Jeff: “If I wanted to learn something, I wouldn’t have come to community college.”
In September 2009, I caught the pilot for Community, decided the series might be worth my time, and then promptly forgot about it. I only fell in love with the deconstructionist sitcom about a third into its second season, after the World Wide Web as a whole declared it the best thing since grilled cheese (which officially beat sliced bread sometime in the 1920s), thus reminding me of its existence Thursday nights on NBC. Who says word of mouth doesn’t work?
Coming back to it now, I’m struck by how different the show was at its inception. Mind you, the setting and basic premise are the same, owing to the fact they’re embedded in the title: seven lost souls form a study group at Greendale Community College and, in so doing, forge a community. The concept is sound, though perhaps a bit precious for network television. Heavily symbolic sitcoms seem a dime a dozen every fall, but, like most things at that price, they tend to run out and disappear from circulation.
I mean, for all its clever dialogue, the pilot follows a rather conventional structure. After losing his license, ex-lawyer and full-on slacker Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) comes to the “school-shaped toilet” called Greendale, hoping to once again con himself a law degree. There, he has a meet cute with Britta (Gillian Jacobs), who sees right through him of course, and finds himself with a full cast of loveable losers to support him as he strives to become a better Jeff. Been there. Done that. Seen the NBC line-up from 2003.
I suspect Community survived its freshman year by changing tact halfway through, adapting the characters and dynamics as it was finding its feet. Consider the seven protagonists introduced in this episode, how they differ from those in the second season. Well, okay, Annie (Alison Brie) and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) are pretty much the same, playing the vulnerable overachiever and repressed divorcée respectively. However, Troy (Donald Glover) is depicted as an arrogant jock instead of a childlike figure; Abed’s (Danny Pudi) autism is presented as a social impediment instead of a fourth-wall superpower; and Pierce (Chevy Chase) is an overcompensating retiree instead of the Antichrist.
The most jarring difference lies in Jeff’s relationship with Britta, set up here as the main love interest. You can tell by the way her clothes subtly emphasise her bosom. Also, she’s portrayed as a sympathetic adventurer instead of a pushy hipster. The character functions as a muse of sorts, prompting Jeff to seek more out of life. Because we’ve watched television before, we know their mutual hostility hides sexual tension, which will, in turn, blossom into puppy dog love. Well, that’s the theory at any rate. I’ll leave it at that for those watching the episodes in their intended order.
Besides, I want to end on the famous Jeff Winger speech, which I find nineteen kinds of wonderful with a scoop of awesome on top. It involves sharks that don’t watch Shark Week and a broken pencil named Steve. More importantly, the bit expresses as much about the characters’ specific dysfunctions (exposition you can chew on!) as it does about individualism in the twenty-first century. Creator Dan Harmon has a genuine message to convey, and that alone puts Community ahead of the curve.
Instead of the usual bits and pieces, let’s take a quick look at our seven main characters and why each is in need of a community:
- Abed Nadir: Because of his Asperger syndrome, Abed is the most disconnected from the world, but he’s also the only one to openly reach out. Incidentally, “Abed” means “worshipper” in Arabic, a fitting name for such a devoted film enthusiast.
- Britta Perry: As I mentioned, in terms of Jeff’s moral ambitions, Britta serves as the George Sand to his Frédéric Chopin, but she’s got issues of her own. The woman put so much effort in becoming unique she can’t relate to others anymore.
- Troy Barnes: As a varsity football star, Troy has spent his formative years in a social bubble. His double keg flip, whatever that is, may well have taken his sense of self along with his sports career. Still, there’s something adorably naïve about the character, a trait I suspect stems less from the screenplay than Donald Glover’s performance.
- Annie Edison: I don’t imagine Annie kept too many of her friends after her high school meltdown, and Troy’s attitude toward her hints that she had few to begin with. I smell a secondary romance between the two.
- Shirley Bennett: A few lines here and there hint that Shirley’s lead a tumultuous life but has now shut down, hiding in a shell made out of passive-aggressive judgment. I’m eager to learn more about her past.
- Pierce Hawthorne: Pierce represents the person Jeff might become if he doesn’t change his ways: a dirty old man with little to show for his life but alienation. It’s worth noting our hero doesn’t open up until Pierce points out their similarities.
- Jeff Winger: Finally, whereas the others each feel on some level they’ve become a joke to the world, Jeff thinks he’s the only one getting it. In a way, that makes him the loneliest.
I thought of transcribing Jeff’s speech, but it’s quite lengthy and I’m quite lazy. More to the point, I feel Joel McHale’s delivery is half the charm. The guy should host his own show in which he talks in front of a giant screen. He’d be great at it:
Duncan: “I thought you had a bachelors from Columbia.”
Jeff: “And now I have to get one from America.”
Annie: “What board certifies a tutor?”
Jeff: “A six-year-old girl could talk to you that way!”
Duncan: “Yes, because that would be adorable!”
Duncan: “Why am I still shouting? I’m drawing attention to myself!”
Jeff: “Pierce, let’s discuss this creepiness.”
Abed: “I’m sorry I called you Michael Douglas. I see your value now.”
Such a profound line.
Oh, one more thing: I love Jeff’s interaction with Professor Duncan (John Oliver), his Greendale Jiminy Cricket. I hope to see more of their friendship in future episodes.