Judge Erich Asperschlager has room in his pocket for a little spare Chang.
"Abed, why are you mining my life for classic sitcom scenarios?"
"I guess I'm just excited about the new year, looking for ways to improve things. I'm hoping we can move away from the soapy relationshippy stuff and into bigger, fast-paced, self-contained escapades."
Community isn't the most popular show on television. It doesn't have the best ratings, and it hasn't won any major awards. As tempting as it is to blame the oversight on the foolish masses, or to suggest a conspiracy between networks, advertisers, and nominating committees to promote mediocrity and punish creativity—what's the point? All that really matters is that, for two years running, no show has made me laugh harder than Community. In a world of DVRs and on-demand video, I still make it a point to turn on NBC at 8 p.m. on Thursday nights, not because I can't find more convenient ways to watch the show, but because I don't want to wait to see what happens next. While fans have a bit more waiting to do for Season Three, I can't think of a better way to pass that time than Community: The Complete Second Season on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Community: The Complete Second Season has 24 episodes, across four discs:
After a stellar freshman outing, Dan Harmon's sharply written meta-sitcom raised the stakes for Season Two. Along with more ambitious examples of the pop culture homages that helped define the series, this season develops the relationships between the Greendale Community College study group members. That group, as described by the Lord of the Rings-style opening narration of "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" are:
• "Jeff the Liar, Son of William the Barely Known,"
(Joel McHale, Talk Soup)
Season One spent a lot of character time on Britta and Jeff's will-they-won't-they romance, culminating in a shocking twist kiss between Jeff and Annie. Season Two graduates from study group romances to bigger stories that focus on the group's two older members. Shirley finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and doesn't know who the father is. Pierce, meanwhile, goes through a season-long transformation from butt of the group's jokes to their nemesis. Community walks a fine line with these after school special arcs, playing them for laughs while never undermining their dramatic weight. Pierce, especially, goes to some dark places—including an addiction to pain pills—and does his darndest to drag everyone else down with him.
This season also elevates several of the show's supporting characters to regular status. Spanish teacher-cum-student Ben Chang (Ken Jeong, The Hangover) expends a lot of energy trying to worm his way into the group. Putting Chang on the same level as his classmates gives Jeong enough screentime to solidify his place as the funniest (and creepiest) character. Dean Pelton (Jim Rash, Reno 911!) is also a bigger part of the show, injecting his infectious love for the college and for inappropriate costumes into some of the season's most memorable adventures.
Good writing attracts talent, and Community's second season features a lot of notable guest stars. Betty White probably would have seemed like a bigger get for the season premiere if the episode had aired at the beginning of her TV comeback instead of the end. Other stunt casting works better, including LeVar Burton's hilarious appearance in "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" as the hero Troy never actually wanted to meet in person; Josh Holloway as the handsome Black Rider in "A Fistfull of Paintballs"; and George Takei's pitch-perfect narration in the Halloween episode "Epidemiology." Malcolm-Jamal Warner gets the most to do this season, playing double duty as Ô80s pop cultural icon and Shirley's estranged husband, Andre. Even when he's wearing the kind of sweater his TV dad made famous, he brings an emotional heft to one of the season's biggest storylines, and I can only hope his return to Shirley's life means we'll see more of him in Season Three.
I can't think of any other TV comedy that takes as many risks as Community does. You never know what you're going to get from episode to episode. This show has no problems switching genres, using a variety of film and TV references to frame its stories. Sometimes that means full-on parodies, of political thrillers ("Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design"), zombie movies ("Epidemiology"), and outer space adventures ("Basic Rocket Science"). Other episodes are built on TV tropes like "bottle episodes" ("Advanced Calligraphy"), clip shows ("Paradigms of Human Memory," an episode made up of flashbacks to things that never actually happened on the show), and certain documentary-style sitcoms ("Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking"). No matter the premise, Community transcends the conceit, never relying on cheap pop culture laughs. The homage framework might sound like a gimmick on paper, but Harmon and company justify the cultural references because the characters are just as familiar with Cougar Town and Apollo 13 as the audience. When Abed takes a class exploring the academic implications of Who's the Boss?, for instance, it's funny not only because it's ridiculous, but because that's exactly the kind of class Abed would take.
Community is hard to describe, which makes it tempting to reduce episode descriptions to "the Lord of the Rings one" or "the zombie one"—a shortcut that NBC's marketing department seems guilty of more often than not. As such, some of this season's best episodes were the most controversial when they first aired. The promotional photo for "Critical Film Studies" showed the gang dressed as characters from Pulp Fiction, so when it turned out the Tarantino gag was only a subplot to a riff on My Dinner With Andre, some viewers complained of bait and switch. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," a stop-motion animated episode done in the style of an old Rankin-Bass holiday special, stayed away from overt references to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and focused instead on a bittersweet story about Abed's mental breakdown after his mother abandons him at Christmastime. Besides being two of the most ambitious entries of the season, these two episodes show just how little Community cares about being just another predictable sitcom. Harmon knows that good comedy, like good drama, comes from taking the time to build relationships. The laughs here are earned in even the most outlandish episode because they are true to the characters who populate this world. It's this attention to detail and the fundamentals of storytelling that makes this show such a treasure.
That attention to detail shines through in the way Community is filmed and scored. The show's creators have said that they want to make each episode feel like a mini movie. Some episodes are more striking than others, but I can't think of another TV comedy with higher production values. The way each episode is shot fits the style of its story. Even the more traditional episodes have a craftsmanship that rewards repeat viewings. Of course, when Community goes for broke, they make sure every ounce of ambition shows up onscreen. The highlight of Season One was the episode "Modern Warfare," an authentic parody of action movies set in the middle of a paintball contest gone wrong. When word hit that the Season Two finale would be another paintball story, more than a few fans were nervous (myself included). Harmon answered those concerns with an epic two-parter. The first half, "A Fistfull of Paintballs," merges a Sergio Leone movie with a post-apocalyptic thriller, featuring a spaghetti western-style animated opening, shifting character alliances, and a showdown between Pierce and another study group member that carries the emotional weight of the entire season. Part two, "For a Few Paintballs More," trades the western story for a Star Wars-inspired adventure with a rebel alliance, long-shot plan to take down an evil empire, and Abed as Han Solo. The two-part finale is easily the best thing about this already excellent season, and an unassailable argument for this show's greatness.
A show this good-looking demands an impressive home release, and Community: The Complete Second Season delivers. The 1.78:1 widescreen presentation of these episodes is extremely solid for DVD, making Sony's decision not to release the show on Blu-ray slightly less painful. Detail here is surprisingly sharp, with accurate color reproduction that fits whichever genre is being parodied. Music and sound design are just as important to this show, and the 5.1 surround audio track is more than capable of handling dialogue, sound effects, and composer Ludwig Goransson's genre-bending score. Community has the kind of front-heavy mix typical for network TV releases, although it extends to the rear speakers when the action calls for it.
Like the Season One set, Community: The Complete Second Season has a hefty batch of bonus features (a note of caution to more conservative fans: although the episodes adhere to network TV standards, the extras are uncensored. You've been warned):
• Audio Commentaries for every episode, featuring a lot of the show's actors, producers, writers, directors, and Dan Harmon, in a variety of combinations. These highly entertaining commentaries are equal parts behind-the-scenes info and general goofing around. Highlights include Dan Harmon's embittered rant against sitcoms that rely too heavily on the hand-held mockumentary format, and a random speaker phone conversation with comedian Robert Smigel.
• Outtakes: Four blooper reels, one for each disc, totaling (an excessive) 24 minutes.
• Deleted Scenes: The one disappointment in this collection is that there are so few deleted scenes—a paltry 8 for the entire set. Given how often the commentaries reference scenes that got cut out of the finished episodes, I wish they'd included more of them.
• "Creating Wonderland" (17:35): The story of how this year's Christmas episode was made, from inception to painstaking creation—told by Harmon, the cast, director Duke Johnson and the real-life Christmas wizards who brought animated versions of Abed and his friends to life.
• "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" Original Storyboard Animatic (21:45): An early version of the full episode, represented by storyboard drawings.
• "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" In-Process Animatic (21:55): A later version of the episode, as a mixture of storyboard drawings and near-finished stop motion animation.
• "The Paintball Finale: From Script to Screen" (20:02): An in-depth look at how Dan Harmon and company did the impossible and topped the phenomenal Season One paintball episode.
• Season Two Cast Evaluations (10:35): This fake employee evaluation might have been a throwaway bit on another DVD set, but Dan Harmon uses it as an entertaining way for the audience to get to know the actors behind the characters.
• DJ Steve Porter Remixes Season One (1:50): A fun, if fluffy, collection of Season One moments as a music video.
NBC's Thursday night line-up has long been a bright spot for TV comedy, built on the back of long-running series The Office and 30 Rock. In recent years, those shows have dropped off in quality, eclipsed by younger counterparts Community and Parks and Recreation. Only time will tell whether Community will have the same popularity, and ratings. That's for number crunchers to worry about. As far as I'm concerned, as long as there is room for a show this funny, clever, and ambitious, there's hope for the future of network television.
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