Dan Harmon’s NBC comedy Community has already faced possible cancellation twice, due to unsatisfactory ratings, so if you’ve never seen an episode of it, you’re clearly not alone. That said, the show has inspired a cult following of super fans, which has helped keep it on the air for five seasons. With the next season yet to be announced, consider this our invitation to check out this unique sitcom in hopes that you will soon join us in chanting, “Six seasons and a movie!”
UPDATE: Aaaand, less than 24 hours after this article went live, we’ve just learned that NBC has, in fact, cancelled Community. Tis a sad day for Human Beings the world over.
In any case, here’s what you need to know before you start Community.
What’s the premise? In order to make up for a degree he falsified on his resume, a disgraced attorney is forced to take classes at a community college, where he and an oddball study group frequently find themselves caught up in unpredictable adventures.
What’s it like? It’s not easy to find another show that resembles Community, which regularly pokes fun at the traditional sitcom formula — when it’s not aggressively defying it, that is — even as it successfully utilizes that formula to propel its wacky plots and heartfelt moments. There are some narrative through-lines that provide a framework of story arcs, but the show’s strengths lie in the relationships between its unique characters, its crafty use of pop culture references, and its willingness to take some bold risks with its format. In broad strokes, you could compare Community to Undeclared with a 30 Rock-meets-Spaced sensibility to it.
How long will it take? Since NBC essentially halved seasons four and five, offering just 13 episodes for each, you’re looking at a total of about 97 episodes, all running pretty close to 22 minutes. Depending on how frequently you indulge and how many you watch at a time, you could employ a leisurely pace and get caught up in about three months, or blaze through all five seasons in a third of that time.
What do the critics think? The first season secured an 88 percent on the Tomatometer, but the second and third seasons — considered by many fans to be the best of the show — didn’t earn enough reviews to get Tomatometer scores. The fourth and fifth seasons are both Certified Fresh, however, at 76 percent and 92 percent, respectively, even despite the fact that most agreed season four suffered from the absence of Harmon from the showrunner’s chair. Upon its premiere, the Boston Globe’s Matthew Gilbert wrote, “One of the pleasing things about Community has to do with what it is not. The show doesn’t fit into any of the more familiar half-hour comedy formats on network TV right now.” In his review of the most recent season, Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen perhaps summed it up best: “The series has always sought profundity by finding the universal in the particulars of genre pastiche.”
Why should I watch this? While Community initially introduces us to Greendale Community College through the lens of Jeff Winger’s (Joel McHale) story, the series begins to experiment wildly as it finds its footing, and for most novices, this will probably be the most effective selling point. After all, it’s difficult not to be intrigued by an episode centered around a campuswide paintball tournament tailor-made to riff on action movie clichés, or one about a blanket fort dispute that pays direct homage to Ken Burns’ The Civil War, or an animated episode featuring the cast reimagined as characters on G.I. Joe, complete with parodies of the action figure commercials that were ubiquitous during the 1980s. Thanks to creator/showrunner Dan Harmon’s singular vision, the series is chock-full of fun pop culture references and meta-commentary, and its cast of impressive guest stars includes everyone from Patton Oswalt, LeVar Burton, and Keith David to Vince Gilligan, Brie Larson, and Jack Black. But the heart of Community is and always has been, well, its heart, which its talented ensemble cast does a marvelous job of balancing right alongside the rapid-fire dialogue and screwball antics. So yes, you might get a Christmas episode phenomenally crafted entirely in Claymation, but it’s in service of a story addressing Abed’s (Danny Pudi) mental well-being. Does the show get a little sappy from time to time? It can, sure, but it never feels disingenuous, and the show is also fully self-aware about that, evolving the notion into something of an in-joke. In short, this is a sweet, funny, and clever sitcom about a bunch of lovable misfits who become unlikely friends, and it’s the only show on TV where you’ll find references to both Pulp Fiction and My Dinner with Andre in the same half hour.
What’s my next step? The aforementioned Undeclared, 30 Rock, and Spaced are great places to start, as each of them represents a specific element found in Community (the college atmosphere, the self-referencing wackiness, the pop culture savvy), and all feature outstanding ensemble casts. Other notable sitcoms with clever writing, eccentric characters, and cult followings include Scrubs, Arrested Development, and Parks and Recreation. In addition, Dan Harmon served as co-creator of the Cartoon Network series Rick and Morty, which just finished its first season, and as long as we’re talking about animated shows, it behooves us to mention The Simpsons, Home Movies, and The Venture Bros. which all rely on a degree of pop culture familiarity. If you’re more of a movie person, you can pick up a rental of Back to School.