By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Those of us who've relied for several years on Joel McHale's weekly clip show, "The Soup," to keep us abreast (sometimes literally) of the most mortifying lowlights of reality and talk television dreck must now accept McHale's apparent desire to become more famous than he currently is. This week is his big bid for stardom, as he has constantly reminded "Soup" fans for eons now: He's got a part in the new Matt Damon film opening Friday ("The Informant!" directed by Steven Soderbergh) and, on Thursday night, he's starring in a new NBC sitcom, "Community."
We like McHale. The word "lurve" even comes to mind. The angular, sharp-tongued actor has suffered enough obscurity back there on the E! network and traveling to weekend stand-up comedy gigs. If our adoration alone can't pay his bills, then off into sitcom land he must go.
But something's not right with "Community," a limp series of sketches about life at Greendale Community College, where McHale's Jeff Winger, a cocky lawyer, has to re-enroll after the state bar discovers that his undergrad degree is bogus. "What's my attorney doing at Greendale Community College?" asks a surprised dean ("The Daily Show's" John Oliver).
"I'm a student," Jeff tells him.
"Well, that cannot be an inspiring journey," the dean replies.
It's not, and it also lacks the spontaneous spark that makes a funny show more than just a collection of snark. The jokes and cast are in place, but the whole thing gives off a cynical (and clinical) whiff of a comedy workshop, as if everyone in it, including an ossified Chevy Chase, is here to audition for something better. The structure and execution of "Community" once again call into question the postmodern construction techniques of NBC's comedy enterprise.
When they work, a comedy like this (or shall we call it a snarkedy?) can reinvent the idea of the sitcom -- as in "30 Rock" and "The Office." When they are mediocre or slightly better than mediocre, you get something like "My Name Is Earl." When they just can't get aloft, you end up with "Parks and Recreation."
What they all have in common is a certain rapid pace and bad attitude. As far back as black-and-white television, people on sitcoms have always said unkind things to one another in the service of laughs, personal digs that in reality would end conversations and relationships. That snideness has become common and pushed itself so far into our lives that it's easy to get it wrong. This should be no problem for McHale, a master of the fast and the mean. It's the acting that trips him up.
"Community" does have some good lines (you can almost hear its writers congratulating their own wit), such as when Jeff apologizes to the campus cafeteria lady for thinking out loud and talking to himself: "I was raised on TV," he says, "and I was conditioned to believe that every black woman over 50 is a cosmic mentor."
"Well, are you conditioned to pay for your damn tacos, Sein-field?" she snaps back.
The pilot episode arranges a cast of students from an intro Spanish class into a study group, including McHale's Jeff and Chevy Chase's lecherously weird Pierce Hawthorne, a retiree who's returned to college for reasons unknown. Jeff is hot for serious-minded Britta (Gillian Jacobs). Here the show peters out with "Breakfast Club" jokes. These form a sort of bridge between the character of Jeff and the actual McHale's ability to fire off several poppy-culty references at once. But it's impossible to really see him as anything but Joel McHale Seeking a Hit.
Ultimately, this show feels like a long cellphone commercial: Everyone is snippy and sarcastic and knowing. The ragtag study group does produce one standout, Danny Pudi as Abed, a talkative loser with ADD. After watching "Community," I wanted to recut the show around Pudi instead of McHale. Where have we seen him before? Ah, yes, in a cellphone commercial.
Community (30 minutes) premieres Thursday at 9:30 on NBC.