“Stop being meta. Stop taking everything we do and shoving it up its own ass.”
—Jeff Winger (Joel McHale)
The first season of NBC’s Community was something of a suicide mission, albeit one with some crazed integrity. Launched into the network’s Thursday-night lineup alongside stalwarts like The Office and 30 Rock, it was intended to be another of that evening’s “smart” sitcoms that eschewed the live studio audiences and crudely normative, housebound mechanics that kept powerhouses like Two and a Half Men chugging along, no matter how unfunny they were. The tradeoff made sense for the network: build a clutch of boundary-pushing shows that might attract smaller but (it must be said) more educated audiences that advertisers would pay to reach. (Why the network thought the disaster that was Outsourced fit into this mold is another question.)
The Office and 30 Rock had proved themselves in this regard, overcoming initially low ratings long enough to achieve syndication in the after-the-evening-news slots right next to Seinfeld. But Community, which combined the character-driven awkwardness of the former with the surreal self-reflexivity of the latter, was always a touch-and-go affair. Unlike many of the other Thursday night-style sitcoms (Parks and Recreation also comes to mind), it wasn’t set in a workplace, the preferred backdrop for alternative sitcoms that’s used just as commonly as the family home is for more traditional ones. (Does this say something about the interests and aspirations of these divergent audiences? The imagined family set against the actual one?)
Danny Pudi and Gillian Jacobs
Rather, its establishing scenario – in which a cluster of divergent types are thrown together as an Intro to Spanish study group at a bottom-tier community college in an unnamed swath of lower-tier suburbia – creates one of those family-of-friends groups which then allows the writers to play out potentially endless strings of romantic entanglements, jealousies, and power plays where little was truly at stake. The worst that could happen to anybody here was dropping out – of a horrible school.
But that wasn’t so different from other shows of its brainier ilk. What set Community apart was in its no-holds-barred approach to following the obsessive little games of its writing staff which both inspired a cultish level of devotion from those who got it and nonplussed shrugs from those who didn’t. The dialogue was faster than just about any other comedy on network TV, with the pop-culture references falling like rain.
This sensibility was kept from the snark overload of something like 30 Rock (the show’s closest rival for rat-a-tat editing and delivery) by being married to a glowing naiveté. Characters like former high-school football star Troy (Donald Glover) and borderline autistic TV-obsessive Abed (Danny Pudi) and the Christian housewife Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) bring an uncommon innocence to their roles. This plays handily off the narcissism of characters like the group’s putative leader, relentlessly shallow lawyer Jeff (Joel McHale) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs), the feckless wannabe radical whose barely-considered stances on issues constitute some of the most-astute micro-satire ever seen on American television.
Joel McHale and Ken Jeong
What keeps these characters from introducing a more sentimental vibe in the manner of later seasons of The Office—where the showrunners made the fatal error of believing that Michael Scott was actually a nice guy, after all – is the desperation that underlies their childlike attitudes. By the time of the second season, it has become clear that these people have become an adoptive family not because they necessarily love each other so much, but because their futures and lives outside of that study room are actually quite dark, lonely, and frightening to contemplate.
Filling the void, then, is pop culture. From the first season’s opening episode, where Jeff makes a speech (which would be considered impassioned were it not coming from a bottomless well of tired cynicism and professional skill) whose critical moment invokes the awarding of an Oscar for writing to Ben Affleck, to the instant classic Modern Warfare (where a campus-wide game of Paintball Assassin delivers plenty of opportunity for slo-mo shootouts and Chow Yun-Fat imitations), the references came thick and fast. In fact, if one were to look for a reason why the show has a small core of hugely dedicated fans and a large number of people who want to like it and yet “just can’t get into it” (one of the more common complaints), it would be this referential density.
The second season is no different. In fact, as though the writers assumed they could be cancelled at any moment, it doubles down on the fanboy obsessions like Z-grade genre films (Troy and Abed’s love of a fictional, classically horrible ‘80s-style action series called Kickpuncher) and foundational sitcoms of an earlier era (building an entire episode around Abed’s challenging a professor’s assumptions in a media studies class centered on analyzing hierarchy in Who’s the Boss?). An entire episode is built around two cultural artifacts from different ends of the spectrum: Cougar Town and My Dinner with Andre. The first season’s Paintball Assassin episode is given a two-part reprise at the season’s end which starts off as a spaghetti western homage and concludes as a rag-tag band-of-rebels insurgency in the style of Star Wars (worth it ultimately for allowing Abed to slip into Han Solo mode).
One running gag that manages to be as sweet as it is tongue-in-cheek has Troy and Abed hosting a fake morning show, hoisting their TV grins and coffee mugs to nobody. Where the true talent of the writers comes through, though, is in how they can take a deep appreciation and understanding of genre and give it a emotional resonance, as in the episode “Aerodynamics of Gender,” which is both a spot-on take on Lost and a decently smart examination of mean-girl syndrome.
The problems of the first season continue, mostly having to do with the character of Pierce (Chevy Chase). Playing the rich and grumpy old bastard who’s always trying to wrest control of the study group away from Jeff, Chase remains highly unfunny, a problem as much of the writing as it is of the actor himself. (This last problem is borne out in the DVD set’s sterling collection of outtakes, which seem to prove that Chase is the least spontaneous and joyful member of an otherwise excellent cast.) Also, the occasional episode like “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” can feel a bit too much like one or more of the writers just thought, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to do one of those stop-motion animated holiday specials” and then writing a somewhat uninspired script to go along with it.
While Pierce’s tiresome misanthropy still annoys in the second season, and sometimes the show gets too close to those stock scenarios they’re always mocking (to the point of actually using the old chestnut of delivering a baby outside the hospital), Community continues to function best when its following the writers down various rabbit holes of confusion and obsession, or just allows side characters like the demonstrably unhinged Chang (Ken Jeong, electric), who transforms from the world’s worst Spanish teacher in the first season to a manic stalker in the second.
The writing is sharp as ever, evidenced in the episode “Intro to Political Science,” where Jeff, attempting to make a point about the idiocy of politics and voters to the ever-perky Annie (Alison Brie), gives the following speech at a student government debate:
“My name is Jeff. I’m no politician, I’m just a fella. I think that beer should be cold and boots should be dusty. I think 9/11 was bad. And freedom? Well, I think that’s just a little bit better.”
As funny as the second season proves to be (and funny in a way that is refreshingly based on deeply thought-out and believable characters instead of situational engineering), it’s still shocking that Community ever made it to a third season. When one thinks about what network executives must have thought about an episode over halfway through the season that’s not only based entirely around Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (to the point where several jokes make absolutely no sense to the great, non-nerd majority of viewers who never partook of role-playing games with 20-sided dice) but also has Ken Jeong wearing blackface while playing a “Dark Elf,” it’s hard to imagine at least one didn’t ask: “Who is going to think this is funny?” So far, the answer fortunately is: not many, but enough.