Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo | Written by Dan Harmon
Back to School
By Colin Hart
8.4 / 10
Through the years, there have been so many comedies about college that the very idea has become cliché. Surprisingly, however, there hasn’t been many sitcoms on the subject. Community, created by Dan Harmon, subverts expectations and upends clichés by focusing on America’s forgotten institute of higher learning — community college, a place where anyone can go, and anything can happen.
Joel McHale stars as Jeff Winger, a thirty-something disbarred lawyer who hopes to recover his law degree by coasting through blow-off classes at Greendale Community College, a school defined by its quirky populace.
Just like McHale’s persona as host of E!’s satirical talk-show The Soup, Jeff Winger is a shallow, sarcastic and inherently unlikable douchebag. Nevertheless, he is so selfish that the character comes across as pretty funny. And somewhat endearing. Maybe it’s the fact that he wears sweatpants with a sportcoat.
In the pilot episode, Jeff attempts to bribe one of his old friends, science professor Ian Duncan (played by John Oliver), into giving him the answers to every test for the entire semester. His overall goal is to get out of Greendale as quickly and easily as possible — “If I wanted to learn something, I wouldn’t have gone to community college.”
Meanwhile, Jeff pretends to tutor Spanish in an attempt to go on a date with the hot blonde girl from class (Britta Perry, played by Gilian Jacobs, a twenty-something high-school dropout interested in activism and Radiohead). Word of the “study group” soon reaches Abed Nadir (played by Danny Pudi), a Breakfast Club-quoting introvert who invites several other students from Spanish class to join, inadvertently ruining Jeff’s plans.
The funniest part of the episode is when the members of the group begin talking about their various issues, causing all hell to break loose. The comedic interplay between the ensemble cast definitely has potential.
In the end, Jeff has to rally them all together with a rousing speech, slightly humbling himself in the process. It’s the first time in his life that he’s used his oratorial courtroom skills for good rather than evil. But that doesn’t change the fact that he speaks the corniest line of the entire series: “You’ve just stopped being a study group. You have become something unstoppable. I hereby pronounce you a community.”
Like most sitcom pilots, the first episode of Community is simply a set-up to get the rest of the show rolling. A lot of the jokes are hit or miss, and the happy-go-lucky soundtrack is sometimes cringeworthy. But it would be unfair to judge the entire show based on its initial half-hour.
Network sitcoms rarely have great pilots. In many cases, it takes an entire season to get situated. Just look at The Office and Parks and Recreation for proof. The key with these types of shows is patience. And trust. Based off this first episode, there’s more than enough evidence to warrant giving Community a chance.
Harmon’s script doesn’t care about providing a realistic look at community college; his primary concern is with the characters and their interpersonal dynamics. If the goal of a pilot is to convince me to keep watching, then Community does a pretty good job selling me on that idea.
The show is smarter than it looks. But with just the right amount of dumb.
- The pilot was dedicated to the memory of director John Hughes, who died in August 2009. As homage, the episode’s climax hits all the emotional beats of The Breakfast Club. It maintains credibility because Abed openly acknowledges the influence.
- The episode was directed by the Russo brothers, who also directed the pilot for Arrested Development (2003). The pair are perhaps most famous for helming several Marvel projects, including Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019).
- “Funny thing about being smart is that you can get through most of life without ever having to do any work. So, uh, not really sure how to do that.”
- “I’m sorry I called you Michael Douglas, and I see your value now.”