A good test of whether a show is great is if, at the end of the episode, you cannot help but replay every scene in your mind. I get this feeling after Mad Men, True Blood and a few other commercial and critical darlings.
If a show is good but not great, you might not think about after it’s over, but you’re excited to see the next episode; it’s how I feel about Royal Pains.
If a show borders on mind-numbing mediocrity, however, you forget about it almost immediately after it’s over. You can’t remember the jokes or the dramatic moments. The past is fuzzy. The future is empty.
I got that feeling when I watched Community, NBC’s anticipated comedy for this fall starring Chevy Chase and The Soup‘s Joel McHale, of whom I’m huge fan. In a creative but inevitable marketing move by a broadcast network, NBC premiered the pilot show for a limited time on Facebook, hoping to harness the force of social networking to build a cult base around the show. Facebook’s features allow viewers to easily recommend shows to friends, and personal recommendations are the best drivers of TV viewership. People want to watch what their friends are watching. It’s why I consistently feel compelled to watch The Office (no judgment!; it’s a good show).
I had high hopes for Community. It follows several characters as they embark on their journey to graduate from Glendale Community College. The show is really about Joel McHale’s Jeff, a lawyer disbarred for falsifying his academic background by lying about his undergraduate degree. McHale is a fast talker and non-worker. He says the problem is if you’re smart you can get away without doing much work. He fits in at Glendale, but doesn’t want to be there. By the end of the pilot he has a love interest, an average-looking blonde with a quick tongue, and a throng of quirky, ethnic friends.
The reason I was optimistic about Community is that it concerns a relatively unexplored aspect of American life, even though millions attend community college every year. Think of all the shows and movies about life at universities and try to think of more than two about a community college. The experiences are different, the most obvious of which is that community college graduates are not really a community at all: many students have jobs, families or live at home and have their own friends. Community seems at least somewhat aware of the irony in its name, and when Jeff christens his fake Spanish study group a “community,” it sounds as ridiculous and sad as it should.
The problem with Community? Like many new television shows, it lacks the hardest things to manufacture: relatable characters and compelling storylines. I certainly don’t care about Jeff, or his paramour-to-be, Britta. His backstory hardly endears us to him, and we don’t really know hers. Even if Jeff is supposed to be an anti-hero, Joel McHale certainly doesn’t look like one. We love him on The Soup, so we’re left in a bit of a void. Some of the side characters have compelling stories: a working mother and a football player who missed out on a scholarship due to an injury are fine on paper but on screen only serve as punchlines for Jeff’s quips. Chevy Chase’s Pierce appears to be someone who once had money and has either lost it or has kept it and is bored. That’s kind of interesting.
Nor does Community, written by a veteran of The Sarah Silverman Show, incorporate the best of what makes hit comedies develop impassioned fan bases today. It wants to be wacky and quick like 30 Rock, but doesn’t make it, and awkward like The Office but comes up short. But the writing does sound conscientious and thoughtful, and that alone might fuel Community to a second season. Mostly, though, the show gives us a glimpse of potential, if not greatness. Maybe this is the next 30 Rock, or maybe it’ll be canceled. Judging from the pilot, I can’t tell either way.