It’s hard to base a review of an entire television series on the first 24 minutes, but if the pilot is any indication, “Community” shows more than just promise. It shows why it belongs in a comedy block that includes “The Office” and “30 Rock,” although it’s considerably better than the underwhelming Amy Poehler vehicle, “Parks and Recreation.”
“The Soup’s” Joel McHale stars as Jeff Winger, a weaselly lawyer with as much charm as smarm. The state bar suspended his license after it became clear that his undergraduate degree was fabricated (he got it from Columbia — the country — in an email attachment), so he has to return to community college to earn a new degree.
Winger seems set to breeze through his stay at community college. He attempts to cajole a professor (played deftly by guest star, John Oliver (“The Daily Show”)) into giving him the test answers to all his courses by reminding the prof that he got him out of a DUI by tying his crime to 9/11.
“You did seem less into integrity,” Winger says to the professor, “the day that I convinced 12 of your peers that the day you made a U-turn on the freeway and tried to order chalupas from the emergency call box, that your only real crime was loving America.”
“Well, I do love America,” says Oliver. “love it very much. I love chalupas.”
The hitch arrives when Winger becomes smitten with Britta (Gillian Jacobs), an Elizabeth Shue look-alike who reluctantly forms a Spanish study group with Winger, which allows writer/creator Dan Harmon to bring his cast together. It includes the Aspergerish Abed (Danny Pudi), a social maladjusted sponge of pop-culture references; Pierce (Chevy Chase), a successful and oblivious business man; the sassy black stock character Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown); a former prom king (Donald Glover) and his former classmate, Adderall Annie (Alison Brie), whose promising high school career fell apart due to prescription drugs.
The premise itself is original only in that it takes place in a community college, which itself provides a lot of comic fodder. But it’s not as much about the show’s concept as it is about the interplay between the smartly cast show — one episode in, and there is already an immense amount of well-timed, comedic chemistry.
Joel McHale is the glue that holds it all together, and he’s perfect — a slightly toned down, ethically challenged version of himself on “The Soup.” Chevy Chase, as a supporting character, impeccably Gerald Fords all over the place (it’s good to see him again). The pilot, too, is hopping with pop culture allusions — the study group itself is a nod to The Breakfast Club, and at one point, Abed tells Winger after he’s revealed as a fraud, “I thought you were like Bill Murray in any of his films, but you’re more like Michael Douglas in any of his films.” It’s a joke all the more fitting to make with Chase sitting across the table from him.
“Community” has a genuine mix of the glib and sweet. It’s not as esoterically hilarious as “30 Rock” or “Better Off Ted,” or as biting and relatable as early seasons of “The Office,” but it plays in their league (and it’s a better fit for the comedy block than “My Name is Earl” was). It’s still early yet, but as far as network comedies go, this one is bound to be the best of the new season.