While watching the sometimes uneven but often very hilarious first season of NBC's Community on DVD, I had to wonder: Why don't more TV shows aiming for the funny take on college?
Teen shows often avoid it like the plague. Judd Apatow and his crew found gold - if for only one season - with Undeclared, the natural successor to Freaks and Geeks. But not until Joel McHale and his Spanish study group at Greendale Community College entered NBC's Thursday night lineup last fall has a show so successfully tapped into the contradiction that our four years or so of "higher learning" are often the silliest and most hedonistic time of people's lives.
Watching the first six or so episodes of Community, last fall and again back-to-back on DVD, I really wasn't sure NBC had a winner on its hands. One of the show's biggest assets on paper was also - at least to me - its biggest early problem: A little Joel McHale goes a long way.
His character, a former lawyer booted from his profession because he had a fraudulent college degree, has all the often-misplaced ego that he should have, but McHale just doesn't have the comic chops to make his Jeff Winger much more at all than a one-dimensional wise ass. The character would be much funnier if, like Jason Bateman's Michael Bluth on Arrested Development, he were more comically unaware of the fact that he's the king of crazy in a group that has tons of it.
It's when Community really became more of an ensemble production and tapped into all of its comedic assets - and the genuine geek bona fides of at least two of its stars - that the show really got into its groove. By the time Abed's (Danny Pudi) Dark Knight rescues McHale and a rather disastrously high Chevy Chase (dressed, naturally, as the Beastmaster) from a collapsing fort of tables and chairs at Annie's (Alison Brie) Halloween/Day of the Dead party in episode six ("Introduction to Statistics"), you knew this was like nothing else on TV right now in all the best ways.
From this turning point, Pudi's Abed and Donald Glover's Troy get a lot more screen time, and are naturally just very funny together. They also give the show its genuine geek appeal, making its frequent pop-culture spoofs hit their target much more often than they miss. It all comes together perfectly in season one when the two of them are serenading their rogue lab mouse, naturally named Fievel, to the strains of "Somewhere, Out There," as Senor Chang (the riotously funny Ken Jeong) is trying to salsa dance his way back into his ex-wife's heart to the Celtic sounds of Greene Day. This close to episode 10, "Environmental Science," is pretty much comic perfection.
And the women of Community more than hold their own in all this madness. Brie's Annie plays up her young eagerness, and finds a natural counterpart in Gillian Jacobs' prematurely jaded Britta, while Yvette Nicole Brown's Shirley turns what could have been a stock character - the overly religious black woman - into one who gives as good as she gets when the barbs really start to fly.
As the show progressed, creator Dan Harmon kept injecting it with more and more genuine political incorrectness, giving it an edge sorely missing from so much of what passes now for situational comedy. That reaches its height in the "Basic Genealogy" episode, in which Abed's darkly veiled Muslim sister gets called, in short order, a black ghost and then Phantom Menace (it's OK to admit, that's very funny), and later, in a game of Pictionary, Pierce (Chase) draws about the most offensive thing you can think of for the word "windmill." It's all so incredibly wrong that it works just right.
Community hit its real season one peak, however, with the "Modern Warfare" episode, which manages to sharply skewer just about every sci-fi/action movie cliche you can think of in the space of 22 minutes or so. From the early moment when Pudi utters the line, "Come with me if you don't want paint on your clothes," you know (or at least I did) this will be the funniest prime time moment of the 2009-10 TV season. If you've never seen this show, which has risen to the top of NBC's Thursday lineup in my book, this one episode would make the perfect introduction.
Chief among the extras in this set are the commentaries featuring cast members for every single episode, only a few of which I've had the time to get through so far. Another feature that works very well is the outtakes featured on each disc. Rather than the usual clips of characters breaking out in giggles in the middle of their lines, they spotlight the natural give and take of some truly funny people and what most makes Community a real winner: What NBC has on its hands, for as long as it wants to keep it on the air, is a genuine comedy troupe on top of its game.
And does the mojo continue into season two? So far, solidly yes. The show bagged the quickest and perhaps biggest laugh of the new season by having Glover wake up in his Spider-Man pajamas to open the season, and last week's zombie episode "Epidemiology" was as fall-down funny as the pilot for Frank Darabont's The Walking Dead was utterly terrifying (and watching them back to back, as I did on the DVR, is a real trip.) The bottom line: Community is much more fun than I ever remember college being, and well worth tuning in for every Thursday night or on DVD.