25 January 2011

The Best Show You Probably Don't Watch

ed. note: Our first guest post at TKOP, from the always tasteful Mark Czarniecki. Please take his advice and watch this great show.
DVR space is precious. My wife and I watch a lot of (HD) TV. Rarely do our DVR holdings ever dip below 90% capacity. Yet, when it comes time to make room for new shows, the one folder I can never bring myself to touch holds NBC's Community. As I write, there is a "24" next to "Community" under "My Recordings." That's 24 episodes of one show. 30 Rock has a "2." All of this is a long-winded and not very interesting way of saying that Community is the most re-watchable show on television.

The show follows a study group of unlikely misfits who have enrolled at Greendale Community College. The group's founder and leader is Jeff Winger, a cynical, fast-talking, metrosexual, 30-something egomaniac who finds himself needing another ride on the collegiate carousel in order to legally return to his law practice. Reminiscent of Vince Vaughn before he blew up (fame requires sustenance), Joel McHale brings a sharp wit and even sharper edge to the role of Jeff. We quickly learn that Jeff's moral rehabilitation is the show's central premise. There to assist in this mission are his fellow study-groupies Britta, Pierce, Shirley, Annie, Troy and Abed and his professors Senor Chang and Ian Duncan. A United Colors of Benetton troupe of brilliant characters played by brilliant comedians from yesterday (Chevy!), today (Jon Oliver and Yvette Nicole Brown) and tomorrow (Dany Pudi and Donald Glover), this group of writer-actors makes the best case for diversity since Thurgood Marshall. Community is the opposite of Friends. And thank goodness for that.

The central aim of the show's writers is to take small screen and big screen cliches and turn them on their heads. Using pop culture references, self-aware gags, physical comedy, laugh-out-loud one-liners and whimsical off-the-wall goofs, the show moves from week to week with only the thinnest of threads providing continuity. If smart sitcom subversion is all there was, I'd be a loyal follower. What moves me from fan to blogger is the accuracy of the show's imitations and the emotional connections these characters make. To the former, look no further than Season 1's "Modern Warfare" and "Contemporary American Poultry" episodes. Each episode's 24 short minutes are perfectly efficient send-ups of a dystopian action shoot-em up (with paint!) and a Scorsese-style mafia masterpiece, respectively. For characters that connect, there's Troy And Abed In the Morning. The kind of bromance Jud Apatow wishes he wrote, Troy and Abed provide some of the show's best moments both comedically and dramatically. Dany Pudi and Donald Glover are kindred spirits, operating on a wavelength only the two of them can hear. Pudi, in particular, deserves far more recognition. Jim Parsons isn't the only game in town. The 30-second T&A skits at the end of every episode are as good or better than any SNL Digital Short. It's the kind of relationship every guy pines for.

The show's weakest episodes are those that involve Jeff's romantic pursuits with regular cast members. It's not that they don't contribute to his redemption, it's that they're not required for it. Unlike Jim and Pam on The Office, there are no two characters on this show whose chemistry builds anticipation from one show to the next (save for Troy and Abed). If anything, Jeff's non-superficial love life only distracts from furthering the group dynamic. The more time this show spends sitting at the table in the library showing off each actor's talents, the better.

The most-repeated criticism of the show is that its early episodes were too mean-spirited. I don't buy it and think there are two reasons for it, both having to do with lazy television critics. First, Joel McHale's hosting of The Soup, in which he lambasts Hollywood with an acerbic, sometimes overly-petty, commentary lends itself to an easy comparison to his character on the show. Jeff's many spitfire monologues in the first half of Season 1 provide grist for this mill. While McHale clearly draws upon his schtick on The Soup, Jeff's asshole persona in the beginning of the series is kind of the point. He's a charismatic dick, who isn't cured over the length of one or even four episodes. By the end of the first season, however, Jeff's emotional and social development is plain for all to see.

The second reason I think Community is unfairly singled-out for its cynicism has everything to do with timing. The show premiered at the same time as Modern Family and the comparison was too much for armchair TV Guiders to resist. Modern Family was a surprise hit that's easy to like. However, every MF episode ends with a "Full House Moment" that tries, sometimes successfully, to extend the lesson above and beyond the realm of TV comedy. You won't find that in Community, though it's not from a lack of heart or an intention to be overly negative.

As unfounded as I find this line of criticism, I think even the critics who offered it have to admit that the show has shown nothing but sustained growth throughout its run. This is a space ship that I'm proud to say I've been aboard since day one and that I revisit often. Climb on board.


  1. Good post, Mark. For whatever reason, I stopped watching after several episodes of season one. I've recently started watching again and the show has definitely grown. I'm looking forward to catching up on what I missed soon. Hint, hint. (Matty, can I borrow the DVD?)

  2. Thanks, Pat. I suggest you start with the "Modern Warfare" episode. If that doesn't hook you, (i) you won't like the rest of the show, and (ii) we're not friends anymore.

  3. I also watched the first few episodes and stopped, but I picked it back up around the holidays. The tone of the show took some getting used to at first. I actually think Community and Modern Family are similar in how they build toward the expected heartwarming moments before burning them down with the unexpected. MF does it by playing that "Full House music" (perfect description) with a touching voiceover, followed by one of the characters (often Luke or Phil) contradicting the voiceover by doing something insane. Community loves taking familiar movie/tv concepts to absurd levels, but they never sacrifice character in doing so. It amazes me that they do these big pop culture parodies and still deliver on the small details so well. I love this show.

  4. slow dramatic clap for Community and for Marks knock out review. Well done. And thank you for showing me the light and not letting me give up on this show when I almost did.

  5. I'm with Pat - I started watching then drifted off. DVR is now set to record. Since this post, I have watched a few clips (and it seems the actors have been everywhere promoting lately) and loving it so far.

  6. Did anyone else think last nights episode kind of sucked? Don't worry, I'll keep watching.

  7. It sucked. Chevy Chase in Community is like Will Ferrell in movies; the less he's on screen, the more effective he is. The episode still had its moments, but it didn't even have a Troy & Abed scene over the closing credits.

  8. I blame Mark for "cursing" this episode. He's like the SI Cover Jinx to blogging.

  9. Not their best showing, I agree. Very tired sitcom territory, which is the anthesis of why this show is great. And utterly predictable timing for one of the weaker episodes.

    All that said, I'll defend it with a few quotes to demonstrate that even the worst episodes have some real gems.

    1. "Does marijuana make people work faster? I thought it just made them custom paint their van and solve mysteries."

    2. "I made you a mix tape. Hope you like Johnny Gill."

    3. "You ignore me because I'm Korean." "You're Chinese." "Oh, there's a difference?"

    4. "Here's the situation. We've got 50 at-risk pre-teens, armed with baseballs, chanting for drugs, who just spent intermission eating nothing but Charleston Chews."

    5. "Are you sure my costume isn't on backwards? Somehow I felt more confident before."

    Also: emotipenis and Dildopolis? C'mon, what other show gives you emotipenis and Dildopolis?

  10. Awesome work, man. That D&D episode is one of the funniest half hours of TV I've seen...ever.

  11. Hahaha Mark, you are great. This review is effing perfect and so true. I really like MF but I think people give it too much credit for being a really different, ground-breaking show when it's not. Community has the smarts of 30 Rock with the warmth of How I Met Your Mother.