You might think it strange, the Den recommending a show that you’ve never heard of, and probably won’t get a UK broadcast. However, recommending it we are. Beg, borrow or steal your way to a ticket to the States if necessary. It’ll totally be worth it.
The show to which I’m cryptically, and glowingly referring, is the completely unheard of (in the UK) Community. Airing in NBC’s Thursday night primetime slot, the show has slowly been winning accolades and viewers in equal numbers since its debut in September last year, which isn’t bad for a show starring a bunch of unknowns, and some dude called Chevy Chase. Some of you might remember him.
Essentially a high school comedy for grown-ups, Community centres around recently disbarred fake lawyer Jeff Winger (The Soup presenter Joel McHale), who has been judicially instructed to re-earn his law degree the hard way, at his local community college.
Luckily for Jeff, passing the bar at Greendale Community College involves taking any class he fancies from pottery to pool and, as he fancies the blonde in Spanish, that’s his first choice.
Ever the lawyer, Jeff decides to manipulate his way into the blonde’s pants by setting up a fake Spanish study group, to consist of just the two members. The Blonde, or Brita as she prefers to be called, decides that lots of her new friends could use a little help as well, and suddenly Jeff finds himself trapped in a library with a group of people that, on any other day, he would probably run over in his shiny Lexus. And so begins a beautiful, if slightly dysfunctional series of friendships.
The study group consists of some superficially recognizable archetypes: the aforementioned Brita, a 20-something drop out who quit high school and joined the Peace Corps to impress Radiohead, Troy was the high school star quarterback, before injury forced him off the team, Shirley is a frustrated middle-aged divorcee, Annie is a recovering pill addict who’s been in love with Troy for years, Pierce, an inappropriate, rich and bored OAP desperate to make friends, and finally, gloriously, Abed, a genius who sees everything through a TV filter and is the glue that holds the group together.
Despite Jeff’s initial desire to emotionally scar them all, he, of course, comes to see their value, and they his, through a series of amusing life and Spanish lessons. Although considering he’s a smarmy fake lawyer, it takes a while.
So far, so Breakfast Club, and you’re right. In fact, the opening episode is dedicated to the late great John Hughes, and his influence is obvious, but the show is in no way a carbon copy of that genre-defining flick.
Rather than angsty teenage drama, while Jeff learns to be a better person, show creator Dan Harmon (ex of The Sarah Silverman Show and The Oscars) fills the show to the gills with tons of cult references, quotes, and sly asides. Not in the smart ass, ‘look how much we know about popular culture’ Family Guy kind of way. No, Community takes joy in its references, revels in them, even, and they are a joy to behold. From the Breakfast Club-themed opener, through Mash, Goodfellas, right up to Mad Men and beyond, with everything in between, Community is a show for pop culture buffs, by pop culture buffs, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Here’s one particularly lovely example.At one point Jeff decries the success of candy-coated muzak-fest Glee: “I hate Glee. I just don’t get it.” Cut to the next scene, starring Iqbal Theba as Abed’s father, whom you may or may not recognise as the headmaster from said candy-coated muzak-fest. See what I mean?
That’s not to say that the show isn’t enjoyable in its own right. Being a US-centric show means some jokes might be lost on UK viewers, but the warmth and humour of the storylines carry the less-Americanised viewer safely through. In fact, if you’d lived under a rock for the last 30 years and didn’t get even one reference, you’d still love this show. It’s that good.
Often achieving Arrested Development levels of dialogue excellence, particularly when either Abed or Jeff are on a roll, the comic talent on the writing team is obvious. The fact that Donald Glover quit his day job, writing 30 Rock, to play Troy speaks volumes.
As an ensemble show, the characters often find they have unusual things in common, creating different pairings within the group every so often. Troy and Brita share a secret hobby, Shirley and Annie both want to combine politics with baking, Jeff and Shirley are rabid gossips. Throughout the series Dan Harmon intertwines the characters in ways that John Hughes would be proud of, and in doing so engenders way more laughs than anyone should be able to get out of the premise ‘what if grown-ups went to school?’.
Which brings us neatly to why the writing and characterisation on Community is so interesting.
All of the characters have some horrific flaws. Jeff’s smarm, Brita’s unwitting habit of crushing joy wherever she sees it and Pierce’s arrogant ineptitude are all intensely irritating qualities, but no one in the group is unlikable. Except maybe Pierce. Even Spanish tutor Señor Chang’s master class in creepy-short-man syndrome is served with a major dose of schadenfreude. After his wife runs off, he’s mugged three times in a week, leaving a Speedo and bike helmet as his only possessions.
This balance is perhaps why it’s taken the better part of season one for the ratings to become respectable. There’s no clear-cut hero, no villain or issue of the week. It’s way too subtle for that. See the episode where Shirley’s children sneakily liberate Abed’s young cousin from her burkha for some quality bouncy castle time for proof.
As the central character, relative newcomer Joel McHale carries the bulk of the show, and does a great job, although Jeff is pretty much an extension of his Soup persona, that’s in no way a bad thing. McHale’s particular brand of sneery commentary is always a welcome presence on screen, and he handles the many Jeff rants with supreme confidence.
The rest of that cast equip themselves well, sadly leaving Chase as perhaps the only weak link, but even he improves over the course of the season.
In all honesty, though, this is Danny Pudi’s show. His turn as the genius that is Abed is simply a revelation. Pudi’s ability to turn on a dime is astonishing. His work with Donald Glover some of the funniest you’ll see in a long time, and he does the most convincing Don Draper impression ever committed to celluloid. Frankly, if you don’t think Abed is a god, there’s something wrong with you.
With its dialogue-heavy comedy, cult guest stars, and a character called Starburns, Community is clearly aimed at the cynically witty, media savvy types that have the good sense to visit sites like the Den Of Geek, and hits its target week after week.
If 30 Rock is the thinking person’s sitcom, Community is the cineastes comedy. And although season two is, thankfully, on its way, you should still catch it while you can.