In addition to its well-publicized, disastrous experiment with moving Jay Leno to primetime, NBC has done some good things this year. Perhaps the best of these is the new sitcom Community.
The concept is simple but rich in characters and potential comical situations. Suspended lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has been sent back to college because his academic degree was discovered to be phony. Now he’s stuck at the local community college–which he describes as a “school-shaped toilet.”
The show includes at least a few genuinely amusing moments per episode, but it also takes its characters seriously to some degree, which makes it more than just a string of gags. In the first episode, Winger ends up leading a Spanish-language study group even though he has little grasp of the language. The various members of the group are comically beset by a multitude of emotional, social, and functional problems.
Winger, however, very quickly (and somewhat implausibly) turns the group into what he describes as a “community.” The tables are soon turned on him, however, as he is revealed to all as a shallow, selfish, conceited moral relativist. This is not characterized as a good thing.
Taking up this theme of the need for redemption, in the first episode a professor tells Winger he has “a second chance at an honest life.” Then, demonstrating both forgiveness and kindness, the other students in the study group end up helping him study for a Spanish test because he never learned good study habits, having always been able to get by with little effort because of his intelligence.
This motif recurs in subsequent episodes as the others in the group make frequent efforts to help one another with their problems, big and small. They really become their own little community, entirely by their own choice.
The characters’ troubles are typically shown as being the results of their own bad choices, especially the search for shortcuts to happiness. For example, in Episode 3, “Introduction to Film,” Winger takes a film class because he figures it will be an easy A. In a later episode he becomes the supervisor of the student newspaper and uses his reporters to get free things for him. Both schemes turn out to be bad ideas.
Similarly, in a recent episode, “Investigative Journalism,” guest Jack Black plays a new member of the study group, Buddy, whose enthusiastic narcissism leads to some good jokes. The humor of Buddy’s character derives from his powerful desire to be seen as a distinctively interesting individual without actually accomplishing anything distinctive, let alone anything good.
In this way Buddy contrasts with the rest of the people in the group, who are actually trying to better themselves by developing whatever meager talents they possess–and thus he directs attention to that laudable desire on their part. That includes Winger, who really does try to be a good mentor to the group.
The members of the study group want to exclude Buddy, as he is extremely annoying, and Winger initially agrees. In the end, however, he decides to let Buddy stay because he sees that Buddy’s admiration for the group as a good thing, which he recognizes by mentally putting himself in Buddy’s place. In so doing, of course, he is clearly exemplifying Jesus’s Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” yet this is done with humor and without overt piousness.
Ironically, Buddy immediately ditches them for “the cool group” led by guest star Owen Wilson. Thus doing the right thing works out best for everybody.
In the most recent episode, “Physical Education,” the group tries to help plain-looking Abed get a girlfriend, only to find out that he does very well in that area already, and that looks and other superficial measures of attractiveness aren’t nearly as important as they thought.
An even more comical and bizarre story line in that same episode concerns a physical education class in which Jeff’s instructor insists that he give up his obsession with clothes and other cool-guy attitudes. This leads ultimately and inevitably to a naked billiards match between the two, and a good time and serious learning experience for all. Well, maybe not too much of the latter.
In all, Community does an excellent job of providing laughs and a little more. The jokes and occasionally sexed-up story lines will draw viewers, and the exploration of personal choices might just give them something to think about.