When NBC's Community premiered last season, critics agreed that the show was sure to be a hit. Armed with a delightful cast -- reviewers were pleasantly surprised by Joel McHale and Chevy Chase's acting abilities -- each episode delivers a sharp, quirky and often laugh-out-loud funny script.
All of these things set the program apart from lesser sitcoms, but it is the way that Community capitalizes on the community college experience that makes it really stand out.
In conceiving of the show creator Dan Harmon drew on his own experiences at Glendale Community College, which he attended with an ex-girlfriend after he had already established a successful career. Harmon took a Spanish class in the hopes of resuscitating his failing relationship and ended up making friends with his classmates. In an interview with the AV Club, Harmon said:
...while I was there I became part of a study group of people I normally wouldn't hang out with...I was in this group with these knuckleheads and I started really liking them, even though they had nothing to do with the film industry and I had nothing to gain from them and nothing to offer them.
The show's main character, Jeff Winger, undergoes a similar process when he makes unlikely friends with the wacky members of his Spanish study group, which he accidentally starts in the hopes of tutoring one-on-one the object of his affection, Britta Perry.
It is this kernel of truth that holds the program together -- even when the plot threatens to spin into the realm of the ridiculous.
Consider episode 23 of season one, "Modern Warfare," in which all of Greendale Community College participates in an epic paintball battle, where the last man standing gets the ultimate prize -- priority registration. When Jeff wakes up from an hour long car-nap to find the campus seemingly eviscerated by brightly colored paint, he looks for someone to explain to him what's happened -- and when he hears what people are fighting for his reaction is telling. He starts in disbelief: "Priority registration. That's why everyone's running around like a bunch of --" and then he stops, as realization dawns on him. "Does that mean what I think it means?"
Although the arc of the episode is (satisfyingly) ludicrous, the premise is not. The episode's implication is that students of Greendale are students only secondarily -- primarily, they are men and women who work, have children; basically lead other lives. Community College is not only a place for 18 to 22 year old coeds, and Community embraces this fact -- and uses it to build a winning show.
Many of NBC's sitcoms us location to successfully pull together a diverse cast -- The Office's ensemble draws from a variety of ages and demographics, as does 30 Rock's. These shows rely on the workplace to make believable the inter-generational, inter-experience interactions -- and just as these shows have started to glamorize the office for young viewers, so too might Community prompt an image makeover for community colleges.
That's at least what the federal government is attempting. Last month, President Obama outlined the challenges faced by community colleges during the White House Summit on Community Colleges -- they are underfunded and over-crowded due to the recent recession. And yet, the president referred to them as the "unsung heroes of America's education system," and announced a number of initiatives designed to provide financial support to the nation's two-year institutions. By 2020, Obama hopes that the U.S. will boast five million more community college graduates.
And yet, the show's portrayal of two-year institutions is not overwhelmingly -- or even mostly -- positive. It's honest. The characters constantly poke fun at the quality of their education, and their professors (though hilarious) are not experts. But the underlying warmth that the characters have for each other and, if transitively, for their school, makes Greendale Community College seem like a good place to be.
Community is not, and cannot, be the agent of change in popular perception of community colleges - but coupled with recent initiatives to revitalize such institutions, the show might have a small role in ushering in the change our leaders call for.
Community airs on NBC, Thursdays at 8 pm.