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Community: Pilot

“If I wanted to learn something, I wouldn’t have come to community college.”

Let’s start off with a bang: this is the worst episode of Community. The pilot is still better that 99% of all sitcoms, and its potential is obvious. But I suspect, especially in light of the shake-up at the end of Season Three, that Community and showrunner Dan Harmon snuck their little bunch of awesome in under the radar.

I’d originally intended this review to be organized by character, with a little bit about each of our new friends. But the hero of the pilot is Joel McHale’s Jeff Winger, with a dash of sassy, sexy Britta for flavoring. Troy, Shirley, Annie, and Pierce are still bodies and quips waiting to turn into characters, and Abed’s Asperger’s-inspired pop-culture riffs are played as symptoms rather than as a personality. All of that, of course, will change over the course of the show’s run.

Jeff lied his way into law school, which is such a meta situation that it should collapse in on itself like a tesseract. He says “boo-yah” to moral relativism, wears a blazer with sweat pants, and clearly doesn’t care about anyone who can’t do anything for him. If someone does do something (say, Abed), they have “value,” but it’s only momentary. Jeff gives great snark, and it is equally fun to watch him mock others as it is to watch the universe mock him.

Jeff is willing to “put human beings into a state of emotional shambles” just to get laid, and his intelligence and ability to pragmatically manipulate others is a major theme of the show (as well as a source of some of my ambivalence about just how ground-breaking this sitcom can be, which I’m sure I’ll talk about in a later review). Jeff can act as an agent of chaos and as an agent of peace, and his character’s tension is the question of whether he’ll pick Team Chaos or Team Happiness, because he has the power not just to improve his own life, but also those around him.

Jeff’s speech is both rousing and stupid, and that’s the point: we, as people and as viewers, can sympathize with anything. We like shark week. We want to watch chaos—emotional or otherwise—and then watch our heroes overcome that chaos and turn into a “community.” We want the immorality or rooting for the smart guy, and the morality of watching him get smacked down by Britta, and again by Dr. Duncan, until he learns that he can help others with his savvy and acumen.

Community plays with the tools used by any sitcom, and by most stories. It draws our attention to the seams of how the show is toying with us and making us root for both more problems and more resolutions, but it makes us feel in on the joke, which means we feel cooler after having watched it. We get the intellectual thrill of ironic detachment along with the completely attached emotional thrill of problem+resolution.

That’s an impressive feat. Incredibly impressive: this show is often described as “ironic,” but it’s much more complicated than saying one thing and meaning another—that would mean that we just feel ironic distance but no emotional attachment. For any one thing the show says, it means two things. (This is typically referred to as figura in literary criticism, as distinct from allegory, which is related to irony.)

Take the show’s title: obviously, it refers to finding community in the unlikeliest of places, a community college. Figurally, it also refers to the common sitcom element of creating a plucky, diverse group of heroes with little in common besides great patter and fun quirks. As Abed said, “This is kinda like Breakfast Club, isn’t it?... I’m sure we’ve each got an issue balled up inside of us that would make us cry if we talked about it.” That’s true, as is the show’s self-awareness of the “community” trope in its genre. We get to have our cake and dissect the history of sugar consumption at the same time.

That sort of intellectual exercise would get boring, though, if it didn’t have a hefty dose of emotional fulfillment and laughs along the way. Except for a few clunkers, the pilot’s jokes are top-notch, and the characters all deliver them easily and interestingly, which is impressive for a first episode. But, if you’re reading this review while watching the show for the first time, know that it gets much, much, much better.

Mark Says...

Going back and watching a show's pilot can sometimes be a bizarre experience. It can be like stepping through a door into another dimension where thing are different (and yet not) and old friends can look like complete strangers. This was no different. It looks like Community. It sounds like Community. It even smells like Community (yes, my TV has glorious HD Smell-O-Vision). But it isn't Community. At least, not yet.

Abed was more Danny Pundi doing an impression of someone doing an impression of Abed. Even Jeff and Britta, the most developed characters here, seem more like alternative versions of the ones we've come to adore (a blazer with sweat pants? The Jeff Winger I know would recoil at such an ensemble). The show I love is there, but it's playing it safe, waiting for the perfect time to strike at an unsuspecting audience (many of whom will run away screaming, seeking shelter in the safer, more predictable land of CBS).

Cool Cool Cool:

• Duncan: “I thought you had a bachelor’s from Columbia.”
Jeff: “Now I have to get one from America.”

• Abed: “I’m sure we’ve each got an issue balled up inside of us that would make us cry if we talked about it.”

• Pierce: “Why would I harass someone who I’m attracted to?”

• Jeff: “People can connect with anything. We sympathize with a pencil, we can forgive a shark, and we can give Ben Affleck an Academy Award for screenwriting.”

• Troy: “You seem pretty smart. You’ve got a sports coat.”

• We got our first Ryan Seacrest joke about Jeff’s appearance.

• Abed broke the fight up with a quote from The Breakfast Club. A quote about Christmas. Important holiday for Abed? We shall see.

• Troy lost his scholarship by dislocating both shoulders in a keg jump, which is much harder than a keg stand.

• Annie used to be addicted to drugs.

Two out of four Breakfast Clubs, because I know how much greatness is ahead of us.

(Mark and I will team-review the first season of Community this summer. If there is time, we'll start on the second season with Mark in the lead and me playing second fiddle. Will there be time? It depends when my fiddle comes back from France.)

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. ahhhhhhhhh

    Sweet memories. Thanks for the both of ya for going back. I loved the pilot. And I agree with Mark totally : nothing like going back to a pilot after a few seasons to experience something very strange and awkward...

    Yes, it will become better.

  2. I've taken everyone's advice and watched the pilot. Quirky, odd, but funny. It made me laugh out loud more than once.

    My bar for a new sitcom is relatively low. If it makes me laugh, I'll give it another shot. Had I watched this when it premiered, I would have watched another episode. But, now that I know it is only going to get better, I am looking forward to it.

  3. Yayyyyyyyy

    You took the plunge !! Now, prepare to LOL, LMAO and have your mind blown up real good.

  4. Enjoy, Chris! I've been trying to work out what it was about the pilot that made me realise early on Community was weird in a good way - I think it must be the general vibe...

  5. Welcome to the wonderful world of Greendale Community College, Chris. I hope you come to love and adore this strange but wonderful place as much as the rest of us do.

  6. The Dean is more than happy to have a brand new student !

  7. ChrisB, I very randomly started a Community rewatch today! I was planning to do West Wing, but then decided I just didn't have the attention span for a drama today. Hope you enjoy the show! Keep at it, it just gets better.

  8. sunbunny

    while you're enjoying your rewatches, I'm enjoying your P of I reviews !

    Abed is trilled : cool, cool, cool !

  9. Not being much of a sitcom fan (Seinfeld and 30 Rock being notable exceptions), I've never gotten around to Community. But I was listening to an interview with Joel McHale on NPR and they played his "shark week" speech, which was both ridiculous and clever. Plus, you guys have reviewed it, which means it has some cred.

    But ultimately, I think it has come down to this: it seems like everything I've been watching lately has been dark and brooding, so something light (but not stupid) sounds really good right now...


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