Judge Erich Asperschlager is a G-D-B.
"All right. Nobody here is Can't Buy Me Love-ing or Love Don't Cost a Thing-ing anyone, because we've all seen enough after school specials and Fat Albert to know that Abed only needs to be himself."
Back in the mid-'90s, NBC was on top of the network comedy hill thanks to their "Must See TV" Thursday night lineup. As their most popular shows ended, so did that hegemony, giving way to a sad series of spin-offs, knock-offs, and Donald Trump-related reality programming. In recent years, the peacock has managed to rebuild its pre-weekend primetime lineup, mostly on the backs of megahits The Office and 30 Rock. Going into the 2009-2010 season, it looked like those shows would once again be the bedrock for Thursday night comedy, bolstering the return of so-so Parks and Recreation and an untested new series called Community. As the season went along, however, the opposite turned out to be true. While the Dunder Mifflin and TGS gangs started to show their age, Parks and Recreation came on strong with a season that eclipsed the mockumentary show that inspired it (critically, anyway), and Community quickly became the funniest show on not only Thursday nights, but—with the possible exception of ABC's Modern Family—the funniest show on TV.
Based in part on creator Dan Harmon's own experience going back to community college, Community is a razor-sharp ensemble comedy that trades on memorable characters and pop culture touchstones. Just in time for the second season premiere, it hits DVD as Community: The Complete First Season, packed with bonus features, a collectible comic book, and tons of replay value.
Facts of the Case
Jeff Winger (Joel McHale, The Soup) was a hotshot lawyer until someone figured out that his college degree was fake. Now, he's a student at Greendale Community College. When he's not busy hounding a professor/former client (John Oliver, The Daily Show) for the answers to all of his tests, he sets his sights on a freespirited hottie named Britta (Gillian Jacobs, Solitary Man). In order to get her attention, he pretends to be a Spanish tutor, inviting her to a fake study group for some alone time. She turns the tables on him by inviting other students from their Spanish 101 class to join them: borderline autistic movie geek Abed (Danny Pudi, Gilmore Girls), former high school quarterback Troy (Donald Glover, 30 Rock), middle-aged mother Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown, Drake and Josh), studious Annie (Alison Brie, Mad Men), and out-of-touch CEO Pierce (Chevy Chase, Caddyshack). Together, they learn valuable lessons about life, love, and middling expectations. Their adventures span 25 episodes, across four discs:
Given the drum-beating that has been going on for the past several years about the death of sitcoms, Community must have felt like a long shot, not only for NBC but for its creator Dan Harmon. I'm sure he believed in the show; he probably just didn't believe he'd make it past mid-season, let alone get a second season deal. But he did. Thanks to this show and to some of the impressive stuff coming out of ABC (and, to a lesser extent, CBS), the 2009-2010 TV season was the year of the sitcom. And as far as I'm concerned, Harmon's show is at the top of that heap.
It would be easy to dismiss Community as relying too much on pop culture nods—and plenty of people have—but the movie references make sense coming out of these characters, especially Danny Pudi's Abed (my favorite character on the show, and possibly all of current TV). Abed is a socially awkward kid who looks at his community college experience the same way we do: as though it were a TV show. He relates the group's first series of meetings to John Hughes' classic The Breakfast Club. He gauges Jeff and Britta's love-hate relationship on a scale that runs from Sam and Diane to Ross and Rachel. He makes a list of essential college activities, based on what happens in movies like Animal House. As the season goes on, the gang's adventures begin to resemble the movies and television shows Abed uses as his points of reference.
I could probably come up with some masters-level thesis about how the events of Community occur in Abed's mind, filtered and presented to a surrogate audience as a waking dream told through a visual vocabulary of pop cultural iconograpy—but hey, this is only community college and I'm not gonna work that hard. Abed's love of movies and television is a reflection of the interests of the show's writers, including Harmon himself. The sense of joy that they bring to the show is contagious, and their dazzling scripts provide the foundation for what makes Community work.
Harmon and crew spent a long time on casting, making sure that the actors they ultimately chose would have the right chemistry and comedic chops. The effort pays off from the very first group scene. Everyone in the main gang is distinct without overshadowing anyone else. It's quite an accomplishment.
Joel McHale was among the first actors picked for the show. It might have seemed like an odd choice for those who only know him as host of The Soup on E!, but it was the right call. As ex-lawyer Jeff Winger, McHale brings the perfect balance of detached egotism and boyish charm. If they'd hired the wrong actor for this part, Jeff would be a antihero—a jerk we like only because he occasionally learns his lesson. Somehow, McHale's Jeff is never unlikable, even when he's giving some rousing but meaningless speech engineered to manipulate his friends into doing his bidding. He's that good.
Maybe the reason Jeff works so well is because the other members of the study group are just as lovably flawed. Britta, the reason he pretended to start the group in the first place, is Jeff's opposite, by which I mean she cares about things a bit too much. Abed is the most obviously eccentric, but in many ways he's less delusional than his best pal Troy, a former high school quarterback who loves to eat giant cookies and has a Good Will Hunting-esque aptitude for plumbing. Troy's biggest shortcoming is his inability to see how much Annie, who went to his high school, is in love with him. A recovering pill addict, Annie is a study fiend who goes from repressed to slightly less repressed over the course of the year. As the youngest person in the group, she sits in contrast to Shirley, a single mother of two who sees community college as a second chance. Seemingly beyond last chances is lovable racist and moist towelette CEO Pierce Hawthorne, played by Chevy Chase. There are no weak links here. Everyone is awesome, from fresh faces like the hilarious pairing of Donald Glover and Danny Pudi to the more recognizable Alison Brie of Mad Men, and comedy legend Chevy Chase. I have to admit I've never been a big Chase fan, but after his work here and guest appearances on Chuck, I'm on board. In a perfect world, Chevy would get the same kind of career-rejuvenating recognition for Community that Alec Baldwin has gotten from 30 Rock.
The supporting cast is no less impressive, especially The Hangover's Ken Jeong as psycho Asian Spanish teacher Senor Chang, John Oliver as the school psychologist, and Jim Rash (Reno 911!) as skeezy Dean Pelton. Jeong is over-the-top in his portrayal of an apathetic teacher and steals every scene he's in. Rash's contributions are more subtle, but his comedic timing (and ability to sell his character's Dalmatian fetish) are masterful. If you've ever seen Oliver on The Daily Show, you know how dang funny his proper-British shtick is. Other memorable supporting players include Lauren Stamile as Jeff's professor love interest, Jean Michael Higgins as diem-carping teacher, Dino Stamatopoulos as the appropriately named "Star-Burns," and Richard Erdman as Leonard, Greendale's oldest student. And then there are guest stars, like Tony Hale as a Ghost-hating pottery teacher, Lee Majors as a land-locked sailing instructor, Jack Black as a student trying to break into the group, Anthony Michael Hall as a mustachioed bully, and Patton Oswalt as the school nurse. It's an embarrassment of comedic riches.
Harmon made a decision early on to keep all of the action on campus. It sounds like a risky move, but there's so much variety in the settings and school-sponsored activities that there's never a dull moment. There are big tests, dances, pep rallys, concerts, and STD awareness parties that get out of control. Community is jam-packed from the first episode to the last, with nary a dud in between. The story moves quickly away from Jeff's lawyer conundrum, building in hilarity and movie references to the high point of the season, "Modern Warfare." When I first watched the episode, it was the best 30 minutes of television of any show that season, and stands as one of my favorite episodes of anything, ever. High praise, but completely deserved. It's the story of a campus-wide paintball competition that spirals out of control. It blends humor and tautly paced action scenes with references to Die Hard, The Warriors, Predator, John Woo, and any number of post-apocalyptic zombie movies. It's thrilling, hilarious, and better than every blockbuster that came out this summer. I'm tempted to recommend buying this set for this episode alone.
The only real problem with Community: The Complete First Season is that it hits home video on DVD only, no Blu-ray. It's a shame, because the show aired in HD and cinematic episodes like "Modern Warfare" would really have benefited from the upgrade. Hopefully this version sells well enough to warrant the release of a Blu-ray set later on. As it is, though, Community looks great on DVD. The show's creators put a lot of time and effort into the cinematography, and it shows. The 5.1 surround mix is a little less striking. It's clean and crisp; there's just not much for the rear speakers to do.
With a few exceptions, it seems like most recent TV box sets skimp on the extras. That's not the case here. This set is packed with features. For starters, there are audio commentaries for every episode. Recorded by Dan Harmon and various configurations of cast and writers, they are light, funny, informative, and well-worth a listen. Next up, more than half an hour of outtakes spread across all four discs. Gag reels can be hit-or-miss, but these are definitely a hit, favoring cast improv over actors getting the giggles.
Disc one also has a few alternate scenes from the episode "Advanced Criminal Law," and a pair of Dan Harmon-hosted featurettes. In "Creative Compromises," Harmon uses a more…explosive original cut of an episode to show how network edits have effectively ruined the show. It's juvenile, and hilarious. "Season One Cast Evaluations" is slightly more serious. Actually, it's not. Staged as a collection of one-on-one staff evaluations, Harmon talks to the cast about their (fake) experiences over the course of the year, mixed with actual audition footage.
Over on disc two, there's a five-minute highlight reel of moments you will have already seen by the time you get to the extras, and three 90-second "mini-episodes" featuring the group during study breaks. Disc three has an extended producer's cut of "Communication Studies" that runs five minutes longer than the original version (also on the disc). Disc four has the commentaries and outtakes only. As an extra special added bonus, the set also comes with a six-page "Kickpuncher" comic book, written by Troy and drawn by Jim Mahfood. It's a reimagining of a remake of a fake bad movie that they watch in Abed's dorm room in the episode "Romantic Expressionism." It's short and silly, but fun.
I could have finish this review with a list of my favorite moments from Community—Abed as Batman, Pierce and Jeff's epic Spanish presentation, Scorcese-inspired chicken fingers story, Annie and Shirley's campus cop adventures, Britta mispronouncing "bagel," any of the Troy and Abed tags at the end of the episodes—but I won't. I want you to discover them for yourself. This is the show that I laughed hardest at last season, collected in an awesome DVD set. Buy it. I mean, what are you waiting for? Credit?
The next round of Special Drink is on me. Not guilty!
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