The pilot episode of Community premiered on NBC the night of September 17, 2009. Ten years later we examine its meaning, impact, and legacy.
Can human beings exist with each other?
Dan Harmon’s Community was, at its core, a story about the consequences of choosing to put the needs of others above the needs of oneself. This was the core arc of its protagonist, but it would continue to come up in each main character’s journey, to varying degrees. As much as the series veered into wildly genre-hopping territory over the years, it never wholly lost sight of its main concern. Taken as a whole, the Study Group 1 essentially has nothing in common with each other, and no reason to continue meeting each week and commit to taking the same classes together, with only one exception – each of them has, somewhere along the way, lost the primary means by which they formed their entire identity.
Over the course of the series, these are the characters who will continually rebuild and redefine themselves out of their shared sense of loss: Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), the disbarred lawyer. Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), the failed radical. Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), the faithful wife and mother who worked and sacrificed to build the family unit she yearned for, but experienced its implosion anyway. Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), who retreated into the unchanging solace of media when his own family dynamic fractured. Annie Edison (Alison Brie), the brilliant overachiever who succumbed to intense pressure imposed both by her environment and herself. Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), who self-sabotaged as a reaction to his own form of pressure. And Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), the moist towelette scion whose vast wealth and seven-for-seven marriage-to-divorce rate could not begin to fill the void caused by the sense of parental abuse and abandonment he feels.
Together, all these people who are in their own ways fueled by self-interest, and have each built their own defensive barriers to insulate themselves from the need to connect with others, will put aside their egos and find something that none of them could have achieved themselves – acceptance. The slogan for Greendale Community College is “You’re Already Accepted!”, and the thematic suggestion appears to be that Greendale is the only place where all of these people could ever be accepted. But acceptance is only a starting point. Somewhere between acceptance and fulfillment is where all the real work takes place, and the purgatory that Greendale represents, this refuge where each character retreats to start over, provides the backdrop for this work to unfold, incrementally, through the prism of the pop culture that both reflects and undermines our experiences.
What has always thrilled me most about this show are its themes and character dynamics, but there are probably dozens of entry points to open discussion on a show this dense and filled with memorable moments, from the silly to the sublime. For our inaugural crosstalk, I’m gonna kick it over to Tereglith, the Troy to my Abed, to bring some of his scholarly expertise to this endlessly-dissectable show. As a board-certified Community scholar (board may or may not exist), what aspects of this show do you find to still be the most resonant one full oh-god-how-did-we-get-so-old decade later?
Hi Plarn! The board, like Greendale’s night school, definitely doesn’t exist, but if it did it would have been established by my old friends over at the mothership’s Community reviews, the Community community known as the CZ (which is still going, by the way – we’ll get that pizza from Emily eventually!). That’s where I cut my teeth dissecting and analyzing Community, starting in the beginning of the third season back when I was still a junior in high school. By that point the show was well-known and well-loved (at least on the internet) as a parody machine, churning out dead-on homages to cultural touchstones from Glee to My Dinner With Andre. But what’s striking about most of season 1, and the pilot in particular, is how grounded it is. Until “Contemporary American Poultry” the show never betrayed an intention to upend the entire form of American network television comedy for the sake of high-concept, episode-sized gags. It started off playing fully within the form, slotting comfortably beside its NBC stablemates 30 Rock (with which it shared a joke-a-second style of writing), Parks and Rec (with which it shared a diverse ensemble and mundane municipal setting), and the big daddy of the Thursday Night “We Peacock Comedy” block, The Office (with which it shared the initial conceit of the asshole protagonist).
The joke writing is sharp, of course, and is freakishly, nerd-with-internet-access-ly conversant with every aspect of pop culture, which would become a series hallmark. But what stands out most about Season 1 Community, nearly half my life later, is how well-constructed it is. If you dug into the show’s behind-the-scenes aspects at all back when it was airing – the commentaries, the bonus features, the AVC walkthrough articles, the Uproxx interviews – you couldn’t avoid hearing Dan Harmon talk about his story circles, his cyclical conception of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth around which every episode and every subplot was constructed. They sound simple enough: the protagonist 1) begins in comfort, but 2) wants something, so 3) enters an unfamiliar situation to which they 4) adapt which allows them to 5) get what they wanted but they 6) pay a price before they 7) return to comfort, 8) having changed from the journey. But as simple as it seems, the circle’s superstructure is both incredibly flexible and incredibly difficult to fit into a 22-minute sitcom episode – I know, because I tried to write a couple using it, once upon a time. Compared to the classic three-act sitcom plot structure (introduce a conflict before the first ad break, escalate it before the second, resolve it before the credits), Community’s story circles feel dense, complex, and satisfying.
Let’s look at how the story circle applies to “Pilot”. Jeff Winger 1) believes he has discovered an easy way to retain his lawyerly lifestyle by exploiting Duncan, but 2) wants to sleep with Britta, so he 3) creates a study group that ends up growing larger than he ever wanted it to be. He 4) finds a way to charm them and 5) thinks he can make it with Britta, but 6) his scheme and his attempted seduction fall apart. However, he 7) finds that the group still wants to stay together and help each other through Spanish, so he 8) embarks on his college journey not as an isolated loner but as a member of a community, which will make all the difference.
The completeness of this story feels unusual for a sitcom pilot, especially one that also so compellingly sets up an 8 person ensemble (Troy and Britta still feel malformed and underbaked compared to what they became, but most of the rest of them are spot-on). Pilots are so often an exercise in frantic exposition, but this one makes room for what one of my CZ compatriots termed “The Harmon Sigh”, a slow moment of melancholy before the story truly resolves. In this case, that’s the moment on the steps outside the library (a real life exterior location that we’ll never return to after the pilot), as Jeff wallows in his failure and then reaps the unwanted reward of his manipulation – a group that somehow actually cares about him.
That’s a great point — as much as the show’s tendency toward maximum homage took on a life of its own, the basic structure of its story beats is fully present here. I guess the most fruitful area of discussion for this kind of retrospective on the Pilot episode would have to address this question: what essential elements of the show had arrived fully formed, and what needed more time to really develop? You mentioned Troy and Britta, both of whom would become exponentially sillier characters to better play to their actors’ strengths, but I’ve always been rather put off by how uptight Annie is at the start. Notably, she points out that something feels suspicious about this whole Study Group situation right away, and the show will frequently return her to that role of seeing through and calling out Jeff Winger’s bullshit. But even at this stage, Brie is able to play that put-together control freakish persona as the facade that it is, already 100% believable as the high-strung overachiever perpetually one Adderall binge away from completely losing her shit.
Other than that, the more static characters such as Pierce, Abed, and Shirley are definitely themselves, and the Dean Pelton (Jim Rash)’s overeager ineptness is certainly captured in the opening scene, if not his penchant for pandeviance. But for a show like this to work, it needed to have its protagonist figured out on day one, and this is where Joel McHale’s performance and Harmon’s script really shine. Jeff begins the episode believing he can continue to coast and take the easy way out through life, and because of one ragtag gang of misfits, unwittingly finds the tools he needs to face the reality that even in a dime-store operation like Greendale there is no coasting, that the easy way only puts you on a harder path, and that he is in fact stuck in a prison of his own making. He’s going to finally do the hard work of growing as a person that he’s been avoiding his whole life, but he won’t be doing it alone, and that is the very acceptance that Greendale offers. What started as an unwanted band of assorted castoffs will become a chosen family, and one way or another, he will see their value.
Overall, I think that what we see in the pilot is characters that are pretty well-defined, but relationships that are not. The show thought that Pierce and Troy would have a Beavis and Butthead act (chuckling at “Ass Burgers”), that Annie would be Jeff’s bitter rival, perhaps even that Britta and Jeff would be a classic seasons-long sitcom will-they/won’t-they instead of fucking on the table by the first May sweeps. There’s no inkling of Troy and Abed’s show-defining friendship, of Pierce’s eventual antagonism, of Jeff and Annie’s weird quasi-romance. But part of the fun of watching Community was how it felt like the relationships really were in flux as the group felt each other out, got to know each other, and got to know themselves, just like how things work in real life. Of course our interpersonal dynamics aren’t baked in from day one of meeting somebody. It’s not a TV show.
But the most important relationship, between Jeff and Greendale at large, is present, intact, and ready to drive the show into the future. Joel McHale is not known for his range as an actor, but Jeff Winger is a role pitched so perfectly at his sardonic persona that he’s able to knock it out of the park and ultimately find surprising depths of sincerity behind Jeff’s glib facade. It’s hard to imagine another actor playing Jeff as well as Joel, or Joel finding another role he could play as well as Jeff. The whole “look to your left” speech, which I recall being the centerpiece of NBC’s pre-air advertising campaign, is masterful stuff. While the show was willing to shed many elements from “Pilot” as it metamorphosed into its true self, it only pulled the concept of the “Winger Speech” closer into its core.
And so, lacking a proper Winger Speech of our own to bring us home, we leave further discussion of this show and its pilot to the commentariat, which I have been assured are a fervent and devoted bunch. Anyone have any cool memories about the halcyon days of early Community? How has this show personally tampered with your life? And most importantly, were the real Human Beings the friends we made along the way?
Oh, and I suppose we should put this out there: Should this become a recurring feature? Tereglith and I both have many, many more episodes we’d like to discuss in more detail, if the interest for it is there. I’ll make a space where people can nominate/upvote which episodes they feel deserve our engagement, and maybe use that to create some kind of posting schedule. Share your thoughts below, and Go Greendale, Go Greendale, GO!