Gillian Jacobs’s Britta and Joel McHale’s Jeff return with “Community,” and they brought a minister (played by Charles Walker). (Lewis Jacobs/LEWIS JACOBS/NBC)

Rarely have I seen such disappointed faces as the day I visited a classroom full of college students and told them I’m not a huge fan of NBC’s “Community,” the ensemble snarkedy about a group of adults ostensibly trying to earn their degrees at a community college.

With my pronounced shrug of “meh” — plus the dismissivereview I wrote when the series premiered in 2009 — I was once again staring across a personally terrifying “Community” chasm: Me on one side, feeling as outdated as Moses (even though I’m not nearly that old), and the cool kids over there, exalting the show’s hyperactive, multi-referential, Hulu-ready brilliance.

The series — created by Dan Harmon and sustained by a group of writers I often picture receiving Red Bull by IV drip — returns Thursday night after a hiatus that produced much angst and hashtagging among fans.

That outrage was stoked by the show’s many breakout stars, especially its lead, Joel McHale, who never misses an opportunity to promote “Community” on his other weekly show, E!’s “The Soup.” Last week “The Soup” showed a vaingloriously assembled return-of-“Community” trailer that was more than two minutes long, crossing the line that separates network synergy from obnoxious PR. Crossing it ironically, I should add, but crossing it all the same.

But forget all that. The fact is I’ve come around to “Community,” mostly by watching the highlight clips from each episode and attendant Twittering that wends its way across the pop-culture sphere as soon as each episode airs.

My mistake had been judging “Community” through an outmoded format — the half-hour story arc — and not by the tiny sketches sliced and diced from it, zipping past us in nanoseconds. In extracted form, online, “Community” can be whatever you want it to be. It can speak to a new era of satire, but it also doesn’t have to mean anything at all. Mostly it’s a way in which members of a vast, savvy tribe recognize and salute one another.

When watching the absurd travails of Jeff Winger (McHale) and the ragtag group of friends he met in a Spanish class study group, I have been advised by hard-core “Community” devotees to consider them as a surrogate family, the members of which support one another’s idiosyncracies (narcissism, insanity, Asperger’s syndrome) through a never-ending riff of jokes and common references.

Which is almost precisely the same argument I’ve made when touting the virtues of ABC’s “Cougar Town” to viewers who can’t stand that show. “Community” and “Cougar Town” are in some ways eerily similar sagas, in which emotionally-ostracized cynics find comfort in trading insults and chancing upon faux-sentimental moments of clarity and attachment. (Meanwhile, ABC’s increasingly wonderful “Happy Endings” outwits both shows in that regard — as if “Community” met “Cougar Town” and went on a wild meth binge.)

Thursday’s triumphant “Community” return could surely have used one of the show’s over-the-top sequences that have defined the series in the past — such as its paintball wars, or Japanese anime foosball matches, or the claymation “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” special — but it is nevertheless representative of the manic imagination that sustains the show.

While Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) considers opening a campus coffee shop with Pierce (Chevy Chase), Andre (“Cosby Show” alum Malcolm-Jamal Warner), the father of her children, barges into the Greendale Community College food court with three men dressed in early-’90s Boyz II Men cardigans and bow ties. They serenade her as he proposes getting remarried: “Babygirl, I have loved you since there was a Soviet Union and only one Damon Wayans,” he says.

Notice the mix of high-low. The show rewards viewers who have spent their entire lives watching TV and movies and surfing the Web, and who therefore always, always get the joke. (Whether the joke is a protracted “My Dinner with Andre” bit or a glancing reference to “The Running Man.”) This is why the “Community” community occasionally attempts to explain and even intellectualize the show’s intended meaning, which is how it wound up with such designations as “the post-post-modern sitcom.”

With 12 episodes left in its third season, “Community” teeters on the cusp of renewal, though it’s difficult to imagine why a floundering NBC would sacrifice a show that has so thoroughly charmed the youngs and so effortlessly speaks the language of the permanently-distracted Generations X, Y and whatever. The reason the show’s ratings have never been stellar are surely self-evident: “Community’s” general audience would no sooner watch a TV show on an actual television (where ratings are still measured) than they would, uh, read a TV review in a dead-tree edition of a newspaper.

But let’s not engage too much in media studies. “Community” stands on its own intangible excellence. Though it is happiest online, it needs to be on TV, because TV would certainly be poorer without it.


(30 minutes) returns Thursday
at 8 p.m. on NBC.