[Caution Spoilers] After “Ain’t It Cool News” tipped me off that Facebook “fans” of “Community” can watch the pilot episode free on Facebook, I signed up and watched the episode to see how it treats Community Colleges. In the way of disclosure, not only do I work at a community college as an administrator and adjunct faculty – but I’m the product of two years at Lansing Community College in mid-Michigan (one of the best experiences of my life).
For what it’s worth, I know that community colleges (like many workplaces) are ripe for satire. I’ve seen plenty of sitcom-worthy material (like a professor who happens to own a chain of strip clubs and recruits dancers from the student population). My hackles only go up when jabs at community colleges are directed at the students, cheapening their earnest efforts to improve their lives.
I wasn’t optimistic after the opening, which featured a Dean making the following speech:
“Good morning! Many of you are halfway through your first week at Greendale and as your Dean I thought I would share a few thoughts of wisdom and inspiration. What is community college? Well, you’ve heard all kinds of things; you’ve heard its loser college for remedial teens, twenty-something dropouts, middle-aged divorcees and old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity. That’s what you’ve heard, however I wish you luck!”
The protagonist, Jeff, also later remarks “… if I wanted to learn something, I wouldn’t have come to Community College,” and describes the college as “a school-shaped toilet.”
Early on the show is heavy on cheap slapstick and farce – playing up what suckholes of deficiency Community Colleges apparently are (showing administrators bumbling with technology, a professor tapping on a window to shoo away a student peeing on a dumpster, and Chevy Chase grabbing a ketchup bottle in the cafeteria only to have it squirt out mayonnaise). The cast that rounds out the show supports many of these stereotypes:
- Jeff (Joel McHale): the deceitful, snarky former lawyer protagonist too smart for his own good who spends his time trying to game the system rather than apply his intellect to legitimate pursuits (for which he’s been sentenced to starting his life over at a community college).
- Abed (Danny Pudi): The stereotypical geek; hyperactive, overly-attentive, and the son of immigrants with a photographic memory.
- Dr. Ian Duncan (John Oliver): The quirky, pretentious, unhelpful psychology professor from the UK who inexplicably loves chalupas, drives a SmartCar, and is shown drinking wine in his office at the end of the pilot episode (two bottles deep no less).
- Britta (Gillian Jacobs): The gorgeous, sarcastic, guarded, blonde 20-something love interest going to community college as an apparent result of her misspent youth.
- Pierce (Chevy Chase): The doddering former CEO and part-time Buddhist blithely unaware of his propensity for inappropriate behavior (ie every Chevy Chase character after 1989).
- Annie (Alison Brie): The hyperactive, uptight high school student who dropped out as a result of methamphetamine addiction (which is apparently funny when it’s upper middle-class kids on prescription drugs).
- Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown): The sassy urbanite concealed behind a thin veil of a good-natured, middle-aged divorcee.
- Troy (Donald Glover): The high school jock prom king who blew his chances at college football with a binge-drinking injury.
- The Dean (J.P. Manoux): The quirky, awkward administrator with a penchant for gangsta rap.
That said, the show picked up overall with a speech given by “Jeff” during his contrived Spanish study group that frames everyone’s problems as resulting from their inability to see past their own limitations. Not only is it the most freshly-humorous part of the show, but it serves as a turning point that adds some much-needed heart.
Ultimately the show could really have been set anywhere; the fact that it’s set on a community college campus seems sort of like a slapped-on veneer. It’s tough to tell what direction any show will go from the pilot given the whims of focus groups and viewing audiences, but if it pursues fewer of the cheap laughs and more of the fresh and earnest content it could end up being a positive thing for the image of community colleges (with an illustration of the richness that lies beneath the outmoded stereotypes). Then again, has Dunder-Mifflin raised anyone’s opinion of the paper products industry?
Hopefully NBC will pursue the latter path; there’s plenty of humor to be found in the real-life quirks of Community Colleges without reducing them to their lowest common denominator.