When I saw the title of NBC's "Community," I imagined a feel-good reality show about members of a grass-roots organization, working to build a better world. Imagine my relief at discovering a mean-spirited comedy about a pathetic group of mediocre students at a community college.
"What is community college?" asks the dean of Greendale C.C. on the first day of classes, speaking on a microphone plugged into a boombox. "Well, you've heard all kinds of things. You've heard it's looooser college for remedial teens, 20-something dropouts, middle-aged divorcees, and old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity." We flash on each of these types of student, looking shocked and insulted, and then rest on Chevy Chase's face -- he's the old guy, circling the drain.
"However, I wish you luck!" shouts the dean, before realizing that he's missing a note card and has just skipped most of his speech. A crowd of annoyed-looking students wanders off.
This is exactly the sort of angsty Petri dish of underachievement where comedy thrives, of course, and it's what makes "Community" more than just another single-camera half-hour show doomed to flail among the new comedies of the fall lineup.
Of course, Chevy Chase as an aging hippie helps. Chase plays Pierce Hawthorne, a retired businessman ("Yes, that is Hawthorne as in Hawthorne Wipes, the award-winning moist towelette"), toastmaster, new-age type and general-purpose clueless old guy. "Sexually harassing you?" Pierce cries out in shock when he's accused of bothering Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), a pretty, black middle-aged divorcee in his Spanish class. "That makes no sense! Why would I harass somebody that turns me on?"
But our real hero is Jeff (Joel McHale of "The Soup"), a lying weasel of a lawyer whose license has been suspended since the state bar discovered that his college degree was "less than legitimate." He has to get a quick degree so he can continue practicing law. And even though Jeff is a liar and a fake, he considers himself better than the other students around him.
"I discovered at a very early age that if I talk long enough, I can make anything either right or wrong," says Jeff, who's clearly accustomed to getting his way. "So, either I'm God, or truth is relative, and in either case, booyah."
This is the alternately juvenile and nihilistic tone of "Community," a tone that pervades every scene. Despite its hand-holdy title, the comedy embraces that vortex where superiority complexes clash spectacularly with the earnest hopes, dreams and disappointments of ordinary people. ("You remind me of myself at your age," Pierce tells Jeff. "I deserve that," Jeff replies.)
Of course, ordinary people clash with ordinary people, too. Take Annie (played by Alison Brie, best known as Trudy, Pete Campbell's wife on "Mad Men"), a slightly paranoid overachiever who is immediately offended that Jeff's Spanish "study group" formed "behind her back."
Shirley: Well, Annie, sweetie, it's not behind your back, it's just that ..."
Annie: Can we stop with the pumpkins and the sweeties? Being younger does not make me inferior. If anything, your age indicates that you've made bad life decisions.
Shirley shakes her head, grumbling, trying not to say anything.
Jeff: (stirring up trouble) Shirley has a response to that!
Shirley: OK, OK, um, I'm sure I've made some, some bad life decisions. And maybe Annie's decisions will be better. I think she needs to decide whether or not she wants to be considered a child, or an adult, because children get pity but not respect, and adults, they get respect, but they also get the back of their head grabbed and their face pushed through jukeboxes!
The first episode of "Community" features alarmingly smart writing, and the cast is fantastic, from Chase, who can make us laugh with just a look, to McHale, who's believably slippery but not too adorably caddish or cloying (Zach Braff, anyone?) as the antihero.
Thanks to McHale, somehow Jeff is at once cagey and convincing as a charismatic leader of men, a delicate balance he demonstrates in a rousing speech to his fellow study group members, even though he only started the group as an elaborate ploy to win the affections of Britta (Gillian Jacobs), a classmate who no one can stop remarking "looks just like Elizabeth Shue."
Jeff: You know what makes humans different from other animals?
Pierce: No, no, no. Come on. Bears have feet.
Jeff: We're the only species on earth that observes Shark Week. Sharks don't even observe Shark Week, but we do.
After his speech, which is too weird to be reproduced here but which somehow moves the study group to applaud, Britta reveals that Jeff is a complete fraud. "You know, I thought you were like Bill Murray in any of his films," says nerdy Abed (Danny Pudi). "But you're more like Michael Douglas in any of his films."
In truth, Jeff is something in between Bill Murray and Michael Douglas, and "Community" is something between "Rushmore" and "Wonder Boys." And even though I don't know exactly how you build a comedy around a looooser college for remedial teens, 20-something dropouts, middle-aged divorcees, and old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity ... I wish "Community" luck!
("Community" premieres 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17, on NBC.)