Spoilers, I've come to the conclusion that NBC's half hour sitcom Community was at the very least the best new comedy show of 2009 and it's possible that it was the best sitcom of that particular year. The show completely caught me by surprise last Autumn with just how good it was and most recently I caught up with the entire season in a marathon weekend session that solidified the shows place amongst my all time favourites.
The premise behind Community is based on the creator/writer Dan Harmon's personal experiences in community college. He found himself gradually becoming attached to a group of disparate people who had very little in common apart from the subjects they were studying. "...I was in this group with these knuckleheads and I started really liking them," he explains, "even though they had nothing to do with the film industry and I had nothing to gain from them and nothing to offer them." (read more here).
In the show it's currently disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale - The Soup) who plays Dan's analogue. Jeff is a cynical, independent, disdainful, womanizing individual who's only come to Greendale community college in order to gain a proper law degree and return to the job he loves. The attractive Britta (Gillian Jacobs - Choke) catches his eye and he invents a Spanish study group in order to get close to her. Unfortunately for Jeff Britta invites Abed (Danny Pudi - Greek) to the group and he in turn invites Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown - Drake & Josh), Troy (Donald Glover - writer, 30 Rock), Pierce (Chevy Chase - you should know where he's from) and Annie (Alison Brie - Hot Sluts - seriously, check it out here, it's in the category 'so intentionally bad it's kinda good' and of course Mad Men). This study group is not what Jeff wanted from community college, he was looking to just coast through on the bare minimum, sleeping with hot women and avoiding as much human interaction as possible. Instead he finds himself the head of a group of people devoted to passing Senor Chang's (Ken Jeong) Spanish class together.
Community is a phenomenal comedy show, it's a creation that's partially driven by the excellent cast, partially driving be pop culture references that are both nostalgic and on the pulse, partially by excellent plotting (especially in the genre of sitcom) - but it's mostly driven by a layered core of morals. Jeff is an excellent protagonist lead and the show plays up to his faults and strengths with exceptional skill. The show delivers moment after moment that at first appears hopeful and optimistic, but then you realise Jeff is doing it for selfish reasons, so it becomes cynical, but then he can turn around and just do something selfless that compromises his original intentions. It's rare you find a character who can turn around on the spot and alternate being sympathetic followed by being a complete arse without feeling like a flip-flopper or a detestable shrew. Joel McHale nails the role and gives you an exceptionally complete and rounded character with a lot of complexity.
But, whilst Jeff is the lead, Community is an ensemble show and without great performances from the rest of the cast and the supporting characters the show just wouldn't hold up. Fortunately just about every other character in the show is memorable and fun to watch. Abed is a wonderful portrait of Asperger's Syndrome and just a fantastic character and possibly my favourite (I also adore Jerry Espenson from Boston Legal, but I myself display many traits of Asperger's and fall just short of 'qualifying' - so it's no wonder I have such a connection with these two characters). Abed is a lot of fun, especially thanks to his film knowledge resulting in close to fourth wall breaking moments, describing situations in the form of television tropes and even saying that he was going to 'lay low for an episode' at one time.
Donald Glover's performance as Troy is one that takes a little time to warm up, he's a character that is very controlled and almost prim due to his lack of experience amongst people who don't idolise him. Now it did take a bit for me to warm up to Troy, but his connections with Piece and Abed really shine out and the various end of episode sketches he performs with Abed/Danny are without exception brilliant. Yvette Nicole Brown is instantly adorable as Shirley, she displays a mixture of mother-ish traits combined with an almost girlish glee that comes from someone reconnecting with the world and themselves. You can often count on Shirley to provoke the unexpected response from others (and herself) and when she squeals in delight at something you just can't help but smile.
Britta and Annie are two other characters that take a while to bloom, Annie grows a lot faster than Britta and thanks to Alison Brie's obvious talent. Annie's repressive and barely restrained nature results in some excellent inappropriate outbursts and she's a character who just grows in strength from one episode to the next. Britta on the other hand is a little uneven, she's fun and snappy but she's stuck mostly in the role of the group's spoil sport/kill joy - functioning often as the 'straight man' of the show, but the occasions where she gets to go off the page are great and Gillian Jacobs shows her comedy chops well at times.
The huge piece of the puzzle is Chevy Chase's role as Pierce, Pierce is outright the funniest and most outrageous member of the group. He's set in his ways, closeted, inappropriate, mildly racist, delusional and at times downright offensively ignorant. But there's a vulnerability to him that keeps him from turning into a complete toad, he genuinely wants to connect with other people - he's just lacking the right tools at times to do so (a bit like Michael Scott from The Office). His outbursts are almost always hilarious and the moments where he genuinely connects with other members of the group helps humanise him. The most impressive thing is his total lack of fear about making a fool of himself, he makes a lot of poor choices and then commits to them wholeheartedly (something he has in common with Chevy himself) and it's this trait that's the most endearing part of him.
Edit: Matt Murrell (@mattmurrell) quite rightly pointed out that I've done Senor Chang a crime by not writing about him in detail. Senor Chang rocks very hard and is frankly hilarious, I could go into this with more detail, but instead I shall share the youtube video Matt used to educate me with a gentle reminder on why Senor Chang rules.
In the supporting cast there are three notable members who deserve a great deal of praise, the first is Jim Rash as the sexually ambiguous and often inappropriate Dean Pelton, John Michael Higgins as the brilliant Professor 'seize the day' Whitman (John is almost always great in everything I've seen him in, I love his performance as Mentok the Mindtaker from Harvey Birdman) and John Oliver as Jeff's friend Professor Ian Duncan.
The episodes are often brilliant, considering it's a show about the low end of the education system and a small group of disparate individuals there's a remarkable scope in the situations and style of episodes that are employed. The show even manages to lampoon Die Hard and war movies in one excellent episode in a way that hasn't succeeded since Spaced did it. It's a show with some genuine talent behind the writing and it's always a delight to see each new episode.
Community has fast become one of my favourite shows, one of my top ten sitcoms and the best new show I saw in 2009. It's a quality piece that deserves to be trumpeted from the rooftops and I hope it runs for many years to come.
You'll enjoy Community if you like Arrested Development, The Office, Spaced, Black Books, How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock.