Community's second season debuts tonight on NBC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
The second season premiere of Community has a lot of ground to cover. It has to explain the show's basic premise and character relationships to new people who may be tuning in to get their weekly Betty White dosage. It has to use White, who guests as a borderline psychotic anthropology professor, in a way that justifies bringing on a guest star of her caliber, without having her take over the show. It has to reintroduce the many different kinds of jokes the show can cycle through (sometimes in under the space of a minute). It has to remind those who've been watching for a while of just what they enjoy about the show. And it has to tie up all of the loose ends that it can from last year's "All the ladies love Jeff Winger!" cliffhanger. Does it succeed at all of these tasks? For the most part. This is a very good episode of the show, but it feels very much like a series topping off its fluids and performing a few last-minute checks before leaving the garage.
In short, it's just a little cluttered. It's a good kind of cluttered because it's the kind of cluttered that somehow accomplishes the task of being satisfying for newcomers (I hope) while not boring returning viewers (who may well get less out of it while still finding plenty to laugh at). At the same time, there's a lot going on. The show does a good job of directing viewers' attention where it needs to be, so it's not as though anything becomes confusing or anything, but there's more of a focus on introducing the show, its characters, and its themes to a new audience and less of a focus on the blisteringly fast, joke-a-minute pace the show established shortly into its first season. This should not be taken as a sign that the show has sacrificed something important to itself in order to gain more viewers by its faithful fans (though fans would have inevitably complained about this if the premiere had featured Jesus Christ as the special guest star; it's what fans do). Instead, it's a very specific kind of season premiere problem: In trying to do so much, the episode doesn't settle in and simply tell a funny story. It's trying too hard to be all things to all people.
But that doesn't cripple the episode, not at all. This is a very, very funny episode of a very, very funny show. It's got great work from the entire cast. It figures out a way to make good use of White without making her the center of the episode. It comes up with a satisfying resolution to a rather strained cliffhanger and retcons Britta's behavior in the season finale just enough that it makes what happened there feel less forced. It's got some great Abed meta-commentary, some weird and inappropriate comments by Pierce, some terrific Donald Glover silent comedy in the background, and some moments where Alison Brie and Yvette Nicole Brown earn huge laughs without saying a word. It has potentially the grossest, most offputting kiss in television history. It has an unexpected Lord of the Rings homage. It has an inspired Troy and Abed tag. (Spoilers: They both survive the episode.) It has unexpected confirmation of what state Greendale is in. It begins the Gillian Jacobs for the Emmy campaign (not to mention the "everybody else for the Emmy" campaign). It gives us a newly accessorized Starburns. And it features some fantastic, unexpected filmmaking, including a wonderful Wes Anderson homage to open the episode.
This is about all that can be said in favor of watching the episode without spoiling too much. (Oh, Betty White is used slightly differently here from how every other show has used her in the last year and a half. She's again an old woman doing inappropriate things, but she's not lusting after young men or getting high or anything like she does on Hot in Cleveland or did in The Proposal or on Saturday Night Live.) It's a confident step forward for the show, one that continues to suggest that the true thing at the center of the show is the idea that growing up never stops, that there are always new things to learn and new people to meet and self-improvement is a never-ending process. A lot of TV is, essentially, passive. It argues that you're just fine the way you are, and there's no real reason to stand up and take control of your life. Community argues that there's nothing better than this, that the real purpose of life is to make something of yourself and to help others do the same. And it accomplishes all of this while surrounded by jokes about other sitcoms and/or bodily fluids.
But there's a reason this review is going up a little early. It's a plea. If you haven't seen this show, if you've been on the fence about checking it out, now's the time to start. Obviously, here at The A.V. Club, there are tons of you who love this show and obsess over it (it got lots and lots of readership last year). But maybe you've heard some good things and were thinking about checking it out. Maybe you were torn between this and The Big Bang Theory. Both premiere tonight. And even in a weaker episode, Community is in a different class from the other show entirely. In fact, if you've never seen the show before, this episode might play even better for you than if you're a long-time fan. There are some neat nods toward who the characters were last year and how happy fans will be to see them again, but there's also an attempt to get everybody up on board the bandwagon. At present, the show is out there, all by itself, leading off a night that isn't exactly highly rated. Worse, its partner in the hour is now 30 Rock, a very good show, but not one that's ever lit the ratings on fire. And it's going up against the show that was the number one comedy on TV last year among 18-49-year-olds. This show needs all the help it can get, and now's the time to start watching if you haven't already.
Of course, the question all TV critics get asked at this point is, "Why should I get attached to a show like this? Isn't it just going to get canceled?" Well, for starters, there's the practical fact that if more people watch the show this year, it won't be canceled. It doesn't need to beat The Big Bang Theory or Bones. It just has to hang with them and not embarrass itself. Secondly, there's the fact that TV networks increasingly base renewal decisions on how much they think they can leverage passionate fans, either to DVR the show and watch it over and over or buy merchandise from the company store. And finally, there's the argument that it shouldn't matter what the ratings are. A wonderful TV show is a wonderful TV show. And Community has the potential to be not just wonderful but one of the best out there. It just needs time, and the only people who can give it that time are viewers.
Comedies that are about something are exceedingly rare, yet all of the best ones have that central idea, that thing that animates them beyond just a collection of jokes and funny characters. Community is not yet on the level of the very best TV comedies of all time, but it showed a willingness to do whatever it took to get there last season, and there's no reason to believe it won't continue that evolution in season two. There are a ton of laughs in this season premiere and some great story moments, but the thing that makes Community special is communicated in one, wordless shot. Britta, unable to face going back to school after confessing her love for Jeff in last year's season finale, stands in the parking lot and stares forward, unable to take the few steps that lead toward potential humiliation but also her future. And then one foot steps in front of the other and off she goes. Just like the show itself.