It's a wonderful thing, watching a rookie TV show find its way. When Community premiered on NBC in fall of 2009, it was an immediately likable and legitimately funny show, thought not in a terribly exciting way; it functioned, as so many of today's sitcoms do, as a character-based comedy heavy on pop culture references (albeit one without a laugh track). The expectation was that, as the season continued and the characters grew more entrenched, it would get marginally funnier and remain a slightly off-beat and frequently enjoyable series--something along the lines of How I Met Your Mother.
But that's not what happened.
Slowly but surely, over the course of its freshman year, Community got bolder, braver, more confident--someone (or everyone) behind the scenes decided to let their freak flag fly. And subtly, over the course of the middle stretch, the show became stranger and sillier, faster and funnier. By the end of season one, Community had somehow gone from a moderately promising newcomer to one of the best comedies on television.
Our hero is Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), once a successful attorney, now disbarred due to the invalidation of his college diploma. Low on funds and desperate, he enrolls at Greendale Community College, where he is immediately smitten with Britta (Gillian Jacobs), a sexy blonde in his Spanish class. He invents a fictional study group in order to spend time with her, but his scheme backfires; the group, and their study sessions, become the backbone of the show. There's Abed (Danny Pudi), the oddball pop culture sponge; Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), the divorcee and mother; Annie (Alison Brie), the type-A super-student with the sketchy past; Troy (Donald Glover), the one-time jock; and Pierce (Chevy Chase), the rich, retired entrepreneur.
At first glance, the characters are certainly types--quick-witted and well-written types though they may be. But as the season continues, the layers are peeled back, and we get a clearer picture of Abed's home life, Annie's high school issues, Pierce's checkered love life, Britta's activism--all to great comic effect. Each new revelation and character beat is gracefully exploded by the show's crackerjack ensemble; at the show's inception, it was perceived to be McHale and Chase's showcase, but the cast has quickly become a tight, punchy comic unit. The writing is razor-sharp, whether in the hands of creator Dan Harmon our his talented staff, and the direction is frequently handsome and efficient--the show is a joke machine paced within an inch of its life, and this viewer frequently had to run the show back, due to laughter from one punch line obscuring the next one.
All of those elements grew sharper over the season, but they were all there (to some degree) at the beginning. The change--and again, it was a slow phasing-in, nothing that suddenly struck in a single episode--was in the show's style, its approach, its unique way of looking at its characters and the odd little world they inhabit. In its early episodes, Community was certainly capable of strangeness, and the characters, at times, leaned towards farce. But with each passing episode, Harmon and his writers and directors began to swing into new and more subversive territory, straddling a razor's edge between traditional, character-driven situational comedy and outlandish, spoof-laden silliness. It's one thing to do a show about the study group's Halloween party; it's quite another to do an episode-length parody of Goodfellas, based on Jeff and Abed's takeover of the cafeteria's chicken finger trade. It's easy to write a story about Jeff having to live in his car, but how's about an episode about gym uniforms that degenerates into a spirited round of nude billiards? And then there's the season's pièce de résistance, "Modern Warfare" (aka "the paintball episode"), in which an innocent paintball battle on the quad degenerates into a no-holds-barred, last-man-standing battle--and the most dead-on, laugh-out-loud satire of the modern action movie this side of Hot Fuzz. (Intriguingly, that episode is directed by Justin Lim, who helmed the last two Fast and Furious movies and may have more of a sense of humor than those pictures would lead you to believe.)
But what's great about "Modern Warfare" isn't just the aping of Bay camera moves, the hilarious John Woo shout-outs, or even the jaw-dropping Glee slams. It's that, in the middle of all that madness, they toss in Jeff and Britta's David-and-Maddie moment--and then totally throw it away. And then, it turns out they didn't. Yes, the season finale involves a school dance at which Britta is crowned the queen of the transfer students (or, for short, the "Tranny Queen"), but it also sets up a legitimate and compelling--but still funny--love triangle. And then, in the final moments, they sucker punch you, with a turn that's been quietly set up, but is still surprising--not just for the "what the what?!" of what happens, but for how much we've invested in these characters that are engaged in stories that have grown fundamentally ridiculous. That, my friends, is a neat trick.
The 25 episodes and numerous special features of Community: The Complete First Season are spread over four discs, with seven episodes on disc one and six each on the remaining discs. The four discs are housed, two each, in two ThinPak cases, and the set also includes an issue of the "Kick Puncher" comic book (the character is a plot point in the "Romantic Expressionism" episode).
The anamorphic 1.78:1 image is quite sharp; the series works in a bright, zippy color palate, which is nicely replicated by Sony's fine transfer. Skin tones are natural, dimensionality is strong, and digital artifacts are minor at worst.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital track mostly stays in the front and center channels, as expected for a sitcom mix, and the fast-paced dialogue is consistently clean. But when it's appropriate, the rear channels have plenty of life--separation is particularly strong in the "Modern Warfare" episode, where the spoof action sequences engage the entire soundstage (and give the LFE channel a bit of a workout as well).
English SDH subtitles are also included for all episodes.
Every single first season episode gets an Audio Commentary, hosted by series creator Dan Harmon and featuring appearances by several members of the cast (McHale, Chase, Jacobs, Pudi, Glover, Brown, Brie, and Jeong) and crew (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Andrew Guest, Lauren Pomerantz, Hilary Winston, Adam Davidson, Chris McKenna, Karey Dornetto, and Emily Cutler). The commentaries are, for the most part, both funny and informative; the tracks involving Glover and Pudi are particularly good (Glover's Tracy Morgan impression is aces). Every disc also includes a montage of very funny Outtakes and alternate takes (each running six to ten minutes).
Disc one also includes the goofy "Creative Compromises" featurette (2:53), in which the faux-angry Harmon explains how his "vision" was watered down by the "television machine", and presents scenes of extreme flatulence to make his case; "Season One Cast Evaluations" (11:42), a terrific bonus in which Harmon sits down with the cast individually to discuss their progress so far; and Alternate Scenes for the "Advanced Criminal Law" episode (3:58).
Disc two includes three enjoyable "Mini Episodes" (4:30): "Study Break: Stop Using Your Brain," "Study Break: Truth or Dare," and "Study Break: Generation Gap." A cleverly-assembled "Season One Highlight Reel" (5:05) closes out the disc. Disc three also includes an "extended producer's cut" of the "Communication Studies" episode (26:31).
It took a few episodes to find it, but the cast and creators of Community manage, week after week, to marry situational comedy with outright absurdity, and to make those two seemingly contradictory approaches run parallel, without eclipsing one another. I can think of exactly two shows in recent years that have done that successfully: 30 Rock and Arrested Development. Not bad company to be in, now is it?
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.