By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 8, 2012 at 9:24AM
It's generally agreed that television is as good as it's ever been. Of course, there's a lot of rubbish on, as there always was, but virtually every night, year round, brings more quality comedy and drama than you could possibly hope to watch. The next few weeks alone bring the return of "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones," two of the most acclaimed cable dramas of recent years, while "Justified" and "Luck" -- muscular, cinematic long-form tales as strong as anything the big screen has seen recently -- wrap up their seasons. Meanwhile, other favorites like "Breaking Bad," "Louie" and "Homeland" will be back before the year is out, along, we hope, with a raft of excellent new shows.
And the likelihood is that you've been watching some, if not all of these shows. The cinephile who says "Oh, I don't watch television" is becoming an increasingly rare breed. But amongst all of this, there's one show that, if the ratings are anything to go by, you're probably not watching. And really, if you like movies, or television, or things that are funny and smart, you should be watching it.
Since it premiered in the fall of 2009, NBC sitcom "Community" has struggled in the ratings. It's partly because it's on NBC, and everything there struggles in the ratings, but it's partly thanks to a tough time slot that puts it up against "American Idol" and "The Big-Bang Theory," the latter a show it shares a demographic with. Somehow, it clung on by the skin of its teeth to get a third season, thanks to critical raves, but things looked grim when the show was yanked from NBC's schedule after its Christmas episode, with no fixed return date.
With the network's rearranged schedule not proving any more effective than the old one, "Community" returns a week from today, on March 15th, and a new trailer has arrived on the internet to sell that return, which you can watch below. And for fans, it's two minutes that promises that the show hasn't dropped in quality or ambition during its absence. But we can see that newcomers might be more than a little baffled, and if that's the case, we'd like to politely suggest that you watch the return next Thursday regardless.
For the uninitiated, "Community" revolved, at least at first, around Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) a disbarred lawyer who has to attend community college in order to earn a proper law degree. In an attempt to bed classmate Britta (Gillian Jacobs), he invents a Spanish study group, that accidentally attracts a motley bunch of fellow students: single mother Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), elderly millionaire Pierce (Chevy Chase), former high-school football star Troy (Donald Glover), pop-culture obsessed Abed (Danny Pudi) and fresh-out-of-rehab Type A princess Annie (Alison Brie). Also in the mix are their psychotic Spanish teacher Senor Chang (Ken Jeong, of "The Hangover"), bonkers Dean Pelton (freshly minted Oscar-winner Jim Rash, who co-wrote "The Descendants") and a Simpsons-like revolving cast of supporting characters.
But this is all a vague peg on which to hold all kinds of storylines. The show's creator Dan Harmon (who you can read more about in this excellent Wired profile), made his name with the live comedy short film night Channel 101, a fictional network that helped give the start to Lonely Island, among others. The films would often have bonkers premises (see: his cult Jack Black/Owen Wilson sitcom pilot "Heat Vision and Jack," about a man whose best friend is reincarnated as a motorcycle), but he'd use them as a blank canvas on which to experiment with form, with genre and with character.
And all that has been carried over to "Community," a show which both subverts and celebrates the sitcom form, but also is happy to jump around from week to week: over the last two and a half years, it's made action movies, a zombie flick, a horror anthology, a gangster picture, a Claymation animation Christmas special, a musical and a clip show entirely featuring clips from episodes that never existed in the first place. One episode was even sold in promos as a "Pulp Fiction" nod, but actually turned out to be a brilliant extended riff on "My Dinner With Andre." Yes, Louis Malle's "My Dinner With Andre." An episode that was, incidentally, directed by "Submarine" helmer Richard Ayoade, one of a string of feature directors who've been involved including Justin Lin ("Fast Five") and Seth Gordon ("Horrible Bosses").
It's this formal playfulness that, if you love movies, is one of the real selling points. The reference points come thick and fast, without ever being the be-all-and-end-all of the show, or existing just to make the reference. Can this be alienating if you don't get all of them? Maybe. Is reference humor lazy? Not like this: this writer can't be the only person of his generation who learned the endings of "Citizen Kane," "Planet of the Apes" and "Psycho" from watching "The Simpsons" as a young'un, and "Community" is one of the few shows that's able to play on that level.
But personally, that isn't what keeps us coming back, and it's not why we think you'll love the show. Harmon and his writing team push their characters just as much as they push form, letting them change, evolve, become dark, even unlikable, and always keeping their behavior and relationships recognizably and truthfully human, even when the show around them becomes positively surreal. An episode like the bittersweet season two highlight "Mixology Certification," a dark tale in which the gang go out drinking to celebrate Troy's 21st birthday, could be an excellent indie comedy-drama short in and of itself. And it helps that the cast doesn't have a weak link among them, consistently going from strength to strength, and we're seeing more and more of the likes of Jacobs, Brie and Glover in the movies as time goes on, an indicator of how much talent is contained in one place.
Plus it's funny as hell. But we're not going to list a bunch of jokes or link to YouTube videos, because that's annoying. We can't guarantee that you'll like the show -- at least one senior Playlist staff member remains immune to its charms, and it's struck some bum notes along the way, even if it was remarkably few. And we know how the faintly terrifying inside nature of a show with a cult following like this can be off-putting -- we've been on the other side of that equation more than once. But give it a little time, and come in at the right point, and it might be your new favorite thing.
We'd be surprised if next week's return episode gave any concessions to newcomers, given the show's reluctance to be anything but true to itself. And we wouldn't necessarily start from the beginning -- like everything from "Arrested Development" to "The Wire," it takes a little time to find its groove. So here's what we'd suggest. Track down the season one episode "Contemporary American Poultry," a hilarious riff on "Goodfellas," as good an entry point as you'll find. On DVD, on iTunes, on Hulu, whatever. If you like what you see, you're bound to want to see more, and you'll be prepared to jump in when new episodes start next week. Watch the trailer below in the meantime.