The funny thing about being smart is that you can get through most of life without having to do any work.
—Jeff Winger (Joel McHale)
Community gets the obvious jokes out of the way early. Tracking out from a shot of an idyllic college campus full of busy-seeming students, the scene soon reveals that the bells tolling in the background are coming not from a ivy-covered tower off in the distance, but from a dodgy boom box operated by an incompetent dean fumbling his way through a Welcome Week speech.
And so, within the first minutes of NBC’s new comedy, we are reminded that community college can be a rinky-dink affair, populated by high school dropouts, middle-aged divorcees, and one Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a fast-talking lawyer prohibited from practicing until he actually earns the college degree he faked so many years ago. Rather than do any actual work, he’s enrolled himself at Greendale, what he calls a “school-shaped toilet,” where he means to skate by on his charm and cunning. After all, it’s only community college.
Jeff’s master plan involves a psychology professor, Dr. Duncan (The Daily Show‘s John Oliver), whom he once cleared of a DUI charge by claiming his drunken U-turn on the freeway was actually an act of post-9/11 patriotism (“2002 was a simpler time,” he recalls wistfully). To pass his classes, Jeff must convince Duncan to give him the answers to every test in every course he’ll take that semester. To keep himself from being bored, he must convince Britta (Gillian Jacobs), the girl in his Spanish class who looks like Elizabeth Shue, that he’s not a complete “shallow douche-bag,” which is her seemingly spot-on summation after dealing with him for just one afternoon.
For Jeff, any evaluation other than “shallow douche-bag” is going to be a tough sell, considering that if Jeff is talking, Jeff is lying. Confident and charismatic, he proclaims, “Either I am God, or truth is relative. Either way, boo-yah!” Luckily, the insanely likeable McHale grants Jeff a Bill Clinton-esque charm: you know he’s smug and dishonest, but you like him, so you just don’t care.
But of course Britta cares, and she doesn’t like him at all. Seeking more time to woo her, Jeff organizes a Spanish class study group, which becomes the series’ central literal and symbolic community, one that embodies all the clichés imaginable for its middling students: the good, the bad, and the ethnic. But before you can say “The Breakfast Club,” Community begins challenging those stereotypes, while also arguing that community college is a great equalizer, leveling differences of race, class, and nationality. Consider Abed (Danny Pudi) a Palestinian-American pop culture geek with Asperger Syndrome, who functions as the group’s moral compass and voice of reason. How refreshing to hear for once that Arab-American voice be laugh-out-loud funny without resorting to an exaggerated accent.
As utopian and smart as Community aims to be, there’s one cliché its not willing to forgo: tall and white, Jeff maintains the authority over their group, even after he’s outed as a liar and a creep. Given the heft of the show’s themes and the crispness of the writing (thanks to more than one Arrested Development alum on board), it’s got to be a brilliant social commentary disguised as a major network sitcom, right? Or maybe Joel McHale really is that likable and we’re all wallowing in nostalgia for a simpler 2002. Either way, boo-yah.