Monday, May 17, 2010

Why "Community" is at the Head of the Class

As the TV season is drawing to its close, and the networks are gearing up for the fall, I've been looking back over the 2009-2010 freshman class, and one show sticks out as my favorite of the year: NBC's "Community." I stumbled across it in January, and since I have a history of warming up to shows well after everyone else, didn't realize it had only been on the air since September. The writing is so good and the characters so sure-footed, it feels like a show that's already been around the block a few times.

The shenanigans of a community college study group is one of those premises that sounds familiar, but has a few key differences from the usual school-centric programs we've seen before like "Glee," "Boston Public," "Friday Night Lights," "Greek," "Degrassi High," and "Saved by the Bell." TV shows about school life usually give us a clear divide between adult faculty-members and less mature students, and tend to portray the educational system as a straightforward path through early adulthood, with each stage intrinsically tied to certain periods of development. Occasionally you'll have comedies about mature adults who go back to school, like Rhea Perlman in "Pearl" and Amy Sedaris in "Strangers With Candy," but they were always rare exceptions, surrounded by younger classmates who comprised another hurdle for them to overcome.

"Community," by contrast, is a look at a different model of education, where we have students of a variety of ages, from recent high school graduates to senior citizens, with a broad spectrum of life experiences and different reasons for continuing their education. The Spanish study group at the center of "Community" includes a single mother, a lawyer with an invalidated college degree, and an elderly oddball. Fully half of the cast is made up of minority actors, who never come across as tokens. While we do get the interpersonal tensions, romantic liaising, and growing pains associated with most college shows, there's no pandering to the youthful worldview and the excesses of frat culture are almost totally absent. I don't miss them. It's nice to see a show about college students where we don't have to sit through the usual cliches about roommates, sexual awakenings, and binge drinking.

Instead, the writers substitute more interesting dynamics, heaps of snarky banter, and glorious farce galore. They get a lot of mileage out of disabusing the lead character Jeff (Joel McHale) of the notion that community colleges are the domain of unintelligent low-lifes. Rather, he meets students like Annie (Alison Brie) and Britta (Gillian Jacob), who are looking for a second chance, Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), who needs a new direction in life, and Troy (Donald Glover), who wants to learn even if he's not the sharpest tack in the box. These are ambitious, talented people who may have run into a few setbacks and taken some wrong turns, but genuinely want to better themselves. Of course there's also Pierce, (a resurrected Chevy Chase), who seems to be there because he's lonely and bored.

There are plenty of digs in the show about community colleges not being "real" colleges, but their benefits are clear. In a time when so many local education systems are in crisis, and the recession is creating more need for them than ever, it's good to have a reminder of how important these places are. "Community" is one of the only shows about getting an education that features characters really invested in getting their degrees. Even when the show is at its most frivolous, real world social pressures are always a driving force. A lot of this comes from the cast of older, more cynical characters who bring a more world-weary perspective. I can't think of the last time I saw one of these shows where the alpha male lead had so much concern for his academic performance.

I don't mean to suggest that "Community" dwells on its own progressiveness, because it doesn't. Its primary aim is to be as ridiculous and entertaining as possible. So the faculty is staffed with wild characters like Spanish teacher SeƱor Chang (Ken Jeong) and a dean (Jim Rash) obsessed with the school's image. One of my favorite recurring elements is the show's penchant for film spoofs. The group's hoarding of cafeteria chicken fingers turns into a mafia war. A paintball tournament opens with shots echoing "28 Days Later" and ends with the a splatterific "Predator" homage. The character of Abed (Danny Pudi) is a film student who drops cinematic references left and right, and often indulges in razor-sharp meta-commentary. Disses are regularly delivered to rival freshman sitcom "Glee" and Joel McHale's real-life rival Ryan Seacrest.

My only worry is that the show might outstay its welcome. NBC has already renewed it for a second season, and the storyline would naturally follow the characters through a typical four-year college career, but can it sustain itself beyond that? One of the major pitfalls of school-centric shows is that they have a hard time accepting the transitory nature of their premises - nobody quits while they're ahead. Graduation day is still a long way off, but I hope the creators are planning ahead

The season finale of "Community" airs Thursday.

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