Friday, September 17, 2010

On DVD: "Community: The Complete First Season"

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.

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?

"Community: The Complete First Season" hits DVD on Tuesday, September 21. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk. Season two premieres on NBC on Thursday, September 23.

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