David Bushman

Curator, Television

October 13, 2009

And the Best New Show of the Season Is...

by David Bushman

I’m a drama guy. Don’t get me wrong: I love The Office, 30 Rock, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but if you ask me to name my top ten shows of all time, I doubt you’d find a straight-up comedy among them. All these months later, I still pine for The Wire and Battlestar Galactica, and I anticipate the impending ending of Lost with gloom.

Hence, as the fall season dawned, I was on the prowl for a new addiction, the darker the better. I had high hopes for ABC’s FlashForward, and while the driving mystery intrigues me (love the whole Suspect Zero thing and the abandoned doll factory), I’m having an awful time surmounting certain unfortunate aspects of the program, like the Stanford Wedeck (Courtney B. Vance) storyline (the guy was in the bathroom, for Pete’s sake, leave him alone!); the deadly Mark-Olivia Benford (Joseph Fiennes-Sonya Walger) melodrama; and Fiennes’s uncanny resemblance to Nicolas Cage as he portrays FBI Special Agent Mark Benford in a perpetual state of deep and painfully obvious emotional agitation.      

Surprisingly, my favorite new show of the season isn’t a drama at all, but a comedy, albeit a dark, twisted one, especially if you stop to ponder the dismal lives of the main characters. I speak of Community, the Thursday-night NBC single-camera comedy about a diverse group of—how to put this kindly?—losers enrolled at Greendale Community College in Colorado, an institution of higher learning that reluctant student Jeff Winger (Joel McHale, of E! Entertainment’s The Soup)—a smug, silver-tongued lawyer forced back to school when his bachelor’s degree is declared invalid—refers to as a “school-shaped toilet.”

Jeff has little (make that no) interest in education—“If I wanted to learn something I wouldn’t have come to community college,” he tells a professor/former client, from whom he is trying to coax every answer to every test he will have to take over the next four years—but is obsessed with Britta (Gillian Jacobs), a comely blonde coed/smart cookie who dropped out of high school to impress Radiohead (sorry, that’s as logical as it gets) and then joined the Peace Corps, later dabbling in foot modeling and getting tear-gassed at a world-trade rally. In pursuit of Britta, whom he knows to need help in Spanish, Jeff forms a faux-study group, claiming to be a “board-certified” tutor, and invites her in, hoping to work side by side at a library table for two. However, through a confluence of events, five other people wind up joining the group, forming the nucleus of the comedy.

Admittedly, a lot gets lost in the translation, but this might help: a list of five things I love about Community:

A Little Chase Goes a Long Way...
When it comes to comedy, I’ve always preferred neurotic self-loathing to smug irony, so I’ve never been a huge Chevy Chase fan, but I give Chase tremendous credit for taking on the utterly unflattering role of Pierce Hawthorne, a daffy, seven-times divorced moist-towelette magnate who enrolls at Greendale out of sheer loneliness, and is particularly desperate for Jeff’s approval. White-haired, spectacled, and far stockier than in his SNL days, Chase is hilarious in his supporting role, whether struggling to guide a slice of pizza into his mouth, tossing off sexually/ethnically inappropriate comments, or assuring Jeff that his inability to father children is due not to sterility, but to “hypervirility” (“My sperm shoot through the eggs like bullets”).

Those Who Can’t Do...
Greendale’s rogues gallery of daft educators may rival Hogwarts’s: so far we’ve met Chinese-American Spanish teacher Señor Chang (“I am a Spanish genius! In Español my nickname is El Tigre Chino! Because my knowledge will bite her face off. So don’t question Señor Chang, or you’ll get bit.”); accounting Professor Whitman (whose motto is “Carpe Diem” and who instructs students to throw away their textbooks and shoes and stand on their desks, adding that “Only when we stop stopping our lives can we begin to start starting them.”); and—my personal favorite—Dr. Ian Duncan (John Oliver, from The Daily Show), Jeff’s onetime client, cleared of DUI charges—he made a U-turn on a freeway and tried to order chalupas from an emergency call box—when Jeff persuaded a jury that the case was connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury...
Jeff’s speeches sound great, but watch out for the message—if in fact there is one. In one episode, he tries to douse an argument between Britta and the father of Abed (Danny Pudi, another study-group member), with this gem: “The only reason why this whole mess got started is because both of you wanted the best for Abed, and I think the lesson we can all take away from this is that everyone should always do whatever they want and leave each other out of it.” But Jeff saves his best for first, delivering a real head-scratcher in the pilot episode: after the study group nearly self-immolates and Britta instructs him to fix the mess he created, Jeff somehow assuages the group with a speech about human capacity for forgiveness (as evidenced by Shark Week, broken pencils, and Ben Affleck’s Academy Award for screenwriting), telling them that “It’s clear to all of you that I am awesome, but I can never admit that because that would make me an ass,” and, finally, concluding with this: “Abed’s a shaman. You ask him to pass the salt, he gives you a bowl of soup, because you know what? Soup is better. Abed is better. You are all better than you think you are. You are just designed not to believe it when you hear it from yourself.”

Sexual Tension
In the grand tradition of Sam and Diane come Jeff and Britta (they should last so long):

Britta: “You’re cute, but selfish and narcissistic to the point of near delusion.”
Jeff (to Pierce): “She said I was cute.”

Britta (after Jeff and Pierce’s disastrous Spanish presentation, which somehow managed to involve the waving of an Israeli flag, sparklers, and the capture of a Native-American princess, and earned both students failing grades): “That was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, which I guess makes being a part of it a pretty selfless act.”
Jeff: “How do you know I didn’t just do it to get another shot at you?”
Britta: “Because a smart guy like you would know that no woman in that class would be able to look at you as a sexually viable candidate ever again.”

Britta: “So this is a game to you? You put human beings in a state of emotional shambles for a shot at getting in my pants?”
Jeff: “Why can’t you see that for the compliment that it is?”

Heart and Soul
The best comedies aren’t just funny, but soulful. This is why All in the Family wasn’t really about politics, but about relationships, particularly between Archie and Mike. Or, why The Office, as funny as it is to laugh at anything that comes out of Andy’s mouth or at Kelly’s utter lack of self-regard in her pursuit of Ryan, is—to my mind at least—more memorable for scenes like the one in which Michael is the only Dunder-Mifflin-ite to show up at Pam’s art show, even after a disastrous evening guest-lecturing before Ryan’s class. Not that Community is in a league with those shows yet, but balancing humor and heart is tricky business, and so far Community has done a nice job, like when Jeff relents to work with Pierce on the Spanish project, or the whole group trudges back to the library so Jeff won’t fail the next day’s test.

Hat’s off to Community creator Dan Harmon, whose previous credits include the revered Heat Vision & Jack, one of the great busted pilots of all time, and the prominent video website Channel 101, which he co-founded with Rob Schrab, and which you can check out yourself right here.

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About

David Bushman

Curator, Television

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Before joining the Paley Center in 1992, David Bushman was senior television editor of Daily Variety in Los Angeles and weekly Variety in New York. He also served as director of programming at TV Land from 1997 to 1998. He has taught and lectured on TV at numerous institutions, but on only one continent. He may be the only person in the world pining for an E-Z Streets reunion.

Interests:

Noir, Fantasy Baseball, The Pogues, Soccer, Running

Contact

David Bushman
dbushman@paleycenter.org

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