Since its first appearance, The Office has held a stranglehold on my affections when it comes to the Must See TV block of comedy offered by NBC. Shows have come and gone (Kath & Kim anyone?). While shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation have always got a few laughs out of me, they have never managed to unseat the Dunder Mifflin crew from my Thursday night comedy throne. Then Community came along. As they say, the King is dead. Long live the King.
Perhaps it's unfair to compare a spunky upstart with an established veteran but the fact remains that Community had a stellar first season. From its very first episode, the show hit the ground running and never looked back. Over the course of 25 installments, it proved itself to be consistently fresh, fast and riotously funny. The secret to its success isn't really a mystery at all. What we have here is an incredibly well-written show, performed by a skilled group of comic actors with impeccable timing.
The show opens with Jeff Winger's (Joel McHale) arrival at Greendale Community College. Jeff doesn't really want to be there but he's in a bit of a bind. He is a lawyer whose credentials aren't completely legit. The easiest way for him to get back to the privileged life he so adores is to finish his degree at Greendale. While he views this as a complete waste of his time, who's to say he can't have some fun while he's there? When he spots Britta (Gillian Jacobs), he lies through his loins and says that he's a Spanish tutor so he can cozy up to her in private. This plan backfires when Britta shows up for their first study session with five other students in tow. The newly expanded study group includes Abed (Danny Pudi), Troy (Donald Glover), Annie (Alison Brie), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and Pierce (Chevy Chase). Hilarity actually ensues.
While having such a large core cast could be daunting to manage, here they all have fairly distinct personalities which set them apart. Shirley came out of a bad marriage determined to reclaim her independence. Troy was a star football player in his high school but lost his shot at the big league after an injury sidelined him. Annie suffered the double-whammy of dropping out of school after getting hooked on pills and having an unrequited crush on Troy. Pierce made his fortune as a moist towlette tycoon but most of the time is a racist and sexist old coot. And then there's Abed. If you could raise a baby in isolation so that his only knowledge of humanity came from movies and television shows, you would get Abed. He is always direct, without malice and just a little bit alien. Coupled with Jeff, the BS artist and Britta, the modern hippie we have 7 people who are destined to bounce off each other in unexpected directions.
Community presents itself as a meta-sitcom, constantly commenting on its own structure as it twists away from the norm. The characters play types but fully recognize that they are doing so out of convenience and to fulfill cultural expectations. This self-awareness is what lets them rise above the script that they should be following, in the process revealing their hidden dimensions to each other. If the show were just a string of snarky pop-culture references, it would quickly grow tiresome. What keeps it engaging and enjoyable is something utterly old-fashioned, its heart. Watching the characters squabble and defend each other like a real family, undercuts the typically sharp tone with just a hint of sweetness. Creator Dan Harmon and his talented group of writers find their stride early and proceed to consistently hit the mark from that point on.
Considering how often the show walks the fine line between absurdity and honesty, it would need an excellent cast in order to seem believable. Fortunately, there isn't a weak performance in the whole bunch. Joel McHale (always excellent on The Soup) takes on the difficult task of making a selfish and narcissistic character seem sympathetic and does so without breaking a sweat. Gillian Jacobs turns Britta into the perfect foil for Jeff. She makes him want to seek out his hidden kernel of kindness while allowing her own flaws to bubble to the surface. Chevy Chase brings back some of his old mojo for the insufferable Pierce while Yvette Nicole Brown and Alison Brie portray the two sweetest characters on the show with some rough edges of their own. Donald Glover brings his improvisational strengths to the character of Troy while Danny Pudi gives a star-making performance as Abed, the loveable weirdo.
After populating the core of the show with such memorable characters, you would think Harmon and his crew would have taken a break. Instead they color in the margins of the show with a small army of eccentrics. Jim Rash plays the college's dean whose political correctness masks some truly animalistic urges. Ken Jeong plays the slightly unhinged Spanish teacher, Señor Chang who would rather be known as El Tigre. John Oliver makes occasional appearances as a Psychology professor with a chip on his shoulder while John Michael Higgins pops up now and then as a professor who has seen Dead Poet's Society a few too many times. Other guest stars include Eric Christian Olsen, Jack Black, Anthony Michael Hall and Patton Oswalt. Amazingly, none of them overshadow the proceedings and get assimilated pretty nicely into the weekly shenanigans.
There are too many high points in the episodes for me to single out a few...but I'm going to try anyway. By now everyone's heard about or seen Modern Warfare. It's an episode-long love letter to action and horror movies that goes beyond simple homage by effectively integrating the characters into the storyline. Comparative Religion gets points from me for simply letting Don Glover loose. Watching him teach Jeff how to fight for the inevitable showdown with Anthony Michael Hall is a real treat. While some episodes start off with a heightened reality (like Modern Warfare), I especially appreciate the ones that are rooted in normalcy but slowly devolve into complete absurdity. Physical Education is one such episode. What starts as an argument between Jeff and the gym teacher over proper Billiards attire, gradually grows into an ugly game of brinksmanship with both men stripping down until their naked desire to win has become quite literal.
Every episode also ends with an entertaining coda where Abed and Troy (and sometimes Jeff) get goofy just for the hell of it. Abed does his best froggy-throated Christian Bale as Batman impression. Abed and Troy rap in Spanish. Abed, Troy and Jeff get into a Krumping contest. It's all quite silly but delivered with such sheer joy that you never roll your eyes. Harmon and his cast have something very special on their hands here. This is a breakout venture for everyone involved and I think you should get in on the ground floor.
The show was presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. I found the image to be very sharp and clear. There were a few minor cases of moiré and grain in some of the darker scenes but they were not very noticeable. For the most part, this is a bright and colorful show which comes across accurately in the transfer.
The audio was presented in English 5.1 Dolby Digital. While the audio mix was clean and more than adequate for a dialogue heavy television show, I did feel like the rear surrounds were a bit neglected overall. In addition, some of the early episodes seemed to have the vocals mixed a tad low compared to the musical cues but this evened out pretty quickly. English SDH Subtitles were available.
The special features are spread out across all 4 discs of the release but are mostly concentrated on the first 2 discs. For starters, every single episode gets a Cast and Crew Commentary. Creator Dan Harmon remains the constant across all the commentaries as the cast, writers and directors play musical chairs to accompany him. As you would expect they prove to be a fun bunch to listen to. Discussion topics include the difficulties of finding a compatible cast, finding the right tone for the pilot and their love/hate relationship with Glee (it's mostly love).
Roughly 33 minutes of Outtakes are spread across the discs. They are surprisingly uncensored for language and feature plenty of improv by Glover and Pudi. In addition Jeong and McHale get in on the fun with some silly fake PSAs. Also, if you were wondering whether there was any more footage of Abed, Troy and Jeff getting their Krump on, then look no further. Next up we have a sophomoric but hilarious bit called Creative Compromises (2:53). This is a mock insightful look at how the original vision for the show got watered down by the suits at corporate. It's a one note joke at the expense of Gillian Jacobs but never turns insulting.
Harmon sits down with the entire cast for Community Season One Cast Evaluations (11:42). This is yet another improv heavy bit that lets the natural talents of the performers shine. In addition to receiving pointers on their own performances, they also give ridiculous advice to each other. Some audition footage is also mixed into this extra. The "Advanced Criminal Law" Alternate Scenes (3:58) mostly consist of Pierce and Annie arguing with each other while 3 Mini Episodes (4:29) feature the entire cast taking study breaks to engage in nonsensical banter. A Season 1 Highlight Reel (5:05) takes the path of the montage to give us an easily digested chunk of insanity while a Producer's Cut of the "Communication Studies" episode extends the fun by a few minutes.
As an added bonus, the release includes the roughly 10 page long Kickpuncher comic book which comes to you from the mind of Troy Barnes and the hand of Jim Mahfood. It's a fun little diversion based on a minor plot point of one of the episodes. It notably includes some Britta on Annie action (not that you care about such things).
For Community, Dan Harmon has assembled a team of talented writers and comedic performers who deliver weekly shots of hearty laughs with laser precision. They demonstrate a dedication to following ridiculous premises to their logical, if equally ridiculous conclusions. Frequently self-aware, cutting and honest; the show recognizes that being hip and cool doesn't have to come at the cost of heart. Turning a group of strangers into an admittedly ramshackle family is no easy task but the show has already accomplished that. It's already great and it can only get better. Highly Recommended.