Despite my graduation from college over a decade ago, I still feel strong affinity for the collegiate experience. I miss living in a place where you’re surrounded by friends, where there’s always something to do within walking distance, where the most stressful thing in the world is just a paper or midterm. College is where I finally became me, broke out of my shell and went on a series of really strange and awesome adventures. Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad I moved on and I’m digging my adult life, but there’s always going to be a part of me that will feel like a college student until the day I die.
This is perhaps why I’m always so attracted to college movies, including my all-time favorite, PCU. College is a terrific setting for stories that’s sorely underused in most mediums, I feel. And although there are always a handful of college movies that come out every year, most of them seem to be written by a frat boy who can’t fathom a college experience past drinking, wild parties, poo and unsafe sex. While that might be true for some college students, I feel this gives the short shift to the great conversations, the dynamic relationships, the late-night gaming sessions, the bizarre situations and the terrible cafeteria food. And what’s with college movies never showing, y’know, classes?
For the better part of last year, buzz was building on a new college show called Community that I’d more or less ignored. I’m not quite sure why — it sounded like a sketch comedy show to me, and I guess I was too busy to check it out until lately. Now that I have, I’m kicking myself for not jumping on board earlier, because this is the greatest college TV show ever (and, yes, I’m knocking Undeclared down a peg here) and perhaps even better than any college flick as well. It’s not a show about drinking, wild parties, poo and unsafe sex (although some of those do make a cameo), but a nutty take on the wider variety of college activities.
Community’s genius is founded in reality: Dan Harmon took a community college Spanish class as an adult in an attempt to bond with his girlfriend, but he ended up bonding more with his offbeat study group instead. After building relationships with the group, Harmon decided to turn the premise into a TV show that was written like a movie.
Harmon’s TV persona became Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), an ego-centric lawyer who was forced to go back to college to earn a degree after pretending to have one for so long. While charismatic and good-looking, Jeff has long since lost the ability to be genuine and relate to people on anything other than a superficial level.
Although he expects his tour of duty at Greendale Community College in Colorado to be a cakewalk, Jeff finds himself connecting with six other students who showed up at a Spanish study group he invented just to hit on a girl. There he meets:
- Britta (Gillian Jacobs), an idealistic vegetarian/hippie/humanist who may not be the most fun person, but she is the most well-intentioned
- Abed (Danny Pudi), a socially-stunted pop culture freak who has scarily brilliant powers of observation
- Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), a divorced mother of two who is a bit meek, a bit gossipy, and a bit religious
- Pierce (Chevy Chase), a brash former CEO whose penchant for rudeness and racism is second only to his slightly pathetic nature
- Annie (Alison Brie), a studyaholic overachiever who cracked in high school and ended up in community college instead of one of the top universities in the country
- Troy (Donald Glover), a former football star and classmate of Annie who’s a bit dense but also pretty dang funny
At the beginning of the series, the characters seem a bit, well, flimsy and predictable. There’s a play at two intra-group romances — Jeff’s fixation with Britta, Annie’s unrequited crush on Troy — which is happily dropped after a few episodes. Coincidentally, about a third of the way into the season, the characters stop being two-note stereotypes and begin becoming multi-layered in often surprising ways.
The group, who suffers under the tutelage of off-his-rocker Senor Chang (The Hangover’s Ken Jeong), quickly becomes a family of sorts — dysfunctional and functional — with Jeff and Britta filling the roles of Daddy and Mommy (although both are not qualified to be as such). Part of Community’s appeal is in the diversity of group: here you have seven individuals who are as racially, religiously, and generationally different as could be, but they all end up needing the group in the same way. Even Jeff, whose character arc is all about this egomaniac becoming a human (and often failing hilariously), is dismayed when he discovers that he simply cannot make his way through college without friends like these.
So enough about the main characters — let’s talk about the show. 99% of Community takes place on GCC’s campus, keeping the focus on college instead of after-hours mundanity. GCC is far from a normal place of learning as it is, with a dean who’s as perverted as he is overengrossed in his school’s status, and frequent social events that run from football games (“Is that linebacker pregnant?” is one of my favorite lines) to GCC’s five parties (“If you go to them all, you get the t-shirt!”). And unlike most college movies, Community spends a great amount of time with its characters in class, although it takes some suspension of disbelief when the group ends up trying out new classes every third week or so (one of the best is a “Seize the moment!” class where the professor thinks he’s in Dead Poets Society).
On an average episode, Community is a bit off-beat, but once it gets going, events can get gonzo quickly. Consider an episode where Jeff challenges a pushy billiards coach into a match where both end up showing more and more skin to prove their manliness, or when the group decides to form a capital-F Family to run a chicken fingers syndicate in order to control the campus. It’s beyond ridiculous at times, but Community makes it fly instead of looking stupid, and a lot of that is due to a light-hearted tone the show takes and the slightly cartoonish nature of the characters that we’ve come to accept.
If you’re a movie fan (and I’m assuming you are, since you’re reading this site), then Dan Harmon’s made a show for you. There are so many movie references — and outright parodies — that movie buffs are going to get 50% more laughs out of the show than anyone else. Abed is a major reason for this, of course, but the other characters all hijack quotes and scenes for their own use.
This all culminates in Community’s masterpiece episode, Modern Warfare. It comes late in the season, but it needed to wait until we could get to a point where all of the characters and the show’s pacing had been established. Modern Warfare is a hilarious Die Hard/ T2/Warriors/Matrix/action movie parody that pits the entire campus against each other in a massive paintball war. If you need to see one episode to be convinced that Community deserves to be watched, it’s this one. It’s highly quotable, pretty cool action-wise, and is something you just wouldn’t see in any other show on TV.
So, yeah, Community isn’t a sex-drugs-partyfest that some may expect from college, but it’s better than that — it’s smart, it’s touching and it’s immensely entertaining. I’ve already seen all of season one’s episodes about three times each, and if the series continues to shine like this, then I think I’ll be comfortable dubbing it the best sitcom since Arrested Development — and that’s as high of an honor as I can think.
Jeff: Before I respond to that, I’ll have to take an extra-strength vitamin duh.
Jeff: Did the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants poison each other’s food so they were too sick to leave? No. I’ve never seen it, but I’m pretty sure they mailed each other pants!
Abed: Come with me if you don’t wanna get paint on your clothes.
Troy: My uncle was struck by lightning. You’d think it would give you superpowers, but now he just masturbates in movie theaters.
Jeff: For your information, I don’t have an ego. My Facebook photo is a landscape.
Jeff: Why do you have a monkey?
Troy: It’s an animal that looks like a dude. Why don’t I have 10 of them?
Dean: Just reminding you to keep any April Fool’s pranks physically safe, politically balanced and racially accessible.
Abed: I hate when they finish each other’s…
Jeff: I hate to say I told you so, so I’ll shout it through cupped hands. I TOLD YOU SO.
Jeff: She has more fights about something that doesn’t matter than a YouTube comments section.
Jeff: Vaughn doesn’t ever wear shoes or a shirt. How has he not died from a lack of service?
Chang: I am a man who can never die! And this has been your first taste of Spanish one-oh-dos, the semester I get inside your cabezas.
Bully: Give me a winter doodle.
Jeff: If you’re trying to be menacing, maybe you shouldn’t call the cookie by its name.
Shirley: I believe that fusing brownies with the Internet is going to create the next Napster for brownies.
Professor Whitman: Jeffrey, as debate coach, I am offering you an opportunity to spend the night drinking from the cup of life rather than romancing your nether regions in front of the E! channel.
Jeff: This decision has to be yours, T-Bone. And this decision has to be yes.
Troy: How did you know my nickname was T-Bone?
Jeff: Because you’re a football player. And your name begins with “T.”
Professor Duncan: Not to be all particular, but you’re not a professor.
Señor Chang: Maybe because I don’t look like Ron Weasley.
Professor Duncan: That’s the reason, that’s the qualifying factor.