I challenge you to find a more perfect scenario under which to review “Community: The Complete First Season” on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. For you see, my “real job” is in undergraduate college admissions, where I work to showcase the community college that employs me to prospective students and their families. As such, you can imagine just how happy I was when I learned this television comedy was debuting in 2009.
My colleagues at other community colleges expressed real concern that “Community” would tear our institutions a new one. There was disgust, especially because the economic recession meant more and more students were being sent our way and we had less and less resources to serve them. The last thing we needed was to fight against another force telling us our campuses, students and programs were a step below our four-year counterparts.
I had no choice but to sit through the “Pilot” episode and hope, even pray, that we made it through with some shred of dignity. To meet my expectations, we took our licks, but to my surprise, I didn’t worry about this nearly as much as I’d thought, likely due to how hard I laughed at this and every episode in the first season. Besides, four-year schools have been taking it for decades (see “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” “Back to School,” “Revenge of the Nerds” or “Old School” for examples), and they manage to prosper. “Community” re-taught me a valuable lesson: it’s okay to laugh at yourself.
Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) plays a hot shot lawyer who had life pretty good until the Colorado Bar Association discovered his law degree wasn’t all it appeared to be. To prevent disbarment, Jeff signs up as a student at Greendale Community College, and meets the student body with the occasional friendly nudge the wrong way. His first contact is with Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), the loyal and overly smart friend who can do anything with his weird pop-culture obsession and quirky pokes into and out of various situations. In passing, the pair spots Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), an attractive blonde vegetarian who wants respect for her cultured life outlook more than her physical specifics. Jeff goes in for the kill, but he’s got his work cut out for him.
Specifically, he’s forced to deal with Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), a Black single mother who takes life and its circumstances so seriously it’s comical, Annie Edison (Alison Brie), the young one in the group who drips with type-A overtones and cheerful enthusiasm, Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), a former high school jock and pretty boy who tends to mask his personal insecurities, and Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), an older student trying to fit in with his younger counterparts despite his over the top and truly bizarre social inabilities. All seven take the same Spanish 101 class in their first semester, taught by Ben Chang (Ken Jeong), and Jeff’s attempt to get to Britta by posing as a fake Spanish tutor bring everyone together.
The genius behind “Community” isn’t its writing (though there are moments of greatness here and there), but instead its characters and casting. As I worked my way through the four disc DVD set, I was able to picture students I’ve met or worked with at some point in my professional life. I can see the older, non-traditional student who goes back to school and struggles socially, the former high school badass who is just as normal as everyone else now and the single mother who worries as much about her kids as she does about her grades. The roles are well crafted and refined, so much so it was like I left work, came home, and was back at work, only this version was funnier and less irritating.
While the underlying plot all the way through season one is occasionally awkward sexual tension between Jeff and Britta, all the supporting characters come to life effortlessly. Troy and Abed have an ongoing feud about who is superior in, well, almost everything, and rather than push them apart it brings their friendship even closer. Shirley thrives as the captain of a boat during a one-week intensive sailing class (held in the Greendale parking lot), while Pierce imparts his life experience onto everyone by his fascination with graphic t-shirts. Annie comes out of her shell and begins dating Greendale’s resident shirtless hippie, while Spanish teacher Chang gets robbed twice at the YMCA.
There are three episodes that stand out among the twenty-five. In “Introduction to Statistics,” Annie elects to host an extra credit Dia de los Muertos dance for Chang’s class, and everyone dresses up as it coincides with Halloween. The performance of the night goes to Abed, who portrays Batman at a near Christopher Nolan level (vocally, at least).
Secondly, “Modern Warfare” pits all Greendale students against each other when the annual Spring Fling gathering’s top prize is priority class registration for the next semester. The ensuing paintball battles across the campus are wickedly filmed and edited, so much so you might believe these folks are stunt doubles in their second lives. You never knew just how hard it was to get the classes you want/need in higher ed until you’ve seen the “Community” cast battle to stay paint free.
Third, watch “Investigative Journalism” for cameos from Jack Black and Owen Wilson, both playing Greendale students every so desperate to fit in somewhere. They seem to fit in the roles quite snugly, so much so you might wonder about what sort of first hand experience they possess.
Chevy Chase is hilarious in a subtle, under the radar capacity. His humor, and overall role in “Community,” is secondary to most storylines, yet he manages to claw forward every now and again to make everyone feel just awkward enough. He blends in with Greendale’s student body far better than you might initially perceive, but not to a degree where he belongs more than he sticks out.
“Community” is downright funny most of the time, but it has a bump or two. The fictitious Greendale campus is loaded with inconsistencies, including minimal to no lines for anything (food, financial aid, tutoring, etc.) and a Dean of Students (Craig Pelton) who randomly pops up everywhere and is wiling to actually interact with the students. The complete first season also unsuccessfully attempts a crack or two at romance, especially when Jeff falls for a sexy statistics professor, Michelle Slater (Lauren Stamile), which makes Britta realize she may be missing out. The ensuing battle for his affection consumes the season’s final two episodes, and it doesn’t work because up to this point, we’ve had funny moments more than anything, and we want the trend to continue.
“Community” was renewed for another season in March 2010, and it hits NBC in late September. The stakes are raised this time around, and the stigma around the series has either slightly shifted or completely dissolved, depending on your perspective. I enjoy this series because it is well cast, super funny and also makes me realize how, despite the seriousness with which many lead life, it’s okay, perhaps necessary, to see the humor behind who we are and how we behave.
All “Community” episodes are presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen video transfer that prioritizes bright colors above all else. The episodes take place indoors most of the time, so expect the coolness and mood that fluorescent lighting can provide to reign supreme. The image remains more or less clear throughout, and grain isn’t really a factor. Attention to detail is noticeable via signs advertising clubs, rooms for rent and more. Visually, the transfer to DVD is a step up from watching on television, but it won’t rock your world.
All episodes are linked with English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio soundtracks that are appropriately loud and clear. “Community” prioritizes vocals over anything else, and while background music is contemporary and recognizable, it’s the wise cracks and one-liners that will boom forward. There’s no laugh track to tell you when to cackle, and it’s unlikely anyone will need to be told what is or isn’t humorous. Natural background noise is just right: loud enough you’ll know what’s what, but not so dominating it will overwhelm. English subtitles are available.
The first noticeable special feature is a 12 page, full color collectible comic book called “KICKPUNCHER,” which also features a bonus pullout poster of “ANNIE and BRITTA UNLEASHED!” All twenty-five episodes have an audio commentary with the cast and/or production crew, while extended versions of the “Pilot” and “Communication Studies” episodes are available. Each disc features outtakes from the series, and there’s also a highlight reel and cast evaluations juxtaposed with a “Creative Compromises” featurette and “Advanced Criminal Law” alternate scenes. Three mini episodes help round out what is probably the most impressive TV on DVD special features offering I’ve ever seen.
A Final Word:
“Community: The Complete First Season” illustrates that wherever we go in life and whatever obstacles we face, it’s always easier to pass the time if we laugh and care about the people we are with. Oversimplification, you say? Just ask the Greendale Community College Spanish 101 study group what they think, and like me, you’ll probably be surprised at the result.