What a strange, beautiful, marvel of a series Community has become, such a wonderfully dizzy sideways approximation of the "situation comedy," yet so far richer and smarter than drab connotations those two words conjure up when placed together. It's a delightfully daft show that continued to push its boundaries in its second season, embracing the self-referential oddness that slowly crept to its surface over the course of its first year, and vibrating with the joy of discovering that there were all of these weird directions that it was free to go in.
Make no mistake, it looks like a sitcom, and it sounds like one: a group of wacky and almost formulaically diverse characters, thrown together by chance and circumstance, shenanigans ensue, etc. But creator/show runner Dan Harmon and his gifted writing staff aren't interested in convention--or, at the very least, are only interested in it inasmuch as it gives them a foundation to spring from and spoof back at. The expectations of the genre, it seems, exist primarily for them to subvert.
In season one, we were introduced to Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a smooth and successful Colorado attorney who was disbarred over a bogus degree. Sent to community college in order to earn some real credits, he ends up in a "study group" with tough, sexy Britta (Gillian Jacobs), pop-culture obsessed weirdo Abed (Danny Pudi), charismatic jock Troy (Donald Glover), Christian single mother Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), type-A super student Annie (Alison Brie), and rich retiree Pierce (Chevy Chase).
In those first few episodes, it appeared that McHale--the show's most recognizable face, save for Chase--was going to be the "star" of the show, his academic struggles and attempts to woo Britta dominating the storylines. But whether by design or by accident, Community instead became an ensemble piece, with attention evenly split between the show's tight, gifted cast, who in turn drilled down to find the quirks and affectations that made their potentially stock characters into real (and likable) people.
The miracle of that humanizing effect is that it was occurring as the show itself became both a fast-paced, joke-packed riot (few shows since the golden age of The Simpsons have managed to pack as many solid punch-lines into a half hour of television) and a surprisingly savvy parody of pop culture archetypes. The first season's two best episodes were the extended Goodfellas riff ("Contemporary American Poultry") and the astonishingly funny action movie spoof ("Modern Warfare," aka "the paintball episode"), so it should come as no surprise that the second season is rife with episode-length takes on film and television tropes.
There is "Epidemiology," in which a campus Halloween party turns into a full-scale zombie attack. There is "Cooperative Calligraphy," a self-referential "bottle episode"--TV shorthand for a show that confines its characters to a single, simple location (such as "The One Where No One Is Ready" on Friends, or "Fly" on Breaking Bad). There is "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," a holiday episode that is done in full-on Rankin/Bass-style stop motion. There is "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking," done in the pseudo-doc style of The Office and Parks and Rec. There is "Paradigms of Human Memory," a "flashback episode"--albeit one to events that we've never seen. And then there is "A Fistful of Paintballs" and "For a Few Paintballs More," the two-part return of the paintball competition, this time sending up Western conventions (Spaghetti and otherwise) and, yep, Star Wars.
But even running down those episodes makes the series sound like some sort of uninspired spoof machine, a Friedberg/Seltzer for the small screen. First, it must be noted that the show's creators are clearly aware that it could easily become some sort of homage factory/pop culture Xerox machine, and the show has begun to even subvert that element of its being--witness "Critical Film Studies," which seemed to cater directly to the Internet fan base by promoting itself (complete with on-set advance photos) as "the Pulp Fiction episode," and then turned out to be not a tribute to Tarantino (which has certainly been done to death), but to Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre (which has, well, not).
But more importantly, within the non-stop references and laugh lines, Community's narratives actually generate sympathy, emotion, and drama, quietly pitched though it might be. That Christmas episode is funny and clever, but there are real pathos to be found in it. "Critical Film Studies" appears at first to be an audacious stunt episode, but it actually has something to say about human interaction and cultural obsession. And "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" gets into some pretty deep waters with Jeff, and does not pull back when it reaches its conclusion--they play it straight, and take him (and what happens to him) seriously. It's exactly the kind of episode that, ha ha, The Office does really well.
They aren't just throwing darts at a wall of targets here, is the point. Community selects its seemingly scattershot styles and influences more deliberately than first glance might suggest, and manages to keep several increasingly complicated characters going into unexpected territory. Harmon and his writers are getting more ambitious as the show continues; giving us peeks at their lives off-campus, with forays into apartments and bars and even (memorably) a middle school. The fact that they're doing all of this while still maintaining a shockingly high comedic hit-to-miss ratio is downright commendable. Yes, it is a show where sympathetic characters are subtly becoming older, wiser, better. And it is also a show that will give us an episode with voice-overs by Star Trek's George Takei, who concludes the show by announcing, "If your name is Kevin, here's a little freebie for your cell phone," and proceeding to do an outgoing message. It's that kinda show.
Community's 24 second season episodes are spread over four DVDs and housed in two ThinPack cases. Special features are evenly distributed across all four discs.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is razor-sharp, nicely capturing the show's clean, bright aesthetic; colors pop, skin tones are natural, and black levels are (mostly) deep. Soft shots pop up here and there, but overall, it's a nice, crisp transfer.
The English 5.1 Dolby Digital track is disappointingly front-heavy--not a big deal in a typical, dialogue-centered episode, but a bit of a missed opportunity in shows like the "Epidemiology" Halloween episode, "Advanced Mixology" (with its bar scenes), and even the two-part paintball finale, where a more active soundstage would have certainly been welcome. There's some action in the rears, sure, but it's awfully subtle. That said, dialogue is crisp and audible throughout, and music cues are well-modulated.
English and English SDH subtitles are also included.
Sony has basically replicated the show's first season DVD bonus features, with similarly entertaining results. Once again, every episode gets an Audio Commentary, with input from cast (Jacobs, McHale, Chase, Glover, Brown, Pudi, Jeong, Jim Rash, and guests Rob Corddry, Robert Smigel, and Andy Dick--though, disappointingly, no Brie) and crew (Harmon, Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, Chris McKenna, Emily Cutler, Hilary Winston, Andy Bobrow, Richard Erdman, Garrett Donovan, Anthony Hemingway, Adam Countee, Jake Aust, Megan Ganz, Neil Goldman, Dino Stamotopoulos, Ludwig Goransson, Duke Johnson, Andrew Guest, Steven Sprung, Jay Chandrasekhar, Sona Panos, and Tristam Shapeero). And who knows, maybe they're putting it on, but these folks sound like they genuinely like and amuse each other, so the tracks are both entertaining and (at least modestly) insightful.
Each disc also includes a reel of Outtakes (running five to seven minutes), many of which are quite R-rated, most of which are very funny (and give a nice peek at the behind-the-scenes byplay between the cast), as well as one to three Deleted Scenes for that disc's episodes.
Disc two spotlights the acclaimed Christmas show with three bonus features. "Creating Wonderland" (17:34) is an in-depth look at the special episode, from conception through execution. That featurette includes clips from the "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas Original Storyboard Animatic" (21:42) and the "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas In-Process Animatic" (21:54), which are also included in their entirety.
Disc three includes Season Two Cast Evaluations (10:35) with Harmon and the cast, and as with the first season, it is a real highlight--funny, smart, and a fine showcase for everyone's improvisational skills (including Harmon's). "DJ Steve Porter Remixes Season One" (1:50) is clever promo clip that's pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
Disc four looks at "The Paintball Finale: From Script to Screen" (20:02), with interviews, clips from the first season paintball episode ("Modern Warfare"), and behind-the-scenes footage of the shoot.
Community still hits occasional speed bumps; a couple of these second season episodes are mighty forgettable, the occasional guest stars don't really add much, and this year featured far more Ken Jeong than I'd have liked. But these are nit-picks, minor imperfections. On an astonishingly consistent basis, Community is, pound for pound, the best sitcom on network television--save Louie, television's best sitcom, period. The fact that both of those shows fall under the "sitcom" umbrella says something very interesting about where the form is at these days.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and 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. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.