Review: Community - Season 1 (15) / Created by: Dan Harmon / Starring: Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Donald Glover, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alison Brie, Chevy Chase, Ken Jeong / Release Date: Out Now
Geek friendly TV is a big money spinner for networks these days, but most would assume that NBC’s Community (now in its third season in the US) would fail to make the grade with such an audience. At first glance its understandable to see why - it's a comedy based in a community college, and features some of the most heart-warming moments to be found in modern TV, almost a throwback to the 80’s high school and college movies it cribs from. Underneath the premise and initial impression Community becomes not just a genuinely hilarious show with an engaging array of characters and inventive week-to-week situations, but a pop culture paradise of reflexivity and self referential humour. This is as “meta” as it gets.
Ace lawyer and self-centred jerk Jeff Winger is used to living the dream - Fast cars, expensive suits and beautiful women, all for as little work as possible. Trouble is, he never actually graduated law school and is promptly disbarred once the State Bar Association discovers his deception. Aspiring to quickly (and easily) return to his former lifestyle, Winger enrols at a community college for some effortless credit and a swift return to the glory days. After scoping an attractive blonde in his Spanish 101 class, Jeff sets up a fake study group to get one-on-one, but she’s far too smart to fall for the plot, and derails his scheme by inviting other member of their Spanish class to join the study group, much to Winger’s dismay.
Main love interest Britta is an outspoken vegetarian/feminist/atheist/everythingist whose well-meaning but often misguided freedom fighting can cause chaos for herself and the people she is looking to protect the most. Chevy Chase appears as Pierce Hawthorne, a man of both money and advancing years who doesn't seem to have realised that America has abandoned practices such as slavery in recent years. Shirley is a Black single mother who wants to make something more of her life while spreading the word of Jesus. Annie is a perfectionist ‘Straight-A’ student who crashed and burned out of high school due to a nervous breakdown and minor addiction to uppers. Troy is the boneheaded jock who forms an unlikely but infinitely adorable friendship with autistic pop culture junkie Abed, played to perfection by the shows most noticeable stars-in-the-making, Donald Glover and Danny Pudi.
Will they see past each others differences and become friends despite their wildly contrasting backgrounds? Well, yeah of course they will. It’s just that every so often they conveniently forget along the way ensuring hilarity for the audience each week.
The shows writers take their time getting to know its ensemble cast episode by episode, seemingly unsure early on just how they wanted each of the distinct archetypal characters to function beyond their relation to Joel McHale’s sarcastic lead.
Despite the slow burn opening, and its apparent desire to play it safe early on, Community eventually develops a confidence and awareness unlike any other show around, a strength that grows as the initially underused supporting cast become increasingly important as characters in their own right, and the sociopathic fellow students and certifiably insane faculty members of Greendale add almost endless potential for new laughs.
Beyond achieving the core goal of being funny, Community is also smart. It takes the ethnic mismatch comedy tropes of old - pretty much any convention you can think of for that matter - and shakes them up with a fresh perspective informed by years of trashy TV and films, just like its audience. It doesn't pander to the meme-spewing mindset too much, but it doesn't hold back when making its references either, exemplified in its highly praised halloween episode and spectacular series highlight ‘Modern Warfare’, in which a school wide paintball competition descends in to Old West level of lawlessness and a Mad Max style survival of the fittest. This is the show that even manages to do a zombie episode that feels vital in an age where any use of the Z-word is almost entirely passé, based entirely on the strength of its writing and characterisation.
Community manages that rarest of things once the series finds its direction and its characters become more fully realised, by being at once razor sharp and surprisingly edgy while maintaining an irresistibly warm and wholesome centre. There’s some strong morality play at work, but it fails to take the high ground, even when dealing with issues such as being old, being black, being autistic, or being Batman. It takes its shots not just at easy targets like so many comedies are prone to, but attacks everyone and everything equally, but with a knowing smile and an honest heart, and with plenty of brains in place of the schmaltz.
Watch Community, or we’ll be taking your geek card.