TORONTO - The quirky, cult-favourite TV comedy "Community" is heading into its fourth season without its creator, some of its writers and executive producers.
But if you ask co-stars Gillian Jacobs and Yvette Nicole Brown, fans needn't worry. While some of the behind-the-scenes names have changed, the integrity of the show hasn't, they insist. Having already shot three episodes of the new season, they confirm there's no secret plan to tweak the show's formula to boost its perpetually underwhelming ratings. There's no effort underway to broaden the appeal of the esoteric, wacky sitcom that has won raves from critics and bred diehard fans — but hasn't translated into what would traditionally be considered a TV hit.
"I think everybody that's coming in, that's new, is very respectful of the show and they want the show to stay the same and they want it to feel like the same show the fans fell in love," says Jacobs, who plays the character Britta.
"You have people who aren't coming in to change what you've already done but are coming to celebrate and continue in the same direction," adds Brown, who plays Shirley.
"It feels to me like the same show and I think fans will agree."
The rash of departures was sparked by news in May that show creator Dan Harmon was being pushed out, shortly after the series was given a 13-episode commitment for its upcoming season.
No clear reason for the move was publicly stated, but Harmon made headlines a month earlier for a feud with "Community" co-star Chevy Chase, triggered by an expletive-laden voicemail that was leaked online. In the recording, a furious Chase berates Harmon for a reported incident at a cast party, in which the actor was publicly heckled in front of his wife and daughter.
In a fan interview on the website Reddit, Harmon said their falling out was over Chase's refusal to shoot a pivotal final scene for an episode in season 3.
The show's cast and crew have been vocal about not always getting along with Chase and difficulties with him on set. The actors repeatedly joke about their run-ins with Chase on the show's DVD commentaries.
But Chase likely didn't want to see Harmon fired, Jacobs posits.
"I think that (the voicemail) gave people the impression that there was some longstanding feud with him and Dan," says Jacobs, who was in Toronto last week with Brown to promote the release of the first three seasons of the show on Netflix Canada.
"I think it was a moment of conflict between the two of them but Chevy in no way wanted Dan to leave the show, that was not his goal."
She acknowledged the history of issues the cast has had with Chase but insisted they weren't a major problem.
"When you work with people for years people aren't always at their best and I think Dan explained ... what exactly went down and why he was upset and Chevy was upset," she says.
"That was a blip in time that unfortunately got blown out of proportion — because things got put on the Internet — but I would say as a cast we really do love each other."
While fans are eager to learn more about the new season and its potential new direction, Jacobs and Brown would share only a few tidbits.
Britta "is continuing with her therapy and trying to be a therapist and everybody's sort of her unwitting subjects," Jacobs says.
"And then, also maybe, some more Troy and Britta developments. Maybe. I don't know," she added with faux coyness, referencing a budding romance between the characters.
She welcomes the two characters getting involved but admits she does has some reservations.
"I don't want it to be a relationship show, that's not really what I think the heart of the show is," she says.
"But then on the other hand, it's kind of natural within a show that pairings develop, or unexpected pairings develop, and you want to be truthful to that."
When the show returns in October, it'll move from Thursdays to Fridays, which the cast welcomes.
"Our timeslot on Thursday at 8 p.m. was a really tough place to be because they moved 'Big Bang Theory' into that slot while we were on the air, they moved 'American Idol' into that slot, NFL football is going to be on Thursday nights," Jacobs says.
While Friday nights have often been seen as a dumping ground for underperforming series, it might work for "Community," says Brown.
"My thought is, our fans don't watch live anyway, they timeshift anyway, so whether their DVR is grabbing us Thursday at 8 p.m. or Fridays at 8:30 p.m., I don't see a difference," she says.
"But I'm (also) foolish enough to think we might see an uptick (in ratings) because I think maybe our fans are not necessarily the type to say, 'I've got a hot date tonight,' they are probably dating in the middle of the week and home watching television on Friday night.
"They're already watching 'Fringe,' they're already watching 'Grimm,' they used to watch 'Chuck' on Fridays — I think they're already home and ready to have another funny show to add to their list of things to do on Friday nights."
The cast also hopes the recent deal with Netflix Canada will get some new fans on board in time for the season 4 premiere. And the streaming company's plan to revive and air "Arrested Development" is also encouraging, should "Community" find itself in ratings trouble again, says Brown.
"We're on the bubble every season but I just think that (there's) a new way that kids are watching TV, and I think most of our fans are young folk," she says.
"They're not watching the same way that people are watching televsion, they're watching online, they're streaming it on Netflix and marathoning it, or DVRing it.
"It's a new terrain, this is the wild wild west now ... and I think it was because of 'Arrested Development' being gone before its time, most fans are fighting for their shows in ways they never had before."