‘Community’ gives it the old college try
“Community,” which premieres tonight on NBC, adds a fourth large-ensemble institutional comedy to the network’s Thursday night “Comedy Night Done Right” block. Such a sad little slogan for what has been a slate of excellent shows: “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation,” still around; “My Name Is Earl” making room for this new one. And though “Community,” which is set at a community college, is not as good as the least of those, it is technically proficient -- that is, the jokes consistently work, even when they don’t add up to much -- and its problems may not be unsolvable, if anyone even considers them problems in the first place.
The show centers on reluctant new student Jeff Winger, played by Joel McHale, 38, a lawyer whose license has been suspended by the state bar because his undergraduate degree was found to be “less than legitimate.”
“I thought you had a bachelor’s from Columbia,” says his friend Duncan (John Oliver, from “The Daily Show”), a professor at Greendale Community College.
“Now I have to get one from America,” Jeff replies. “And it can’t be an e-mail attachment.”
McHale is also the host of E!'s “The Soup,” a week-in-review show that requires him to cultivate an attitude of affectionate disdain toward objects of popular culture -- to be at once lovable and superior -- which must have made him seem like the right guy to star in what is essentially a Bill Murray movie, a fact the script itself spells out, down to name-checking “Stripes” and “Meatballs.” But, as may be said of most humans, he lacks Murray’s bright, scamp-ish charm.
Jeff is less a scamp than a sociopath, a man for whom life is a series of insincere closing arguments: “I discovered at a very early age that if I talked long enough I can make anything right or wrong, so either I’m God or truth is relative -- and in either case, boo-ya!” He only wants to cheat his way through school, yet he finds himself leading a Spanish-class study group he inadvertently convenes in an attempt to seduce classmate Britta (Gillian Jacobs).
In “Groundhog Day” terms, she is Andie MacDowell to his Murray -- empathetic where he is exploitative, a Peace Corps veteran who dropped out of high school because she “thought for some reason it would impress Radiohead.”
The group’s other members -- “remedial teens, twentysomething dropouts, middle-aged divorcees and old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity” as it’s put here -- include, notably, Chevy Chase as a retired moist-towelette mogul. After long years in the wilderness, Chase has landed a part that not only plays to his strengths but reminds you that he was once funny and sort of cool.
Also here are Alison Brie (Trudy Campbell on “Mad Men”) and Donald Glover (a writer and story editor on “30 Rock”), Danny Pudi and Yvette Nicole Brown. (Oliver disappears from the second episode, though I hope he returns.) Ken Jeong (“The Hangover”) arrives in Episode 2 as the Spanish teacher, Senor Chang.
Series creator Dan Harmon is a co-founder of Web-based “TV network” Channel 101 and a co-creator of VH1’s “Acceptable TV” and Comedy Central’s “The Sarah Silverman Program.” These works are heavily ironical in tone and little interested in real human relations, except as they go wrong. (I say this as a fan of them all.) It may be the mode of modern comedy -- not to say, of modern life -- to trust no one and mock everything, but “Community” is built on the bones of a feel-good comedy, and it never makes you feel good.
When Jeff tells his study group, “I hereby pronounce you a community,” having built them up in a “Meatballs” moment, he is lying, and though he is given moments of feeling, clarity and something approximating shame, I never believed them.
When: 9:31 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)