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Discuss: As A Trailer Arrives For The Return Of 'Community,' Why Aren't You Watching The Smartest, Most Ambitious Show On Television?

by Oliver Lyttelton
March 8, 2012 9:24 AM
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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.

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  • B. Waters | March 8, 2012 10:44 PMReply

    Because it is not on Netflix.

  • SERGIO | March 8, 2012 9:59 PMReply

    What i really love about this show is that it surprise me in every episode. Can you say that about other shows?

  • Christopher Bell | March 8, 2012 8:42 PMReply

    I'm with you. I just started watching Season 1 and I love it. As much as I enjoy "Parks and Rec," sometimes the sweet moments come too often and feel very forced... "Community," I was surprised how much heart it had.

  • Jhuff | March 8, 2012 4:54 PMReply

    I love how the Internet has bred an entire generation of cowards and douchebags. I love this show, I enjoy going to sites such as this to discuss our mutual fondness of the program. However, you can't enjoy that without a handful of people (who would surely cower, cry, and beg for mercy if ever met with a face to face confrontation in the real world) that anxiously look for strangers thousands of miles away, to pick fights with over the Internet. Safely hiding behind their locked door and laptop at an unknown location. As irritating as it is, I find some comfort and can't help but smile thinking about the incontinence you would surely experience...should one of us you intentionally provoke and offend ever show up at your door.

  • Oogle monster | March 8, 2012 3:46 PMReply

    I'm with Charles on this one. The "Smartest, Most Ambitious Show On Television" is Parks and Rec followed by Modern Family (for the most part). I haven't found a show quite like Arrested Development since it went off air but Parks and Rec comes close.

  • Oliver | March 8, 2012 10:02 PM

    Community often pushes the very boundaries of the sitcom format.

    Parks and Recreation and Modern Family use the tried-and-tested documentary format from The Office and rarely attempt to go far beyond it, but can often be very charming in the process.

  • Joe | March 8, 2012 2:11 PMReply

    It's ambitious and creative but suffers from a lack of laughs and as the guy below me stated, the characters don't develop. It's a good show but let's not go overboard.

  • Lu | March 8, 2012 5:51 PM

    My whole family watches this show and we all find it funny and that's with a 48 year age gap between the oldest and youngest members. I think comedy is a matter of taste. I for one do not find a single Will Ferrell film even slightly maybe it isn't that the show has a lack of laughs, but rather it just doesn't have what makes you laugh. This show has been responsible for an embarrassing amount of stress incontinence in my life... I literally pee'd myself with laughter.

  • Charles | March 8, 2012 2:04 PMReply

    I like "Community" but I think people go overboard with their praise. It's no "Arrested Development" or UK "Office." It's not as good as "Spaced" or "Party Down" either. Or "30Rock." The show is solid and can be really funny at times, but they don't do anything THAT interesting with these characters. "Mixology Certification" was pretty good, but they have completely ignored that aspect of Shirley's character since then. The characters don't evolve, they just introduce new crazy things for a character and then completely ignore it in future episodes. This year's Christmas episode was phenomenal, but other than that season 3 has been very disappointing. And I notice that this article doesn't bring up Chevy Chase at all. That's because he's TERRIBLE. That guy hasn't been funny since the 1980s. He'll even ruin well written jokes with his awful delivery. It's sad.

    I like this show, but it's not going to be a huge tragedy if it goes off the air. Frankly, it'll be better for it to end before it jumps the shark and the majority of the episodes suck. What is the legacy of "The Simpsons" now? Over 75% of the episodes now are mediocre. People who watch that show for the first time in the future are going to think it was completely overrated.

  • SJVP | March 8, 2012 12:45 PMReply

    i'd* continue to watch it.

  • sjvp | March 8, 2012 12:38 PMReply

    I love this darn show. I continue to watch it but I'm a UK citizen and the 2nd season hasn't been shown here yet, legally.

  • Kate | March 8, 2012 10:53 AMReply

    Its awesome that you wrote this post, Community needs all the support and recognition it can get! Seriously people, its an amazing show...check it out!!

  • sasha | March 8, 2012 10:34 AMReply

    LOVE this show. Love everything about it, it's smart, hilarious and versatile. It also pushes its characters forward while still keeping them hilarious and true to themselves.. best show on TV for sure

  • Gabe Toro | March 8, 2012 10:22 AMReply

    ... generous?

  • Dan | March 8, 2012 10:04 AMReply

    I wish the five comments here could stretch a little harder for ways to hate what they're commenting on. I'm not embarrassed for all of humanity yet.

  • LuBottom | March 8, 2012 5:18 PM

    My son says that Community is 'not like other comedies because they only make you laugh every few minutes, but this show makes you laugh every minute'. Well, I'm inherently disappointed because I only like shows that make me laugh every 30 seconds, and that fit in with my very limited, and pretentious view of what is considered 'smart and ambitious' cf ''Game of Thrones'' (yawn). What Community needs is the camerawork of UK Office, and Modern Family, because that obviously has the effect of increasing its appeal to those of us who have 4 figure IQs. I've tried to read between the lines here, but that's about as much stretching out the hate as I can handle before I become too aware of my own ridiculousness.

  • Marko | March 8, 2012 9:59 AMReply

    I swear I recall someone on this very site calling it overrated though. I'm gonna put the blame on Kevin.

  • Joe | March 8, 2012 10:19 AM

    You can add me to the list of The Playlist's Community lovers. For me personally it's the best show to have graced television since my previous favourites: The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica.

  • Kevin | March 8, 2012 10:01 AM

    Yep, that was me. But Oli has written a helluva defense for the show.

  • A | March 8, 2012 9:56 AMReply

    Also, it's not the smartest, most ambitious show on TV. Game of Thrones is. Community is just another dumb, inside joke filled sitcom.

  • Dan | March 8, 2012 10:47 AM

    Yes, it was smart of HBO to adapt a great series of books into a serialized drama. And yes, it was ambitious of them to do it well and do it faithfully. Never thought about comparing it to 70 episodes of a half hour comedy, but I guess the "internet" did open that door by shoving Community in your face, and you do seem like a pretty honest, happy person that's heavily invested in other people's entertainment, so I can't wait to improve my life by not watching what you don't watch. But I have one question about your comparison: You don't think Game of Thrones is filled with "inside jokes?" Every episode is an incomplete segment of a larger story, it would be nearly pointless to see any of it without seeing all of it. Also, your mother and I would like you to get a summer job.

  • a | March 8, 2012 9:46 AMReply

    hey wow, an internet site obsessing over community! we get it internet, you like a TV show. Not everyone else has to. Stop whining about it

  • JesJ | March 8, 2012 10:55 AM

    I'm sorry, who's whining here?

  • BEARDY MAN CHILD | March 8, 2012 9:45 AMReply

    Because it's sh*t

  • Zack | March 8, 2012 9:33 AMReply

    Because hipsters keep telling me I should be watching it.

  • LuBottom | March 8, 2012 5:09 PM

    If it helps, I'm the kind of person that hipsters would only talk to 'ironically' and I love the show, as does my family. I don't know if you guys have had Simon Pegg's Spaced over there but the pop culture references are very reminiscent. It is clever in that it has metatheatrical aspects, it's subtley subversive but at the same time manages not to be in the slightest bit pretentious.
    I disagree with others who say there is no character development, the characters do evolve. Jeff has evolved in the sense that he no longer sees the others as being fundamentally inferior, even Pierce is becoming ever so slightly more self-aware, but also increasingly more bitter. You cannot suggest that Troy is the same character now, that he was in the pilot. His relationship with Abed has had a great impact on him and has made him less of a jock and more of a geek. I don't think the character's developments are explicit, but then I don't think that is the case in real life either. They are slowly revealing more and more sides to their characters, whilst being subtley altered by their relationships with their peers....far more realistic.
    It's a shame this show isn't airing in the UK, so far, past season 1. I think if this was shown on a mainstream UK station such as Channel 4, that it would get a large audience.
    If you haven't seen it then please give it a won't regret it!

  • lily | March 8, 2012 9:25 AMReply

    I used to love Community. But then I started to read interviews with Dan Harman and Donald Glover and realized that they're misogynistic shitbags.

  • Andy | March 8, 2012 6:05 PM

    why would a "misogynist" create some of the strongest female characters in comedy (identity outside of their relation to men).

  • Pretty Polly | March 8, 2012 12:01 PM

    Next time, unless you have a link, argument or quote to support your slander, do women a bigger favor and sign your comment as a dude.

  • Zack | March 8, 2012 9:33 AM

    Yeah, but women are so mainstream, brah.

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