TV Review: NBC’s ‘Community’

09.17.09 8 years ago 8 Comments


When it comes to NBC’s “Community,” I have a proverbial bee in my proverbial bonnet…

So the premise of the show goes like this: A slimy lawyer (Joel McHale) is disbarred when is college degree is ruled invalid. He goes back to community college, thinking it will just be another con his silver tongue will help him perpetrate. At one point, the man he expects to help him cheat his way back into the courtroom, a community college instructor, asks if he plans to do this for the next four years.

It’s here that I start thinking: It’s great for him to go back to community college, but that won’t earn him his bachelor’s degree, no matter how long he stays, whether it’s four years or eight. In fact, depending on how much money he saved in his previous career, he probably won’t want to spend much time at community college at all before getting his associate’s degree and finding a good online program to finish things off.

Since most comedies aspire to a longer shelf-life than two seasons and since most of the show’s supporting characters probably aren’t going to follow our hero after he finishes off at the CC, I start wondering how “Community” plans to play with time or reality should it have a five or six season run. It just doesn’t make sense!!!

That’s a convoluted way of saying this: When I watched the pilots for FOX’s “Brothers” and ABC’s “Hank,” I struggled with logical inconsistencies and tried to think of ways to get the shows off of my TV forever after 22 minutes. When I watched the “Community” pilot, I struggled with logical inconsistencies, but only because I was hoping to secure the show’s long-term future. See? My OCD is a compliment.

“Community” slides into NBC’s Thursday comedy block and, in terms of quality, it looks like a logical heir to “The Office” and “30 Rock.” It’s also certainly one of the best new shows of the season.

[Review for “Community,” which premieres on Thursday, Sept. 17, after the break…]

When it comes to snarky comic timing, fans of “The Soup” know that McHale is a master. The question of what he offers beyond a wry monotone, a raised eye-brow and a perpetual smirk is still very much up-in-the-air after watching two episodes.

McHale plays sincerity as just another layer of artifice, just another mask to be discarded at the end of the day, which is perfectly matched with creator Dan Harmon’s desire to subvert heartwarming sitcom conventions. McHale’s Jeff is damaged (and damaging) and redemption isn’t something that’s going to come in one episode or two. The character is going to continue to lie and cut corners and Harmon is going to continue to cut every treacly moment with arsenic. 

The joke in “Community” isn’t really on community colleges or the people who attend them. The main characters are all students with stereotypical reasons for attending, but that’s there both for easily relayed backstory and also as an homage to the John Hughes (R.I.P.) movies in which everybody would seem to have a Type and then 90 minutes later, we’d all learn how very wrong we were to make those assumptions. 

Pop culture and TV conventions are in Harmon’s blood, as anybody who has watched “The Sarah Silverman Program” or the unaired “Heat Vision and Jack” pilot can attest. In its first two episodes, “Community” winks and nudges its way through an encyclopedia of familiar situations, specific movie and television references and even recognizable musical and song cues. Sometimes this media literacy is as subtle (or relatively subtle) as the way the college dean’s daily announcements are on their way to becoming a modern version of the P.A. in “M*A*S*H*” (or the dispatcher in “The Unusuals”), but sometimes it’s as broad as a character reciting a monologue from “Breakfast Club” verbatim (a scene sure make Danny Pudi one of the fall’s breakout scene stealers).

The mere presence of co-star Chevy Chase is a reference in and of itself. Chase has become a smartly opportunistic actor and he initially operates here in the same way he worked on “Chuck.” You’re just supposed to know that he’s Chevy Chase — with his long list of adored credits — and you, in all likelihood, are not. Some of my colleagues complained that Chase wasn’t initially funny in his “Chuck” run and then suddenly, by his second or third episodes, he just was. He didn’t need to force humor where none was required. So in the “Community” pilot, Chase is only a little funny. You don’t go, “He’s the reason to watch the show.” And then in the second episode, you remember “SNL” and “Fletch” and the “Vacation” movies and how utterly gung-ho he can be. If he has to fade back into the background in the third episode, I’m guessing he’ll be able to.

“Community” doesn’t need to be about Chevy Chase and despite the once-legendary ego, he doesn’t need it to be either.

Gillian Jacobs, the pilot’s female lead, doesn’t really need to be funny in the pilot, serving as a receptacle for Elisabeth Shue references (the resemblance is there, though maybe not as strongly as the characters thing) and loving close-ups. In episode two, though, she does great work with duct-tape over her mouth. In a comedic way. Geez. I guess you’ll just have to tune in to see what it all has to do with Guatemala and a pinata of a murdered journalist.

Like Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown and Alison Brie show themselves to be capable of taking the most from a burst of dialogue or even an incredulous close-up. Also just waiting for an opportunity is Donald Glover, whose versatility and improvisational flair may get more use after the Derrick Comedy feature “Mystery Team” gains its inevitable cult following.

Leaving nothing to chance, “Community” goes beyond its core supporting players, with John Oliver delivering laughs in the pilot and Ken Jeong delivering a jaw-droppingly funny monologue in the second episode, playing Senor Chang, the college’s Spanish teacher. [Key quote: “My knowledge will bite your face off.”]

Jeong’s speech is just one of many atypically extended jokes in the early episodes. Because “Community” is a single-camera comedy, it doesn’t rely on an ingrained build-up to punchlines. Sometimes characters can go on breathlessly for whole paragraphs letting piling one laughline on top of the next without waiting for reaction. This enhances rewatchability and I can already say that the “Community” pilot was just as strong the second time as the first and that there were gags I originally hadn’t picked up on.

Thus far the layering isn’t quite as lethal as on “Arrested Development,” but any similarities may be attributable to the confident directorial hand of Anthony and Joe Russo, who gave both pilots their breakneck pace.

After a single viewing of the pilot, I put “Community” in second on my list of season’s Best New Shows, behind only ABC’s “Modern Family.” After watching the second “Community” episode, possibly funnier than the first, I’m already wondering if I should reverse that order. But that choice can wait until after I see a second “Modern Family” episode.

For now, the “Community” team’s just going to have to find a way to convince me that the main character has a good reason to spend six or seven years at a community college.

“Community” premieres on NBC at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 17.

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