Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On DVD: "Community: The Complete Second Season"

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 California 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 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.

"Community: The Complete Second Season" debuts today on DVD.

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