Thursday, May 24, 2012

Community, Season One (2009-10)

     Now that Dan Harmon is out as the show-runner for Community (2009-present), I thought it would be a moderately decent time to do a sporadic review of the show to date.  Not that there is much interest for such a thing.  Fact of the matter is that those who have a slavish devotion to the show - and Harmon in particular - have already watched all of the episodes multiple times, and those who haven't are much more likely to simply not give a damn about the show at all.  "Community?" I imagine them asking, "Is that the show that is opposite The Big Bang Theory (2007-present)?"  Or maybe they are like Shelly Mazzanoble, and though working in a field where the pop culture references would fit the sensibilities of those who buy and use the products their company makes, chose to watch Dance Moms (2011-present) or any of the Real Housewives (2006-why the fuck does anybody watch these?) series when it comes to DVR viewing.  For whatever reason, Community has not been able to latch on to anything resembling a sizable audience.
     The über-fans have decided that this simply does not matter.  To them, anything successful must be akin to pop music, where pop music simply must be awful.  Sure, lots of pop music is bad.  But on occasion we get gems from the genre.  Like jazz fans, they revel in how cool they must be to like something that is decidedly unpopular.  I am not one of the superfans.  I like the show and make every effort to see it when it is on, but I don't plan my life around it.  I certainly don't place Community on par with sitcom classics such as The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66), M*A*S*H (1972-1983), or Cheers (1982-1993).  Some have compared it to Arrested Development (2003-2006; 2013?), but Arrested Development was clearly a much slyer (and unconventional) take on Soap (1977-1981), which was itself a send-up of soap opera overreaches.
     Where Community has become something of a mess, a show dedicated less to delivering coherent stories or building characters through the events of their lives, it didn't really start off that way.  It was, looking at it again, a rather normal sitcom.  It just decided to go with the absolutely insane notion of placing a group of adults (or varying degrees of maturity) into what essentially is a high school setting.  Except, because high school isn't for adults, it became a very challenged community college: Greendale. 
Jeff Winger (McHale) in a prime example of his wardrobe misfires from Season One.
     Since nobody chooses to go to community college (this conceit seems more and more elitist as time wears on and there is no real love for the school emerging), all of the main characters must have done something horrible in their lives.  Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has cruised through life without having ever been challenged, faking his credentials to get into Law School (where he never had to study), passed the Bar Exam with no listed difficulty, and had a successful career as a lawyer (because, apparently, there is no need to actually be knowledgeable on the subject of the law if one can simply bullshit well enough); this was a weak cheat at the beginning of the show – a sign that Harmon never fully examined the implications of the set-up.  The other students are all there because they are failures rather than frauds (well, many are frauds on some level that doesn't relate to their academic careers).
     Look at me being nowhere near on point.  Community started off as a slightly off-beat sticom that, occasionally, would turn some of the conventions on their respective heads.  But it hadn't become wrapped up in the need to shock and enthrall (some of) the audience with journeys into the absurd.  It had recurring characters who were more than other hapless denizens of the halls, notably John Michael Higgins as Professor Whitman, Lauren Stamile as Professor Slater, John Oliver as Professor Duncan, and Eric Christian Olsen as Vaugh (being more of a denizen of the grassy quad); only one of those characters appears after Season One.  The wacky antics revolved around things at the school because that is where the intersection of the character's lives was.
     Somewhere along the line, in planning for a longer running show than four years (this was always more ambitious than realistic), Harmon decided to move the focus away from the classes, cafeteria,  and the study group's reserved room in the library into their lives.  This became very pronounced in Season Three, and stands in direct contrast to Season One.  No doubt that Harmon, like Keith Olbermann, has gone crazy in part from having people praise his more out there moments.  "Modern Warfare" (episode #23) was the first truly outrageous divergence from reality – it is the first paintball episode.  It works not because it has escaped from any relationship with reality but because it can be viewed as an absurd but logical extension of how things are at Greendale, but only as an exception to the regular shenanigans.  Having been praised for this, Harmon and company went off the rails in Season Three attempting to deliver as many as these type of events as possible.  It makes Season One look divorced from the show by comparison.
Annie (Brie) didn't have much to do but pine for Troy and react to scenes until the writing staff realized she had great chemistry with Jeff – and that came from them watching the episode where they had the two characters kiss (the first time).
     Season One doesn't really find its footing until "Introduction to Statistics" (episode #7), and truthfully only has seven strong episodes during the first twenty five.  Not that many sitcoms charge out of the gate with a great first season.  Part of the problem is that the cast is quite large and it is hard to find screen time for each character.  Strangely, Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown) is a much stronger, more interesting character in Season One than in Seasons Two and Three combined.  Annie Edison (Alison Brie) and Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) are largely reactionary characters in Season One, getting only occasional moments to shine whereas they become more relevant to the stories in the last two seasons.  Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) was a focal character in Season One, but not with great effect.  The writers reduced her role by making the character a complete and total mess, almost unrecognizable as who she was before.
     What is consistent is the total unnecessary presence of Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase).  I don't blame Chase for this, because he can't do much beyond what he is given to work with, but he should have had some thoughts about how a fat man in his mid-60s doesn't make for compellingly funny broad physical comedy.  Chase was always at his best when he was allowed to be a witty, warm (if befuddled or self-possessed) character struggling with minor inconveniences (see Clark Griswald or Andy Farmer) or putting his wits against devious bad guys (see Irwin Fletcher), but Harmon and company made his character into a nearly completely unsympathetic jackass.  The character feels – from the very beginning – like a compromise forced upon the show by the network.  You want to develop a show?  Put a name character in it.  It seems that Harmon's response was to put one in and then to have no idea what to do with him.
     I used to have this fantasy that if and when Community made it into syndication, some people would see it for the first time and start to get what they were missing.  Now I'm just convinced that when they see Season One, they will be thinking that Community would be a dry, quirky comedy.  If they jumped on board, how would they feel about the show being completely different in the space of ten weeks of viewing?  If they came on board later, how would they feel about the early struggles to define the characters?  I don't know anyone who watched Night Court (1984-1992) who thought that the first two seasons represented what that show was about.  Maybe Season One isn't representative of Harmon's vision for the show, but it is easily more accessible than what the show was during Season Three. 


  1. You're right. Season 2 is what defines the show, but one has to start with Season 1. Great review about the best current Comedy Series!

  2. It's good to hear different opinions, but I'd generally have to disagree with the overall tone of this review, and some of your main arguments.