Monday, May 6, 2013

Community (Season 1) (2009-2010)

The funny thing about being smart is you can get through most of life without having to do any work. So, uh, not really sure how to do that.

— Jeff Winger (Community Season 1, Episode 1 "Pilot")

It took a long time for me to warm to the first season of NBC's Community.

It had the occasional good joke, but there was no sense of comic timing. It was very rapid-fire, feeling more like sketch comedy than a sitcom, although its punchlines were often punctuated by cheesy musical cues.

I got that the writing was smart, but it felt to me like a show that was clever while having nothing to say. It would poke fun at anything and everything—activism, debate, religion, making an effort, showing enthusiasm, or sticking your neck out in general—usually by setting up straw men, all the while showing no convictions of its own. It all seemed rather gutless to me.

I didn't consistently enjoy any of the characters other than Jeff, who reminded me a little of myself (the taking of shortcuts through life), and (after a few episodes) Annie, on account of Alison Brie's scene-stealing comedic brilliance and commitment. There was a certain homogeneity to the other characters' voices, owing to the aforementioned timing issues, as if they were all transparently just mouthpieces for the joke writers. Whenever they did present more distinct personalities, they would all be so narrowly defined (except for Britta, who would unaccountably alternate between being the undermotivated burnout and being the know-it-all Brainy Smurf-esque punching bag), and they would adhere so strictly to type that one could practically predict what each character was going to say or do at every moment. Shirley would behave in a passive-aggressively judgmental manner, Pierce would make some tactless old white man comment that would go ignored, and the impervious Abed would neatly summarize the situation in a way that would make everyone else look stupid. I especially objected to the handling of Abed, the Asperger's character, in the same way that I object to the "lovable fat guy" character trope in TV. Although I imagined they meant well in approaching it with a celebratory "everybody's a winner" attitude, that just trivializes what a person in that condition would have to deal with in reality, ultimately encouraging us to live in denial, instead of working toward a truly healthy understanding of how their life experience might be unique, in both good and bad ways.

Worst of all, though nobody else will likely admit it, it seemed to me that the first half of the season proceeded according to a formula borrowed from that much-loathed 90s sitcom Home Improvement. Typically, an episode would begin with Jeff, acting out of ego and self-interest, behaving like a jerk to someone. Then, another character, usually Britta, would make him feel bad in pointing out how hurtful and inconsiderate he had been. Finally, Jeff would resolve to make things right with a noble gesture. It was all quite groan-inducing.

After watching the first 12 episodes in fairly rapid fashion, I had to take a break from it. I actually didn't realize that my break happened to match up with where the show itself had taken a mid-season break, both in the story and in the production. At any rate, when I got back to it, it seemed to have somehow become a much better show. Whereas the earlier episodes had been fairly conventional, the latter half was far more inventive and full of high-concept themed episodes, most notably the mafia film spoof episode, "Contemporary American Poultry" (Episode 21), and the action movie parody, "Modern Warfare" (Episode 23). While the first half of the season was more structured and possessed a more definite theme, it was in the second half that the show truly began to find its own identity, becoming surer of itself ironically as the sitcom without clear rules or confines.

As of the end of the first season, I still don't quite love Community—even when it comes to sitcoms, I like having characters I can root for, and this show doesn't really offer that—but I'm looking forward to watching more.

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