For everyone’s favorite (or least favorite) study group, the second year at Greendale Community College brings student elections, an unexpected pregnancy, zombies, a ride in a space simulator, the return of Annie’s Boobs, two birthday celebrations, an epic game of D&D, an animated Christmas adventure, kettle corn, a visit from LeVar Burton, and more paintball.
Clip shows are the last refuge of lazy television writers. Why come up with something new when you can just cut together a bunch of stuff you already have sitting around? The Simpsons brought something new to the game during its fourth season, employing clips from previous shows during an episode in which Bart almost kills Homer with an April Fools’ joke. South Park put a spin on the practice in its early days, flashing back to earlier incidents and ending each one with the same punchline, a punchline that wasn’t originally a part of the recycled clips.
But that’s nothing compared to what the team behind Community did for their first clip show. In a complete stroke of genius, they present a series of flashbacks to moments the audience has never seen before. This particular episode, “Paradigms of Human Memory,” is comprised largely of new material, with something like only three or four of its roughly seventy-five flashbacks referencing previous episodes, and even those three or four feature scenes that weren’t in the original episodes.
It’s arguably the most meta joke in a show that prides itself on it metafictional nature, taking one of the hoariest of television staples and turning it into an elaborate self-poke, having fun at its own expense and rewarding the small but loyal audience that worships this series.
As is made evident by my “Troy and Abed in the Morning’ coffee mug, I’m a member of that audience, having watched the series from the beginning and realizing with the fifth episode of Season One that the show was something special, something so smart and clever it’s a wonder it ever made it to the air. Pardon the blasphemy, sacrilege, or whatever, but I worship this show in much the same way I worship Kubrick flicks, Pink Floyd albums, Howard Chaykin’s art, and Michael Chabon’s writing. Like those things, Community is genius, and that’s a word I don’t use lightly.
I suppose some introductions are in order. For those of you who don’t know, Community is a sitcom set at a fictional community college. Said college is a strange place. The dean (Jim Rash) is a pervert. The school’s mascot is the Human Being, neutral in every way imaginable (sexually, ethnically, etc.). The school has a statute of Luis Guzman on its quad.
The first episode introduced the world to a motley band of students: Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), an aloof, shallow, narcissistic lawyer who was more or less disbarred after it was discovered his degree was bogus; Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), who thinks she’s a voice for social justice and change but is really just a hipster doofus; Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), a former jock who quickly discovered his time as king of his high school means exactly squat in college; Annie Edison (Alison Brie), a classmate of Troy’s who struggled with an Adderall addiction in high school and is now attempting to compensate by becoming an overachiever; Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), a single mother and devout Christian who has come to the school in hopes of gaining the knowledge she needs to open her own business; Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), a socially maladroit pop-culture junkie who wants to makes movies; and Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), the bigoted heir to a moist-towelette fortune, married--and divorced--seven times, and a student at Greendale for more than a decade.
These seven came together to form a study group in hopes of passing Spanish, which at the time was being taught by Señor Ben Chang (Ken Jeong), a nut who was later fired from his teaching position, after which he enrolled as a student; he longs to be a member of the study group, even going so far as to enroll in the group’s anthropology class, this despite the fact that the class’s professor, Ian Duncan (John Oliver), has filed a restraining order against him. (Duncan’s doctorate is in psychology; he knows nothing of anthropology but was brought in to teach the class after the original teacher [a guest-starring Betty White] was fired for nearly killing two of her students.)
As was quickly established in the show’s first season, Greendale is the sort of place where anything can happen. Last year gave us a GoodFellas-style takeover of the school cafeteria’s chicken-finger trade, an accusation of cheating that eventually grew into the trial of the century, and “Modern Warfare,” the famous paintball adventure. There’s a similar pattern to this season, which begins on a relatively sedate note and then goes nuts with the fourth episode, which has the study group forced into cleaning up the school’s dilapidated space simulator. This being Greendale, said space simulator was funded by Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the simulations are guided by Colonel Sanders, whose likeness and voice are recreated via 8-bit technology.
This being Community, the episode ends up being a riff on every stranded-in-space movie ever made, this despite the fact the characters here are only stranded on the outskirts of town. Every cliché is trotted out, from the guy who gets left behind at Mission Control and has to guide the heroes home, right on down to the character who goes nuts and has to be physically restrained. Is that an easy target? Maybe, but what’s done here is similar to what was done in Young Frankenstein or Hot Fuzz, with the target both lovingly, expertly recreated and lovingly, expertly mocked. As this episode makes clear, Community never takes the easy way out.
I’ve awarded this season the highest numerical score possible, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s perfect. But I do think it’s close to perfect, so I’m rounding up, grading on a curve. One episode, “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” doesn’t work. The B story, which finds Pierce begrudgingly befriending some of the school’s older students isn’t bad (primarily because of how much time is afforded the great Richard Erdman, whose Leonard Briggs is one of the show’s secret weapons), but the main storyline, which has Abed writing, directing, and starring in his own religious epic and butting heads with the devout Shirley in the process, falls flat. It’s the sort of metafictional tale that exhibits the worst tendencies of metafictional tales, too cerebral for its own good and borderline pretentious at times.
The show got a lot of buzz for its first-season paintball episode. The last episode of the season to be written, it could have been a one-joke affair but instead turned out to be a classic, riffing on such movies as Die Hard, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Predator, The Killer, and 28 Days Later. But it wasn’t all about the jokes--the episode also but a spin on the Jeff-Britta relationship, which kinked the dynamic of the group and fueled subplots for many subsequent episodes.
This season ends with a two-part paintball spectacular, which begins as a riff on Leone westerns (with Josh Holloway guest-starring as a mysterious sharpshooter clad in black) before morphing into a riff on Star Wars. (The first episode contains a slow-motion shot of Alison Brie running down a hallway; the second contains the filthiest sight-gag you’re ever likely to see on a major network. They alone are worth the price of this release.)
Show creator Dan Harmon and his staff, knowing that the surprise would be gone, increase the scale of these episodes, with Greendale becoming a post-apocalyptic wasteland, every major supporting player getting a moment or two to shine, and the action being spread over a larger canvas. And they again refuse to let the episodes be just an action-comedy fueled by references to blockbuster movies. Something of a crisis builds over the course of this season, and it comes to a head during the episodes, which end on a note that’s genuinely sad.
And that’s the beauty of the show. The mix of cleverness, smarts, shout-outs, and self-reflexive jabs is the show’s genius, but the fact that all of these people are somehow worth caring about is its beauty. See, mixed in with all the jokes, metafictional tomfoolery, and general silliness are characters that are incredibly well drawn, deceptively subtle writing, and pitch-perfect performances, all of which serves to turn this group of disparate individuals into a family.
Sure, that’s what most television shows with ensemble casts attempt to do, but most of them try go lazy and try to make you view the characters as a family simple because they’re all sharing the same space. But it’s different here, because these people are all deeply flawed, selfish, self-absorbed, bigoted, what have you. But there’s this weird connection between them, a sort of balance and cohesion when they’re all together, and that balance is disrupted when they fight, or if one gets mad and leaves.
The show gets a lot of mileage out of Pierce’s unreconstructed chauvinism (he assumes Britta is a lesbian, thinks Abed is a terrorist, can’t believe Shirley and Troy aren’t related, and thinks he’s paying Annie a compliment when he refers to her “crafty Jew brain”), and he becomes downright evil a few times this year, but you understand why the other members of the group keep him around. Harmon and the writing staff have likened him to your crazy grandpa, who says and does things that make you shake your head in disbelief but who is still just as an important part of your family as everyone else.
That’s a perfectly apt description, and all of the other characters are drawn from the well of archetypes, but the show isn’t content to leave them that way, instead fleshing them out into distinct individuals, ones you can recognize and relate to on specific levels, not just a general one. Look at it this way: A shockwave tore through the show’s fanbase after the season finale unspoiled, as it looked like one character might not be returning. People were worried sick. Not bad for a show that just a few minutes earlier had turned someone dressed up like an ice cream cone into Darth Vader.
Having already seen each of these episodes at least twice (some of them three or four times), my original plan was to take in the extras on this set, watch a few episodes in order to gauge the technical quality, then dive into this review. It didn’t work out that way. I instead plowed through all of the episodes again, watched all of the video-based extras, then listened to all of the commentaries. If nothing else does, the fact that the series warrants and can stand up to multiple viewings illustrates just how great a show Community is.
In fact, I’m talking active viewings, with my attention fully focused on the show. This isn’t like turning the television on and watching a rerun of Friends (which I don’t do but am using for illustrative purposes), this is watching the show to catch something I missed, notice the little things layered into scenes, admiring the staggering amount of on-every-level craft that goes into every episode.
This time last year I was thinking Community was second only to Spaced as the greatest sitcom of all time. This season made the race a little more neck-and-neck.
Video is presented in the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio; the transfers have been enhanced for anamorphic displays. This season’s twenty-four episodes have been spread across four dual-layer discs. If you’re used to watching standard-def broadcasts (as I do when I re-watch them), the image here will prove to be a noticeable upgrade.
If you’re used to watching high-def broadcasts (as I do the first time I watch an episode), you’re looking at something of a downgrade. There’s nothing terribly wrong with these transfers, and they ably handle the show’s shifting visuals schemes (which change to reflect whatever genre any given episode is tackling, such as the dusky, reddish look of the first half of the season finale and the bright, artificially futuristic look of the second half).
It’s suitably detailed, and compression artifacting has been kept to a minimum. It also upscales quite well, pumping up the good and not exacerbating the bad too terribly.
I know TV shows generally don’t sell well on Blu-ray, but I’m pretty sure this one would. Its audience is exactly the sort of audience that would prefer to buy it on Blu-ray.
Audio is presented in the form of Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. The broadcast versions are largely stereo in nature, and that’s more or less the way the episodes are presented here. The paintball two-parter and Christmas episode do play around with the sound some (although the former isn’t as active as last year’s “Modern Warfare”), but not much. Everything’s pretty much locked in the fronts and center, and everything sounds perfectly fine.
English and English SDH subtitles are included (with the former also included for the commentaries).
Despite there being no second awesome issue of Kickpuncher, this season’s slate of bonus features is still very sweet.
Just as was the case with Season One’s DVD release, here you get cast and crew commentaries on every episode. Alison Brie is absent (unless you count how often someone else brings up her breasts), but every other major member of the cast is present. Harmon appears on several tracks, and various members of the writing staff and directing team round out the participants. Again as with Season One, these tracks are both very funny (Harmon’s explanation for why Troy keeps saying “Dracula” instead of “vampire” in the Halloween episode I great) and very informative (these people sweat every detail).
Deleted and extended scenes (5 minutes total) are spread across all four discs. Many of the episodes run slightly long in their first edits, and here you get to see some of the better bits that had to be trimmed.
Outtakes (25 minutes) are also spread across all four discs. Here you’ll find flubs, unused improvisations, the cast goofing off, and McHale joyfully pretending to hump his costars.
The Paintball Finale: From Script to Screen (20 minutes) takes a look at the planning and filming of the two-part season finale.
Creating Wonderland (18 minutes) offers a behind-the-scenes look at the stop-motion Christmas episode, beginning with its unorthodox conception before touching on the voice recording and then moving to a rather thorough look at the execution of the animation.
“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” Animatics (44 minutes) provide two different sets of animatics. The first takes the episode’s original storyboards and augments them with some crude animation and a rough mix of the audio. The second combines the storyboards, audio, and segments of completed animation.
Season 2 Cast Evaluations (11 minutes) feature sit-down talks between Harmon and the individual members of the cast, who discuss how the season went and air grievances about their costars.
DJ Steve Porter Remixes Season One (2 minutes) is a faux music video composed of clips from season one.
If you’re a fan, you probably knew what I was going to say long before I said it. If you’ve never seen Community, I implore you to give the show a look. Bad or mediocre television shows are a dime a dozen. Ones this special are rare, and they deserve as much support as they can get.