Half-hour comedies are making a bit of a comeback on network TV this season. Four or five new sitcoms have the potential to be very funny — but none of them are as strong out of the gate as NBC’s “Community.”
The show premieres Thursday night (following “The Office”) with an episode that’s remarkably sure of itself for a pilot and does an excellent job in introducing its characters and the world they inhabit. It may not develop into a huge hit — few things do anymore — but it is darn funny, and the confidence with which it starts bodes well for its future.
“Community” stars Joel McHale, the host of “The Soup” on E!, as Jeff Winger, a lawyer who has until this point coasted through his life. He’s forced to re-enroll in college after the state bar association questions the legitimacy of his college degree. (“I thought you had a bachelor’s from Columbia,” says a friend/former client played by “The Daily Show’s” John Oliver. “And now I need one from America,” Jeff replies.)
Looking, as he always does, for the easy way out, Jeff signs up for classes at Greendale Community College, figuring he’ll coast through and resume his life. He also sees an opportunity to hit on a girl, Britta (Gillian Jacobs, “Choke”) in his Spanish class and sets up a fake study group to get some alone time with her.
Sadly for him, it quickly turns into a real study group thanks to Abed (Danny Pudi, “Greek”), an overeager, oversharing, movie-quoting force of nature who spreads the word to the rest of the regulars: stress case Annie (“Mad Men’s” Alison Brie), divorced mom Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown, “The Ugly Truth”), former high school jock Troy (Donald Glover) and businessman and “highly sought after dinner guest” Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase).
It’s a motley crew, to say the least, and one that could easily be nothing more than a group of one- or two-dimensional space fillers there to play straight man to McHale. But creator Dan Harmon (“The Sarah Silverman Show”) makes the pilot a very democratic affair. He quickly fills in just enough (or, in Abed’s case, way more than enough) information about who each person is and why they’re at community college — and also makes sure that everyone gets at least one standout line or scene.
Maybe because everyone gets to share the comedic wealth, the cast plays off one another quite well. McHale tones down the “Soup” snark just enough to make Jeff a likable slacker, Chase subsumes his comedy legend’s ego just enough (while playing an egotistical guy) and everyone meshes wonderfully. Pay attention to the mumbled and tossed-away asides several characters utter in the study-group scenes; they’re some of the funnier lines in the pilot.
“Community” also has a potential breakout star in Pudi. He steals several scenes in Thursday’s episode as the awkward and movie-obsessed Abed, who sees the study group as his very own “Breakfast Club.” The things Abed does and says could be incredibly annoying, but as Pudi plays him, ending each statement with a pleading look for approval, he’s completely endearing.
The show fits in nicely with NBC’s other Thursday comedies — it shares a similarly off-kilter view of the world and affection for its oddball characters. There’s also some genuine emotion (though not too much) to be found toward the end of the premiere. “Community” does not seem like a Very Special Episode sort of show, but injecting a little bit of feeling into the show only humanizes the characters that much more.
I’ve watched the “Community” pilot three times now in preparation for this review and other stories, and it holds up just as well on repeat viewing as it did the first time. I don’t know if I can give a much bigger recommendation than that, except to say that in an unusually deep field, “Community” is the best new comedy of the season.
Follow Zap2it on Twitter for the latest TV, movie and celebrity news.