Familiar Faces in Fresh Formulas

By , December 17, 2009

What seemed in early fall a rare outbreak of inspired television writing has in recent months become something rarer—not an epidemic, exactly, but a season impressively stocked with creations drenched in wit and enterprise, all unmistakably reflective of a drive toward formula busting. These things are, of course, always relative. In television these days, one quality hit a season—especially in the impossibly snare-infested comedy genre—seems a lot; two is like breaking the bank.

Yet we’re now finishing a television year that has seen both the emergence of ABC’s uproariousModern Family and its less dazzling but wonderfully mordant lead-in, “The Middle,” about another kind of modern family—a brew of consistent charm and character with a bracing hint of nightmarish reality underlying its sitcom fun. Add to these the most unexpected gem of all—NBC’s “Community,” a satire set in the unlikely precincts of a community college. Its creator, Dan Harmon, was, by his own account, inspired by the semester he once spent at one in pursuit of an effort to strengthen ties with his girlfriend. That relationship didn’t work out in the end, but, happily, the same can’t be said of this whip-smart series about an improbably compelling band of adults taking classes at a sunny academic hell called Greendale Community College.

The same can be said for “Community,” which stars Joel McHale (“The Soup”) in top form as Jeff—a glib but undeniably attractive former lawyer who has gone back to school because his license to practice was revoked (he’d apparently skipped going to law school). The difference here is that the laughs derive entirely from the show’s flinty heart. There are lapses, to be sure, when its creators can’t resist the old siren call—the sitcom impulse to dump a little treacle into the brine. That way lies ruin, as most writers of satire ultimately learn. And “Community” is, despite its doses of warmth and fellowship, nothing but satire in its look at the adults in the study group Jeff runs. They’re all strivers, most of them bent on getting close to Jeff because this disbarred lawyer seems a person of stature. These characters are the product of cold-eyed observation, exquisite at its meanest, particularly when it focuses on an older student—the insufferably pompous Pierce, a character to which Chevy Chase brings considerable authority, and not surprisingly. None of this is to say the series doesn’t offer more varied targets of amusement. Its picture of the sorry lot of obsessives and other deranged types in charge of delivering learning at the college, and of the assorted weasels and buffoons serving as deans and other high officials, is priceless.

Read the full story on the WSJ

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