Community: I see your value now
Ha ha, Thursday nights! A new episode of The Office! And Bones, and Fringe, and Parks and Recreation! And by next week Thursday, there’ll also be new episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Flash Forward, and then in October new episodes of 30 Rock will be on! In other words, ha ha, Thursday, the night that totally overwhelms my meager resources as a grad student/spare-time television blogger!
I love The Office so much it’s almost physically painful, and I’ll also admit to a soft spot for Bones and a love-hate relationship with Fringe, so I’m sure I’ll get to them all eventually. But last night definitely belonged to Community, the brand-new sitcom starring Joel McHale, my snarky TV commentator muse. Wait, stop. Stop right now. If you have ever laughed at some terrible reality show but never seen The Soup, go watch clips on hulu. On hearing McHale’s new pilot had been picked up by NBC, I had a brief nightmare that he’d stop filming The Soup, but apparently he’s able to do both, so I’m able to watch Community without feeling resentful.
Community has gotten some great buzz, including this NYTimes piece and some love from Televisionary and slate.com. The setting is a community college, where the main character Jeff Winger has enrolled to keep from being disbarred as a lawyer (he had previously been practicing with a fake degree). There are so many great things about this pilot episode. As the NYTimes article points out, the humor is largely based on allusion, so the script is peppered with Breakfast Club jokes, shout-outs to Bill Murray and Michael Douglas, and at least one super-meta-reference to The Soup. The acting is good, particularly Chevy Chase and John Oliver, who alas appears to not be a series regular, and the premise feels both fresh and relatable. There are also countless opportunities to mock a community college, but for the most part Community goes for the funny and avoids the low-hanging fruit. (In the pilot’s opening, the dean addresses the students after playing a tape recording of a collegiate-sounding clock tower.) I should probably also mention that I have been whistling the show’s absurdly catchy score for about twenty minutes now.
Without those things, the show would be mediocre at best, but the true gem of the show is the main character Jeff. Although an entirely different personality, Jeff is built on the same ambiguity of The Office’s Michael Scott, slipping easily between ego-obsessed scholastic ennui and brief moments of sympathetic self-realization. Because he already has a successful law career, Jeff’s entire motivation is to get a degree as quickly and easily as possible, which includes regularly deriding the school and bribing a professor for test answers. “Why do people keep trying to teach me stuff in this school-shaped toilet?” he wonders. In the pilot, Jeff starts a Spanish study group just to hook up with his attractive classmate and then capitalizes on the study groups’ insecurities to escape his study-leader responsibilities. Jeff is a jerk.
Except, in a really lovely little piece of emotional development, Jeff ends the episode with just the slightest twinge of conscience. Abed, a classmate who registers on the autism-spectrum and has an unhealthy obsession with pop culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s, offers Jeff some useful information on Britta, the girl Jeff’s trying to attract. “Abed,” Jeff says in mock wonder, “I see your value now.” As Jeff walks away, Abed thinks for a moment and awkwardly raises his finger before replying, “that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.” By the episode’s conclusion, Jeff has realized he can’t get the test scores he needs and admits he never learned how to study because he’s always gotten by without actually working. The study group admits that even though he manipulated them, Jeff was a helpful member of their group. “I’m sorry I called you Michael Douglas and I see your value now,” Abed says. Rueful and only half-joking, Jeff ends the episode by muttering, “well, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
I have a lot of hope for Community – like Glee and The Office, it’s an incredibly tricky balancing act between sincerity and mockery, but shows that successfully navigate that maze can be rewarding television. If Community lives up to its promise, I might even forgive Joel McHale for shifting his focus away from The Soup. (Please don’t do it, Joel! The void left in my heart where Chat Stew used to be could never be filled.)