By: Aleks Chan
COMMUNITY may be the trickiest comedy on TV right now. For pop culture connoisseurs, it’s like a delicious, greasy, but still organic feast: any given episode (like the great Halloween one) is a tightly constructed, au courant homage to worn-out stories, plot cliché, and character archetypes — it’s an inspired take on a lack of inspiration; a celebration of what makes pop culture bad that makes it uproariously good.
And really, the show is one giant cliché turned inside-out: a multiethnic, (mostly) gender-balanced group of community college students form a Spanish study group where each relative stock character type (the jock, the nerd, the good girl) learn about themselves from each other. Cunningly, it fleshes out these stereotypes into fuller, real characters: Jeff (Joel McHale, who’s really just doing his schtick from THE SOUP, which isn’t a complaint) is a smooth-talking, wiseass lawyer, but he’s also a sweet surrogate father to the group. In a recent episode, Jeff picks up Pierce (Chevy Chase, still bringing it after all these years) from the police station with a fit of fatherly frustration, fear, and disappointment that was like a nice, subvocalized awwwwww.
Season 2’s spate of episodes dedicated to genres have been ambitious, rewarding, and clever. The show hit a great stride at the end of its first season, and so far it’s taken that momentum to the next level: the space episode, a brilliant pastiche of disaster movie tropes, product placement, and Dani Pudi’s eccentrically self-aware Abed, was like an unveiling for what the show seemed to always want to be — a collection of self-contained, but serial in its self-reference (like, all right I’m going here, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT would), send-ups of classic film and TV.
In a surreal, COMMUNITY way, this recent shift in storytelling (or is it short storytelling?) is more freeing: it gets to tell the kind of goofy stories it likes to tell but still builds on its characters, if more loosely threaded. And it just seems that everyone involved seems to be having a hell of a time making these episodes — it’s fun for us because it’s so fun for them. It all comes down to the cast, who have a kinetic energy to them that plays off each other perfectly. Alison Brie might be the most talented among these immensely talented actors. Her range and commitment is incredible, especially if you’ve seen her as the perfectly affected east coast housewife Trudy Campbell on MAD MEN — when you see her Annie chloroform a janitor, twice, you completely forget that she’s ever played another character.
Smartly (and this is what really puts it ahead of those leaden CBS sitcoms that everybody seems to watch but never talk about), it’s very much a sitcom of 2010: COMMUNITY’s Hulu page is rife with web extras that actually add to the understanding of the show, apart from the usual behind the scenes DVD extras padding. And those TiVo moments — like Troy’s monkey snatching Annie’s pen in the very edges of the scene in the meta-licious “bottle episode” — hit the web within days of an episode airing. Even the minutiae of fleeting images of its awesomely-detailed set pieces are online: Want to see Abed’s chart and data that had the girls up in arms last week? Here you go. I’m waiting for someone to string together the perfectly epigrammatic Troy (Donald Glover, who’s really come into his own and is really the show’s breakout star) and Abed tags during the credits into a hilarious highlight reel.
Is it fair to consider these nonessential parts of the show in a critical evaluation? If the future of TV is on the internet, then maybe we need to start considering all pieces that make up a show (the episodes, the web extras) in our assessments. Within reason of course — none of the web games, wallpapers, and IM icons were considered in this review. It’s bizarre to think of a TV show as existing too far beyond the TV set itself, but that’s changing, and these little nuggets of web bonuses add an extra layer to the show. It’s the little details that make the show even better, and the web makes sure we get to appreciate them. If ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT had this kind of diffusion of access, then I’d argue that it might have lived longer than it did. As it is, COMMUNITY is filling that role just fine. Grade: A-
COMMUNITY airs Thursdays at 8PM EST on NBC (CityTV in Canada)
Aleks Chan is a contributing writer to The TV Addict. He has seen every episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER four times, has once referred to his DVR as his “best friend,” and has only seen the pilot episode of THE SOPRANOS — and has no intention to apologize for it. He lives in Austin, Texas. His name is pronounced like Alex. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter (@alekstvaddict), or his own blog, Screen Reader.