Monday, May 3, 2010
Love the One(s) You're With: Community
At a certain point in your life, you realize that nothing's turned out like you thought it would.
You're not working in the field you studied in school. You're single or married, when you always predicted you'd be the opposite. The age you thought you'd have figured everything out? You're still fumbling and confused as ever, maybe even more so.
There's also the people you surround yourself with. At a certain age it becomes a motley crew: those you grew up with, maybe even dated at some point; pals from high school, college and work; and then the ones who are way more random. The person you agreed to give a ride to one time, from rehearsal of a show you almost dropped out of, that ten years later is like family.
It's meeting these random people, and letting them into your life, however reluctantly at first, that helps you to realize: not having the exact future you wanted or predicted can be a very liberating thing.
I started watching Community for two reasons. One, a friend in the industry recounted a little exchange from the pilot script that cracked me up (similar to the way I was sold on 30 Rock because of one line: "If you're a gay guy looking for a beard, I don't do that anymore"). And two, well, Joel McHale. In the days before my obsessive fandom kicked in, I read an interview where he said that he was offered several sitcoms and Community was far and away the best. No matter what you think of The Soup, the guy has made some good career decisions (witness: The Informant!). I was intrigued. Besides, it was on after The Office.
Never have I seen a pilot that touched on moral relativism, Asperger's syndrome, and The Breakfast Club in twenty-two minutes. With Trudy from Mad Men, the sex addict from Reno 911!, and Chevy MoFo-in Chase. As in Fletch, Gerald Ford, Clark Griswold: any way you slice it, the guy's a comedy legend.
McHale's character, Jeff Winger, is a cocky former lawyer disbarred when it's discovered his undergraduate degree is fake. (Yes, I know it's a slim premise, but think of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and sing along with me: "Just repeat to yourself, 'it's just a show. I should really just relax.'") He enrolls at Greendale Community College and immediately starts hitting on his cute Spanish 101 classmate Britta (Gillian Jacobs). Britta, however, is not having it, and when Jeff invites her to form a one-on-one study group, she brings along a whole crew: sitcom aficionado Abed (Danny Pudi, Chicagoans represent!), fallen football player Troy (Donald Glover), rehabbed type A Annie (Alison Brie, almost completely unrecognizable from Mad Men and just as awesome), and Christian mom Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown). Oh, and corporate magnate-turned-dirty old man Pierce (Chase) also wanders in. Quite possibly the most diverse group on network TV, the gang experiences weekly dalliances and misadventures, with recurring characters such as the overenthusiastic Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) and surly Professor Chang (Ken Jeong) along for the ride.
A group of wildly different people finding out they have a lot in common, and learning a little bit about themselves along the way? We've all heard that premise before, but Community makes it fresh while at the same time reminding us that it's the simple stuff that good shows are made of. The cast is fiercely witty, the writing even more so. Creator Dan Harmon based the series on his own experiences in a community college study group, and it shows: not only is there a real tenderness in even the silliest joke, but the characters both play into and play with the very stereotypes they're dealt. Jeff isn't the show's moral center, nor are most of his actions particularly commendable--but he's learning, even as he stumbles along the way, that he's capable of poking fun at himself and doing nice things for others. Though Britta is smart and confident, she can be awkward in dealing with sensitive social matters (she's sort of a walking Stuff White People Like). Even Pierce, with his heinously backwards worldviews, is at heart a lonely dude: and though his younger counterparts don't always love what he says, they embrace him for the old fart he is.
I freaking heart the group dynamic of the core cast: they're the kind of characters that are so fun to watch even when they're not doing anything particularly interesting (which according to one of my favorite bloggers, is one of the marks of a kick-ass protagonist). I love Mad Men, but I wouldn't really want to be friends with any of the characters (except maybe Peggy and Joan). However, I'd hang with Community's Spanish 101 crew any day of the week. And the characters form relationships, they stumble, they screw up, they learn from one another. They may have been thrown together by random acts of course catalog, but now they're thick as thieves (and they protect each other to the end!).
Yes, there have been some eps that aren't so great: just like with Modern Family, Community can falter when it lets itself slide into wacky-antics territory. At its strongest, however, Community (again, like Modern Family) works real magic combining absurd with emotional, satirical with genuine, and motormouthed with simple. Think Avenue Q without the puppets. And at its heart, it's a show about being okay with your place in life, no matter how imperfect that may be.
Did I mention that McHale is naked on one episode? From a feminist perspective, it's interesting how the show objectifies the hell out of the guy. Not that I'm complaining. I just find it intriguing: men usually aren't blatantly objectified on a show that's NOT specifically geared toward women. Not just the naked ep: he's in tight jeans and T-shirts quite a lot. That's normally reserved for female characters.
Community airs Thursdays at 7 on NBC. The most recent episode, along with a host of really funny clips, can be found on Hulu. Also, there's a hilarious website for the fictional Greendale Community College.
Here's a video of the cast finding out that they were renewed for a second season. They're so genuinely surprised and happy (and unaware they're being filmed), it's adorable.