Community debuts tonight at 9:30 p.m. EDT/8:30 p.m. CDT on NBC.
In a lot of ways, Community reminds me of Glee. Both swing wildly between bitingly sarcastic and sweetly winning with little indication that they’re going to do so. Both cram as much stuff as they can possibly think of into their pilots, in an attempt to make sure if we’re not laughing at this joke, we’re laughing at the next one (or maybe having a heartfelt “Awwww” moment). For as much as Community derives its laughs from close relatives of irony like sarcasm and satire, the show’s also not especially ironic, which may prove to be a major problem for some viewers.
But, like Glee, Community also boasts one of the best pilots of this lackluster fall season, and, like Glee, it’s actually about something underneath all of the TV show trappings. And that’s enough to make it well worth checking out tonight.
At its heart, Community is about the difference between absolute morals and relative ones. Are there certain things that are always right and always wrong, or is there a sliding scale of right and wrong? Can some things that we think of as wrong actually be right under certain circumstances or given the presence of an experienced bullshitter to get us to think of them like that? Now, that all sounds very dry and Ethics 101 when presented like that, but Community manages to make the whole concept surprisingly funny and then weirdly poignant by the end of its pilot. That’s good because this is very much a premise pilot otherwise, showing us exactly how everyone came to be at Greendale Community College and how they came together into a loose study group. As such, it follows all of the premise pilot beats note for note.
What’s disguising this pretty tired story setup are a great cast and really well-written jokes. Creator and pilot writer Dan Harmon also created The Sarah Silverman Program, so his thing seems to be taking well-worn sitcom tropes, inverting them, then creating tropes out of the inversions. It’s not as easy to do as it looks, and Harmon’s helped by the fact that he’s an adept joke writer, able to bounce from pop culture gags to character-specific gags to more broad, physical stuff, often within the same section of a scene. Unlike The Sarah Silverman Program, however, Harmon is wearing his heart on his sleeve here, as this looks to be a show about how an amoral asshole eventually becomes a good person through the tug-of-war between him and the winning underdogs who flock to his side and between him and the genuinely good girl he wants to bed. Again, these are time-honored tropes, but Harmon invests them with a lack of ironic detachment. He really believes people can become better people, and that gives the show the gooey heart that makes it subtly different from NBC’s other comedies, even as it’s a perfect match for them.
But comedies with gooey hearts are more cast dependent than comedies that are just a long string of jokes. (Side note: The fact that Arrested Development had a gooey heart AND was pretty much just a long string of jokes indicates that its cast was more adept than just about anyone realized, I think.) Fortunately, Community has a couple of great leads in Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs. McHale, for his part, is the amoral asshole, and if it’s not exactly a stretch from his The Soup persona, his work as Jeff Winger is solidly believable as that guy you both kinda like and kinda hate. Jacobs, meanwhile, seems like she’s just going to be the love interest at first, but the script and her performance give her work as Britta layers that she wouldn’t have on another show. She’s the one most dedicated to doing the right thing, the one that will inevitably cause Jeff to realize that he’s been wasting his life as a jerk (though hopefully after many amusing seasons of Jeff acting like a jerk).
The rest of the cast is rock solid as well. Chevy Chase doesn’t get as much to do in the episode as the promos would lead you to believe, but he’s very funny as Pierce, an older guy trying to keep his mind active while retired. Similarly, all of the members of the study group (including Pete Campbell’s wife, Allison Brie!) are more sketched in here than developed as characters beyond their stereotypes (another Glee similarity), but the actors handling those types are so capable that it doesn’t seem to matter as much as it should. The recurring players include a number of comedy heavyweights, including John Oliver as Jeff’s friend who works at the college and looks to be trying to teach him a lesson as well and Ken Jeong, who doesn’t turn up in the pilot but will eventually.
What doesn’t work? There’s a sense at times that the show is trying too hard, that it’s just throwing a vast number of jokes at us in the sense that if some don’t work, another one will in a moment. Normally, this would be a strength, but that sense of incredibly crazy stuff happening at any given moment doesn’t mesh as well with the heartfelt stuff as it might, so some of the transitions between the two tones are more awkward than they probably should be. Plus, the hit-to-miss ratio on the jokes is maybe not quite as strong as it could be, but this could end up being a personal preference. (I tend to prefer character-based gags to everything else, but those are very hard to do in a pilot, when we’re still getting to know the characters. There is a Breakfast Club runner that ends up killing in the end, so that’s something.)
Reviewing a pilot and recommending whether or not you should watch the series is often sticky business. It involves equal parts straight-up review and psychic prognostication. Obviously, there are elements in Community that could drag the show down and make it insufferable (look at how the show Community is replacing, My Name Is Earl, eventually just couldn’t figure out how to blend heart and laughs), but there’s enough in the show that strikes me as having potential that I think it’s going to be something worth keeping up with. Judging a TV show is less like judging a movie or book or album than it is like judging someone’s progression in school. You have to encourage what you think are good directions and try to shut off the bad ones (if anyone’s listening, that is). There’s absolutely stuff in Community that isn’t quite what it could be just yet, but there’s a lot here that is trying to be something more than your average comedy, and that’s what makes it worth following.
- Unless the show absolutely bombs (and I don’t think it will), I’ll be taking a look at it in this space from week to week.
- I like that Matt and Kim song, but thanks to the promos and this pilot, it’s been stuck in my head all summer. I’ll be glad when I can be rid of it.
- “Bears have feet.”