Series Premiere: Community – “Pilot”



September 17th, 2009

While I understand the logic behind putting the Community behind The Office for its first month or so, I will say this: for now, sound logic or no, it’s not doing the show any favours.

Yes, the show has a strong lead-in and a higher success rate in terms of ratings, which are financially speaking the lifeblood of a series. However, Community’s “Pilot,” which is about as cookie cutter as it comes in terms of the way it sets up the show (you can almost see the show yelling “Setting!” and “Character” with its collection of scenarios), cannot help but seem contrived and simplistic when placed against The Office, which now in its sixth season is totally confident about who its characters are and has no such awkward transitions. I’m not suggesting that it’s a fair comparison, but it’s one that you can’t help but make: after writing reviews of two season premieres for shows that have put their setup days behind them, Community is jarringly disassembled.

I think that the show’s pilot, ultimately, does assemble into a solid foundation for a series, and through a strong sense of humour and some great casting has me extremely interested to keep watching. However, as a pilot, there is something about it that lacks that element of surprise, and which is vague on specifics in a way which makes one worry if it’s all going to fall off the rails with time – critics who’ve seen second episode say it doesn’t, which is great news, but I still think that there’s some warning signs around.

Joel McHale is a very funny man. I don’t think anyone is really going to argue this point, and I certainly won’t be amongst those who would do so. While The Soup! may be an acquired taste, and his brand of comedy might not be for everyone, here he brings to Jeff a real sense of the douchebag everyman, the guy who looks successful and acts successful but nonetheless finds himself at Community College getting a Bachelor’s Degree from America (as opposed to Colombia). As a protagonist, he’s in a really awkward position for us as the audience. To some degree, we’re supposed to believe that he is just as pathetic as everyone else: the lesson he is supposed to learn by episode’s end is that his time outside of the world of community college doesn’t count, and that it is in some ways a great equalizer. However, on the other hand, we enter into this universe through his eyes, and so we’re bound to in some ways take his judgments of everyone as our own, all while understanding that his judgments are unfair and the result of his douchebag-style self-interest. He’s essentially a straight man in his own mind and a total nutjob in reality, but the show wants to play off of both (having him in control of the group of misfits while himself appearing insecure) and I’m not sure how that’s going to work.

Jaime Weinman at Macleans makes a fine point about the fact that, right now, the comedy is being derived from these individual characters and their neuroses, and independently they aren’t particularly original or inspiring. And while he’s definitely right, what worries me most is that this is both made better and made worse by the fact that this is pretty much the point of the show. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a pilot that so clearly organizes itself as “Setting and the People most likely to be found in that setting.” So, each character is defined (first and foremost) by why they are at community college in that opening scene, which calls them all out individually for their life’s failures (divorce, mindrot, academic failure, etc.) and then shows that their actual characters don’t go too far beyond that. Chevy Chase’s character is perhaps the best example: he’s the awkward mature student who isn’t actually mature at all, with no sense of personal space and a juvenile sense of humour to go along with it. I’ve known students like that, so it’s not that this isn’t true to life. Instead, it’s that it is content to remain at that level of initial conception, which is understandable considering that it’s the pilot but still perhaps a bit simpler than I’m used to seeing.

I think Jaime is right to point out that, when they’re all together in the end or in the study session, I think they make a nice motley crue that could provide some good character interactions. I think the issue here is that the only interaction they have is in the midst of a giant discussion of each person’s greatest insecurity. It’s a way to draw out exposition (we learn that Troy lost his college scholarship, that Annie popped pills in high school, that Shirley went through a divorce, etc.), but it’s also a way to ultimately leave the potential in our hands. I think that there is the potential for this to be the kind of ensemble where any character could be paired with any other and result in a good episode, as the cast is certainly great: I love seeing Allison Brie (who plays Trudy Campbell on Mad Men) as Annie, and Chevy Chase has shown he is more than up to the task of returning to television comedy full time. And, like I said, I think McHale is very funny and very talented. But, because the episode doesn’t actually show us a lot of that (except for in the final scene), we’re left with a whole bunch of narrowly defined and less than original individuals who seem to fit into the expected modes.

I respect the brashness of the pilot in a lot of ways, and I think in the long term it’s probably not a terrible choice. But, things like the relationship between Jeff and Britta doesn’t entirely line up for me. There’s something about it that feels very rushed and very forced: we don’t see the moment when Jeff first sees her, or the class where they first interact, but just that he knows her from class and immediately wants to put the moves on her. There’s something really sleazy about that, which is fine (as I say, Jeff is not a morals-driven character by any stretch of the imagination) but it kind of keeps you from rooting for them to get together when all they have is your typical conflict-driven chemistry that both actors pull off well but doesn’t really prove anything.

At this point in the review, you’ve likely yelled “It’s only the pilot!” and thrown your arms in the air numerous times. And yes, you are quite right, this is only the pilot and I can’t possibly make any sort of harsh judgment about the series. However, what I will say is that this is very much a pilot that gives us almost no indication of what an actual episode of the show will look like. Instead, it is entirely about premise and character, two subjects that had already been pretty heavily covered in press materials for the show (including the 4+ minute preview that NBC revealed at the Upfronts and which effectively spoiled the entire pilot) so were more in need of expansion than restatement. If there is a show here, and I truly believe there is one, I also don’t think we’ve actually seen it yet, a necessary evil when it comes to the nature of half-hour comedy pilots but one which for some reason really struck me in this case.

At the end of the day, I laughed when I was supposed to laugh and found the show’s rapid fire pace to be energizing if a bit exhausting when combined with the usual litany of pilot exposition. If I expected more of the pilot, it was only because of the hype placed on it by other critics, hype that I think is justified simply based on the talent involved. The question will be, however, what kind of show it develops into beyond its premise, a question which could be answered next week or which might take some time to unfold. And, for a show that rushed through its pilot not really touching on what kind of show it will eventually end up being, I’d be fine with it slowing down and taking its time for a few episodes.

So, in other words, a little bit less like Abed and a little bit more like someone who talks at a normal pace.

Cultural Observations

  • Speaking of Abed, they really do appear to be giving him Asperger’s Syndrome, which the others are right in pointing out is a very serious condition. There’s always been a lot of speculation about whether or not Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory has the disease, with that show always wary of avoiding definition so as to be able to continue to have characters be cruel to Sheldon for no apparent reason despite being his friend [/Rant]. It’s clear that this show has no problems with making fun of Abed, but I’d argue he gets the most expansive character development: we get to see Jeff first interact with him, and then his personality in action, and he gets the punchline at episode’s end. It’s a fun character, if used correctly, and I’ll be interested to see how “brashness” of show mixes with his condition.
  • The joke of having someone say something in another language, with subtitles to show how much they are wrangling that language, is an easy one, and in some ways I’m not sure the show is smart to use Spanish class as the primary focus of their study sessions. It makes sense in that it has these built in cliches and expectations, and a language is something people do usually study for, but the English major in me wishes that they would have picked something with a bit more substance that could offer multiple study frameworks depending on the different books/periods of history/etc. were being discussed. But, I need to learn that not every show is Mad Men and chock full of allusions (who knew?!).
  • Those were both really long bullets – yeesh.
  • Classy of the show to include a short Memorial message regarding John Hughes in an episode (and a series) which is at least partially inspired by The Breakfast Club. A nice touch.
  • Just how does one do a kegflip? I am intensely curious.
  • My favourite Chevy Chase moment? Subtlely checking to see which was his left by looking down at his hands.


Filed under Community

2 responses to “Series Premiere: Community – “Pilot”

  1. Apparently I didn’t look to critically at this show. I laughed a lot, and for a comedy premiere that’s a rare thing. I barely laughed during the Arrested Development premiere or the 30 Rock premiere and I really don’t enjoy watching those episodes again. With his show I was laughing almost throughout the whole episode, there weren’t jokes that fell flat or, and there were almost no dramatic set-up moments. For a pilot I think it was great.

  2. Nikki

    I’m glad that I didn’t have really high expectations for this show. I just thought it was funny from start to finish and glad it wasn’t nearly as perverse as other shows.

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