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Intersection of Life and Faith

The Sit-com Continues to Survive with Community

  • Alex Wainer theFish.com Contributing Writer
  • 2009 10 Oct
  • COMMENTS
The Sit-com Continues to Survive with <i>Community</i>

Every few years, the situation comedy is declared dead or dying, a genre that has worn itself out through lack of new ideas or audience fatigue.  But consider how long the form has lasted.  Since beginning in radio with the first major example, Amos and Andy, in 1928, the half-hour comedy has encompassed a variety of situations, including the venerable family sitcom (I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, The Cosby Show, The Simpsons and Everybody Loves Raymond) the workplace (Mary Tyler Moore, The Office) and others we could name.  And there have been comedies set in school situations—anybody remember Head of the Class?  Community may be the first comedy ever set in a community college. Often popular perceptions of community colleges are not stellar since many outsiders view them as one of those two-year institutions attended by not-ready-for "real" college folks, such as those with lower incomes, underachievers, working adults, retirees looking for greater knowledge, or those who haven't quite decided what their life goals are.

Such stereotypes are typically a sit-com's stock in trade and Community's depiction of the school as an institution of losers is likely to annoy their real life counterparts (as this recent segment from NPR's All Things Considered shows.) Here it's the fictional Greendale Community College where Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) arrives to pursue a real degree after it's discovered that his law degree wasn't from Columbia University, but the nation of "Colombia." As a shyster who thinks that his fast-talking can get him into or out of any situation, Jeff despises the college he's forced to attend, calling it a "school-shaped toilet."  His attempt to form an imaginary study group in order to make time with Britta (Gillian Jacobs), a blonde beauty who sees through Jeff's fakery, results, to Jeff's dismay, in the formation of a real study group with a diverse membership.  They include Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), a divorced woman trying to make up for some past mistakes, Abed (Danny Pudi), a geeky guy who may have Asperger Syndrome.  There's also the fragile perfectionist Annie (Allison Brie), and Troy (Donald Glover), a former high school jock who still wears his letter jacket, a vestige of past glory.  So the cast has the requisite sitcom wackiness factor nailed down.  Jeff's clever attempts to hook up with Britta only backfire until he realizes, in the very funny pilot that he may actually need the group to get through Spanish 101, and perhaps to provide what the title's double meaning implies—a collection of diverse individuals who may have more in common than Jeff wants to admit.

Situation comedies that run for a long time depend on audience familiarity with the characters, something that usually doesn't happen in the first few episodes. A TV show's beginning episodes must pull viewers in with interesting plots and good writing until we've "met" the cast and know how they behave.  Then, to win a following, the audience must buy into the premise of the basic situation, in this case, a study group at a two-year college that allows for a variety of plots involving all or most of the characters.  That's why family sitcoms are such staples for us—the dynamics are drawn from experiences most people share.  But other successful comedies employ surrogate families like the long-running Cheers, with a "family," of regular patrons at a bar, "where everybody knows your name."

After watching the first two episodes of Community, I'm not sure whether the group will finish with an Associate's degree.  The pilot made me laugh out loud while alone, a good sign of real humor.  But the second episode, "Spanish 101," felt less buoyant.  As the students attend their first Spanish class, taught by the histrionic "Senior Chang (Ken Jeong)," Jeff is again plotting to make time with Britta and tries to contrive that they become partners in an assignment.  Of course it backfires and he's assigned to Pierce (Chevy Chase), an oft-married entrepreneur who routinely says inappropriate things oblivious to their affects on others.  This is the role that brings Chevy Chase back to television after being in virtual retirement for years and it's apparent the role was written for his ability to convey complete cluelessness.  But, like the other group members, Pierce is hiding some inner needs—after six marriages, he's lonely, and Jeff may be the way he reconnects with people.  Again Jeff is challenged to rise above his narcissism, and this is what redeems his scheming.  However nice it is to see his efforts at redemption, I wonder if the character is being "niced-up" too quickly.  At this rate, the snarky lawyer is likely to be a saint by the time he gets his two-year degree.  And that's the challenge of having such flawed characters make incremental but real progress so quickly—it makes them more likeable but less funny.  Think of how long Hugh Laurie's dysfunctional Gregory House, M.D. has been upsetting people with his insults and only now, after five years, is starting to make progress against his underlying flaws.


To sustain Community's viability and keep viewers tuning in, Jeff needs to slow down his moral progress—and we need to see some more depth in the other characters. Only then will this new study group graduate to a long term hit.

Community airs on NBC, Thursdays, 9:30 EST. Full episodes also available on hulu.com.


 

Alex Wainer, Ph.D. teaches media and film at Palm Beach Atlantic University.  He is a regular contributor to theFish.com.