The best American sitcom of recent years returns this week for its fifth season. After the turbulent behind-the-scenes drama and increasingly-low audience numbers that Community has experienced over the years, that seems incredibly unlikely. A comedy this odd, this clever, this dense, this self-referential, would, under any normal circumstances, have been swiftly cancelled three seasons ago. But, thank goodness, it has survived. A cast member is absent, with another set to leave soon, and the creator of the show has been fired and re-hired, so the show has gone through some rough patches. But this season might just be the return to form every fan has been hoping for.
Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. There will be plenty of people who have never seen this show, or even heard of it, who might be wondering what all the fuss is about. You could ask someone on reddit or something, but they might not give you a good answer, instead using catchphrases or a joke that would be completely meaningless to you. ‘Community is so good, it’s streets ahead of any other comedy!’ they might say. ‘But what’s so good about it?’, you might ask. ‘If you have to ask, you’re streets behind, LOLOLOL coolcoolcool.” they would reply, unhelpfully.
So, here’s my attempt to explain why this show is so good, and so worth your time. Let’s start from the beginning…
Community is an American sitcom about a sarcastic, smug lawyer called Jeff, who is forced to go to the local community college to get a degree after it’s discovered that his current degree is a fake. He sets up a study group as an attempt to get close to an attractive classmate, but this backfires when another classmate invites several other people to the group.
After lots of dismissive remarks and cynicism, Jeff gradually starts to warm to this odd group of misfits that he’s accidentally befriended, and finds the dysfunctional shithole of a community college that he’s enrolled in to be quite charming (“Greendale may be a toilet, but it’s our toilet”, he says, in one of the many big speeches that he gives).
Then it gets a bit weird, but we’ll get to that.
This show is what you get if you take the goofy surreal humour and absurdity of Scrubs, mix it with the self-referential meta humour of Arrested Development, the pop culture references and parodies of Spaced, and the fun, friendly atmosphere of, well, Friends.
Occasionally, it’s also extraordinarily ambitious and bizarre. At its best, it will often dazzle you with its imagination and cleverness, while also making you laugh like a lunatic, or even feel a little bit moved by the surprisingly heartfelt emotion it displays. The show is a lot like its main character – underneath all the attempts at being sarcastic, clever and ironic, there’s a big, soppy heart that just wants to be loved.
Starring guy-who-used-to-be-funny Chevy Chase, funny-guy-who-was-in-The-Hangover-trilogy Ken Jeong, and funny-guy-who-for-some-reason-is-now-a-rapper Donald Glover/Childish Gambino, this is a show where the jokes fly by at a rapid pace, and the tone can switch from goofy to touching to hilarious and back again in seconds.*
*(There’s one part very early in the first season which shifts between these moods so quickly, you’ll get whiplash. It reminded me of those times on Scrubs where one moment, everyone would be laughing and falling over the place, then suddenly -BAM, a patient’s died – and everyone’s sad and sombre, and there’s suddenly something in my eye…)
The show also becomes increasingly unpredictable, which is part of the fun. One week could be a semi-realistic episode about a college class, the next there could be an action movie parody, or an episode where everything is claymation, or a 16-bit videogame, or an episode that begins as one homage but then swerves unexpectedly into another.
The show pushes the boundaries of what can be expected from a standard American sitcom, which has gained it plenty of fans, as well as putting off plenty of viewers expecting something more ordinary. By the way, don’t worry if you’ve never seen the things the show references or parodies. There have been several times where the references have gone flying over my head, and I’ve still thoroughly enjoyed the episode. That is a sign of a good show. This also happened a lot during the early seasons of The Simpsons.
At first, it’s a fairly normal, witty comedy. Near the end of the first season, things start to get a little unusual. The second season is a fantastic mixture of the everyday and the insane, while season three is either a wonderful but inconsistent season, or the point where the show gets too knowingly-weird and inaccessible to new viewers and starts to disappear up its own butt. I’ve seen arguments for both viewpoints. Personally, I think it’s the former. Some of the best and worst episodes of the series are in season 3, as are some of the strangest and most completely out-there ideas and concepts that the show has ever had.
Season 4 is a bit rubbish. And that’s being charitable. Why? Well, the reasons could fill a whole blog post by itself. In short: show creator fired, show rehashes old jokes without doing anything clever with them, writers try too hard to be like the show was before, end up turning the show into a mockery of itself. Two decent episodes, a few good ideas terribly executed, and overall it’s not great. Also, crucially, it’s not very funny. And the last episode is awful. AWFUL.
Let’s quickly meet the characters of this weird and wonderful show. They develop and change quite a lot over the course of the show, and that would take ages to sum up, so here’s what they’re like in the very first episode.
Full of himself, thinks he’s God’s gift to women, his plan is to get a degree with as little effort as possible, and then GTFO. As a lawyer, he can be incredibly persuasive and confident, which often leads him to think he can solve all his problems by giving a convincing-sounding speech. To be fair, this often does solve all of his problems.
Always trying to ‘fight the system’ but never really sure how to, she enrolled in community college after realising her life wasn’t going anywhere. Smart, outwardly confident but secretly a little insecure. Trades sarcastic quips and argues a lot with Jeff, but this doesn’t mean they have any sexual tension, no sir, none at all. Difficult to describe, really, she’s unlike any other female main character on television.
Prefers to view his life as if he were a character in a TV show (he knows he isn’t, of course, it’s just to amuse himself). His awkward physicality and monotonous voice make some people see him as weird, but he’s the nicest guy you could meet. May be on the autism spectrum, like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, except Abed is likeable. Enrolled in community college to learn how to run a business for his father, but he’d rather explore his passion for film.
Confident, popular high-school football player who ruined his promising sporting career by badly hurting himself in a keg-stand incident. Usually gets the funniest lines on the show, due to his childlike naivety and vivid imagination. His character changes significantly after a close friendship with Abed brings out his inner nerd.
Shy, easily-stressed perfectionist who enrolled at Greendale after an addiction to Adderall pills lead to a nervous breakdown. Went to the same high school as Troy, who she had a crush on, but he never noticed her. Young, optimistic extremely book-smart, but not very life-smart. Her good looks attract plenty of attention (in-show, and in real life- googling for the above image lead to some… unexpected results), and the group are very protective of her.
Old, rich businessman who, despite being married seven times, finds himself alone and friendless. Frequently gets into trouble with the others for his abrasive personality and tactless accidental racism. Has been at Greendale for several years. He’s a nice guy, really, he can just be a bit of an arse sometimes.
Sweet, friendly, recently-divorced Christian woman whose nice demeanour hides some thinly-veiled anger issues. Has a motherly role in the group, offering friendly/stern advice and baked goods to anyone who will listen. A bit of a gossip, she can be just as sarcastic and mean as Jeff when she really wants to be.
PROFESSOR BEN CHANG
Calling him ‘eccentric’ would not do him justice. This man is insane. A Spanish teacher who delights in abusing his position of power, and is prone to outbursts of maniacal laughter.
Enthusiastic, cheery head of Greendale Community College, Dean Pelton is extremely fond of the study group, but his well-meaning attempts to improve the school often backfire.
What to expect:
Expect witty subversions of typical sitcom plots and tropes, and a diverse cast of characters that all have excellent chemistry together. The group’s back-and-forth banter around the study room table is quickly perfected, so much so that by the third episode, it feels like they’ve been together for months. Every episode is titled like its the name of a class at the college (e.g: ‘Beginner Pottery’), this is often played with when the episode doesn’t involve a class at all (e.g. ‘Contemporary American Poultry’ is about chicken fingers).
Expect more ‘themed’ episodes – episodes where the show commits completely to an idea or a concept and just goes with it, gleefully wringing every drop of humour and silliness out of it. Zombies, Christmas claymation, epic fantasy, Westerns, space, and more await. To stop these big episodes from becoming too wacky, they also flesh out the characters and relationships in cool and interesting ways. Lots of zaniness with heart and humour. Character drama is simultaneously played for laughs and taken completely seriously.
The season begins with the characters promising to “have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined”. This is done in a musical daydream sequence, so the promise has already been broken. This is the reason I insist that people start watching Community from the very start. Jumping in at this point will almost certainly leave you confused and unamused.
The characters face their darkest, but funniest, days at Greendale (yay!), and their defining character qualities get massively exaggerated (yay?)- Troy goes from naive teenager to complete moron, Britta goes from useless activist to useless everything-ist and Abed goes from socially awkward to borderline-insane. There are also very few episodes that feature anything close to normal sitcom storylines. Almost none of these episodes would have fit in season one, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing- the show has just changed, or evolved.
Ugh. I, just, ugh. I would say don’t bother, but there are some good moments. Watch ‘Herstory of Dance’, ‘Basic Human Anatomy’ and maaaaaybe the episode with the puppets. Then celebrate the news that the creator of the show has returned and everything’s going to be good again. Hopefully.
We’ll have to wait and see. Will it be a reboot of the show, a return to the more grounded, realistic episodes of season one? Will the characters act like their old selves, rather than as the parodies of themselves that they were in season 4? Will it be hilarious and clever, like the good old days? Fingers crossed…
Community season 5 premières this Thursday, January 2nd on NBC in America, and will probably air on the Sony Entertainment Channel over here in the UK at some point.