So, you’ve finished The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Killing but you’re still hungry for more boxsets. Fear not, Standard Issue writers are on the case with some hidden gems you might not yet have seen. This week, Hannah Dunleavy celebrates a meta sitcom that manages not to disappear up its own arse.
No comedy worth its salt sounds much cop when you boil it down to its central premise and Community is no different. An unscrupulous lawyer who faked his credentials has to go back to community college, where, in an attempt to pull an attractive blonde, he joins a study group full of extreme personalities. One of whom seems to be aware he is in a sitcom. So far, so ‘who thinks up this crap?’ Right?
In fact, Community’s a chaotic, multi-set, ensemble cast comedy in the great tradition of 30 Rock and Arrested Development. And by that I mean there’s a whole heap of stuff going on, people go outside and it’s funny. Really funny.
Like those two shows, it throws great fistfuls of characters at you, not caring if you like them or not. The nominal lead Jeff (Joel McHale) starts off as a complete dick-splash, albeit a very handsome one, and makes limited progress. Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is a dropout and former political activist who forces her opinions onto others. Annie (the fantastic Alison Brie, aka Mad Men’s Trudie Campbell) is a smart but highly strung teenager once hooked on prescription medication. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is a mother-of-two whose husband just left her for a stripper and who spends most of her time trying to convert people to Christianity. And Piers (Chevy Chase) is the bored heir to a moist towelette empire who doesn’t realise he is in a cult and has been entirely bypassed by technology and political correctness. To mostly hilarious effect.
“If there’s a sitcom more committed to messing with the format, I’ve not seen it. There are musical episodes, a Claymation episode, an animated episode and two that take place entirely within a game of Dungeons and Dragons.”
Filling out one of the most dysfunctional and needy groups of people ever assembled are its two most likable characters: Troy (Donald Glover), a dim and highly emotional quarterback whose injury cost him a scholarship, and Abed (Danny Pudi), a pop-culture obsessive who everybody believes has Asperger’s, although this is never confirmed.
The pair form an often uncomfortably close friendship, which provides not just huge chunks of comedy, but also most of the series’ sweeter moments. Both are an absolute treat, with Pudi completely nailing Abed’s otherworldliness and Glover taking the already funny concept of talking and crying at the same time and making it about 700% better. You’d think you might tire of it but YOU NEVER DO.
Greendale Community College itself is a dump; its only successful former student being – a very game – Luis Guzmán. As its useless and extravagant Dean (a brilliant Jim Rash, who, random fact alert, won an Oscar for the screenplay for The Descendants) says: “The only compliment it gets is that its basketball team is really gay.”
Its staff are terrible, be it the psychopathic Señor “hands are 90 per cent of Spanish” Chang (Ken Jeong), urine-swilling anthropology teacher (Betty White) or mostly drunk psychology professor Ian Duncan – John Oliver, who steals every scene he is in, which, unfortunately, isn’t all the scenes. His delivery when he is explaining “The Duncan Principal” to his pupils and they begin to take notes, leading him to exclaim, “Yeah, I’m going to write this down too, actually, that’s a good point” is PERFECT and makes me pee my drawers just typing this.
The series even has the audacity to cast dramatic actors – including Michael K Williams, Jonathan Banks and Walton Goggins – and get some seriously funny performances from them.
I’ve got this far without saying that dreaded word, meta, but with Community, it can’t be avoided. Abed suspects he’s in a sitcom and leaves no homage or tip of the hat unmentioned. And man, is there a lot of hat-tipping. Almost every episode references or is done in the style of something else. It contains an ongoing and incredibly silly Doctor Who spoof – Inspector Spacetime – as well as entire episodes shot in the style of films like David Fincher’s Zodiac and Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre.
In fact, if there’s a sitcom more committed to messing with the format, I’ve not seen it. There are musical episodes, a Claymation episode, an animated episode and two that take place entirely within a game of Dungeons and Dragons. In places, this is more successful than others, but be they felt puppets or tiny icons in an 80s computer game, the cast always gives it their all.
Perhaps ironically, Community was surrounded by rumours of difficulties on set – particularly between creator Dan Harmon and Chase, who once walked off set. Harmon was ‘let go’ after the third series and season four really feels his loss. He returned for a rebooted fifth series.
Nonetheless, the comedy was hit by the law of diminishing returns after the fantastic first two series. Although later seasons do have some priceless episodes, like Remedial Chaos Theory in which a row over who’s going to answer the door to the pizza delivery guy leads to the creation of different timelines and, my personal favourite, Pillows and Blankets, in which a campus-wide pillow fight is presented in the style of a PBS documentary about the Civil War.
It’s to Community’s credit that it manages all this without ever completely disappearing up its own arse. A genuinely delightful and dumb concoction. #sixseriesandamovie1986 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.