocal fan base, it’s never performed well in the Nielsen ratings. As a result, NBC pulled the series from the schedule mid-season. But when “30 Rock” took over the 8 p.m. Thursday time slot in January, the ratings didn’t change. More often than not, “30 Rock” did worse than “Community” had, prompting NBC to bring the show back — in its old home — tonight.

The hiatus, which lasted almost three months, meant Harmon and his writers were working inside a bubble. For the first time, Harmon wrote and produced episodes without, as he puts it, the “constant affirmation” of the TV audience.

“I wake up in the middle of every night with my stomach in knots,” Harmon says. “The show itself, in a meta sense, suffered a cardiac arrest. We can translate that into a darkness that seeps into the second half of the season.”

Even if ratings don’t improve, Harmon seems confident the series will get a fourth season, if only so Joel McHale’s Jeff Winger can complete his fourth year at school, bringing the series to a natural end point. (In positive news, Comedy Central will run old episodes of “Community” starting this fall.)

Of course, Harmon and McHale would prefer if “Community” ended with six seasons and a movie, an inside joke the “Community” faithful adopted as a slogan during the hiatus. Fans also turned the series into a trending topic on Twitter, organized rallies and donned felt goatees (another inside joke) as signs of support.

“I hope that the huge brush fire that the fans started spreads to other people and will catch them on fire and they will be burned by it,” says McHale.

Metaphorically speaking, we think.

Streets Ahead!

New “Community” episodes return to NBC tonight at 8 p.m. with a big change in the wind for one member of the study group. Shirley’s (Yvette Nicole Brown) ex, Andre (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), asks her to remarry him. Future episodes will include a “Law & Order” spoof, pillow forts, a war with Ben Chang (Ken Jeong) and the study group’s possible expulsion from Greendale.

Rudi Greenberg is Express' Weekend Pass editor and comedy columnist.
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