I’ve been thinking about the 2009–2010 television season quite a bit lately, trying to account for what seems to be a strong spike in extremely high quality television. I haven’t entirely made up my mind yet, but I do think I’m ready to assign the title for best new comedy of the year. And while I’m enjoying the hell out of Glee, and am consistently impressed by the ensemble cast and slyness of Modern Family (I cannot tell you how excited I was that Breaking Away was the movie playing in the background during the January 20 episode. The opening sequence of Breaking Away with the truck driver is such a great comedic sequence.), I really do think the best comedy to debut in 2009 is, and continues to be, Community.
First, the cast is working extremely well, top-to-bottom. And I don’t think that should be taken for granted. Joel McHale was the guy who hosted The Soup before this, and while that’s not small beer, it’s also not a predictor that a guy is going to be able to nail the lead role in a half-hour comedy. Other than McHale, the most-known actors in the ensemble are Chevy Chase, whose hallmark has not been, shall we say, consistency, and Alison Brie, who does her thing on Mad Men. Yvette Nicole Brown’s longest-running TV gigs before Community were a 15-episode gig on Drake & Josh and six episodes on the quickly-canceled The Big House, and Danny Pudi had short arcs on ER, Gilmore Girls and Greek, but nothing else significant to his credit. Donald Glover and Gillian Jacobs have never been series regulars anywhere. It’s hugely to Dan Harmon and the producers’ credit that they put together this group of core series regulars. And it’s amazing that they’re working as well together as they are.
The guest stars are great, too. Jim Rash is delightfully creepy as Dean Pelton. Ken Jeong’s been brilliant as Señor Ben Chang. It’s a shame that John Oliver and John Michael Higgins, so funny as respectively an incompetently manipulative psychology professor and a spontaneous accounting professor and debate coach, have faded into the background, because one of Community’s definite strengths is that it’s provided a really full portrait of the people who go to and teach at the college. The show is just extremely deep and textured, and that’s one of the things I think pushes it ahead of Modern Family a bit — there’s an extent to which the families in the show operate in isolation from the rest of their community (although the January 20 episode was a nice break from that).
Beyond the casting, as Joey pointed out in comments, Community is the best portrayal of an intergenerational and multiracial group on television today. Glee’s actually made jokes out of its marginalization of its token extra Asian and black characters, something that’s a sly nod to viewers’ perceptions of the show, but isn’t an actual fix to the problem. I do really, really like Modern Family (it was an extremely difficult decision for me between it and Community), but I have genuine problems with the show’s treatment of Gloria, and increasingly with its portrayal of gay characters on the show. Are we seriously still at a point where it’s hilarious to have Chazz Palminteri paw some guy’s coat and have it be theoretically hilarious code for him being a closeted gay man? I think the actors playing Cameron and Mitchell are doing a fine job, but the show needs more moments like the one we find out Cameron played serious college football, and fewer of them acting like caricatures.
When Community takes on racial tropes and types, it does so much more intelligently. In last week’s episode, for example, Shirley asked Britta, in one of my favorite lines of the series so far, “Can I just ask, as a divorced black housewife, what part of being a single white slacker makes you people so jaded?” “You people?!” Britta responded in mock-outrage, prompting a bonding session. Or there are circular conversations like this one:
The exchange works because it’s not a “Black people are racist too! See! See!” type of joke. Instead, it plays on the kinds of shifting positions that often take place in true conversations about race and racial tropes, as the people involved with them search for nonexistent solid ground. And the jokes go in multiple directions. One of the things I like about Community is that it’s not just black people and white people: you’ve got the Middle Eastern kid, and the Asian Spanish professor. You’ve got the black football player who praises Jafar as an exemplar of Arabian-badassery in movies, even as his friend of Arab descent declares that he invented rap music.
And the show has its genuine clueless racist in Pierce. He’s not virulent — no one on the show is — but no one’s making excuses for him either, and he’s the only person victimized by his racism — he makes himself ridiculous. When Jeff, asked by Britta who he’s sleeping with, replies “Last name: Beeswax. First name: Noneaya,” to which Pierce responds “Oh, my third wife was biracial,” it’s clear that he’s an idiot: his foolishness about race, and lying about his age, and being a goddamn magician are all part of the same ridiculous cocktail. It’s not that Pierce’s character downplays the impact of racism in Society At Large, but he’s useful evidence of the fact that the other characters, black, white, and brown alike are genuinely evolved.
I’m almost annoyed with myself for spending so much time on the show’s racial makeup and humor, because while I enjoy it and think this kind of portrayal is The Future, I think the most important reason Community is so good is that the writing is just rock-solid. Take Jeff’s complaint in the last episode,
“Can’t I be the friend in the group whose trademark is his well-defined boundaries like Privacy Smurf, Discreet Bear, or Confidentiality Spice?” It’s perfect juxtaposition humor: Smurfs, bears, and Spice Girls aren’t separately that funny (Okay, the Spice Girls will forever be hilarious), but together, and slightly transformed, they’re a riot. It’s like Owen Wilson’s declaration in Wedding Crashers that “I’d like to be pimps from Oakland or cowboys from Arizona but it’s not Halloween. Grow up Peter Pan! Count Chocula!” It’s the list that matters.
The show’s consistent use of pop culture humor in everything from Troy and Abed’s credits riffs (like the crossword puzzle last week), to Troy’s cry for help to Jeff in “Introduction to Statistics” that “Pierce took something and he is trippin’ balls. He is touching people and dancing weird. It’s like Grumpy Old Men but not hilarious.” Which is a great line, since Grumpy Old Men is not actually that hilarious. And since a lot of what people in college, at least in my experience, do is talk about the stuff that they like. And what people like is often pretty strange. That Pierce latched on to Beastmaster of all things as a mark of coolness, or that Styx makes Troy cry is both hilarious and also completely in-character for both of them. When jokes build our perceptions of the people we see on screen every week, that’s a well-constructed script.
Community isn’t perfect. The Jack Black guest appearance was a huge mistake, and I say that as someone with an extremely high tolerance for Jack Black. The folks at AV Club are right that Jeff’s progression into a nice guy is happening a little too fast, though I imagine we’ll see setbacks in that progress. I’m curious to see how many more facets of community college the show can find to frame episodes around: there are only so many classes these people can take in a given semester! But the cast is big enough that there’s a lot of space for the writers to develop plotlines, and find jokes and juxtapositions. And so far, they’re consistently rocking it. Community feels real enough to be compelling, and is strange enough to keep you constantly alert, and funny enough to reward you for doing so. It’s a real shame that it didn’t get the awards-show boost that Glee, already doing well particularly because of its tie-in products, is getting so far. But if I were Tina Fey and the folks at 30 Rock (which, by the way, I think has righted itself considerably in the last couple of episodes), I’d be taking notes. If they could do with Toofer, Frank, and Cerie what Community is doing with its assets, the show might head for a second golden age.