You guys, WHY DID I WAIT SO LONG TO WATCH THIS SHOW IT IS BRILLIANT AND AMAZING OMG.
tigeremme and I burned through the first disc in one evening because we didn't want to stop watching. It comes out strong right out of the gate, which is impressive, and it gets better. At one point, we very nearly died laughing (Community has some of the funniest tags I've ever seen, thanks to Troy and Abed).
The premise doesn't seem to have a lot of promise: a hotshot lawyer is found out for having a fake degree and goes to Greendale Community College, where he joins a Spanish study group comprising a ragtag group of misfits. Obviously, he will look down upon them and make condescending remarks, but then he will learn about the power of friendship and love and learn a valuable lesson. And, sure, that happens. Over and over again, really. But when you have a stellar cast and a staff of extremely clever writers, you can do much, much more.
Jeff is a vain, egocentric jerk, but he becomes the de facto leader because of his lawyerly ability to make bullshit speeches (that sometimes do contain a grain of sincerity). He can be surprisingly endearing when he shows that he does, in fact, have a heart. Joel McHale is dry and acerbic without being mean. Britta, who delights in being knowledgeable about world events but not actually doing anything about them, is only too happy to call him on his shit. She and Jeff provide the obligatory UST, which is annoying because it mainly consists of their sniping at each other, but, luckily, not only does the focus on them drop early on but the show understands that they are an annoying couple and does different tricks with them. Gillian Jacobs can make Britta brash and off-putting, the rain on everyone's parade, but she's secretly adorkable.
Annie is a repressed goody-goody with a warm, welcoming heart. She's more driven and motivated than you'd expect for someone at a community college. Alison Brie is not only super pretty but also super talented, showing various facets of Annie over the course of the show. Shirley is a mother who tries to be warm and welcoming but is also pretty judgmental (it seems to be a common theme among Community characters that they believe themselves to be better than they are). She's a Jeff/Britta 'shipper. Yvette Nicole Brown is great at switching between cloyingly sweet and abrasively brassy.
Troy is naively confident, a former jock no longer the BMOC. He has a very curious knowledge base that allows him to respond to a Jeff zinger like "Britta-dict Arnold" with "Colonial burn!" but causes him to muse, "Did you know that Go-Gurt is just yogurt?" Donald Glover is fucking hilarious, perfectly imbuing all of Troy's lines with the right amount of ridiculous sincerity, but he also sells the drama when needed. Abed is very likely on the autistic spectrum, unable to relate to people in the normal fashion. He relates to the world through pop culture references, frequently commenting on what TV show or movie some situation reminds him of. Danny Pudi is also amazing, spewing long lines of dialogue rapidly yet not sounding like an emotionless robot, and while I initially wondered whether he was just like that, a later episode showed me that, no, he's just a damn fine actor.
Pierce is a racist, sexist, homophobic old douchebag who got rich on moist towlettes. I have rarely wanted a character to DIE IN ALL THE FIRES as I do Pierce, and it strains believability that the study group would remain friends with this man, but, occasionally, the show does present a less terrible side of him, and I kind of hate caring about him even a little. Chevy Chase is essentially playing a version of himself, from what I hear, but he does bring a pathos to the character that at least makes Pierce a vaguely interesting monster. Señor Chang, though not part of the study group, is the reason for the study group, being the Spanish teacher. He is kind of a terrible Spanish teacher, preferring to yell at his students rather than actually teach Spanish, and his unpredictable shenanigans may make him actually weirder than Abed. Ken Jeong is completely fearless, and his manic energy always livens up the proceedings.
In addition to the main characters, Greendale is populated with numerous recurring side characters who are good for a one-off joke here and there but also help make the college feel real. I would be remiss not to mention Jim Rash as Dean Pelton, who wants to make Greendale the best community college it can possibly be and has a not-so-secret crush on Jeff.
Now, you see, you do have a lot of promise. Put these disparate characters in a room together and let the fun begin! Every character serves a function and has an important role in the group (yes, even Pierce). Community examines the group dynamic continually; in fact, that is essentially the heart of the show. How do these people relate to each other as individuals and as a group? As Jeff lays out in the very first episode, the title is not just a description of the college but a description of the group: this is a story of the Families We Make for Ourselves.
It is important for me to emphasize that this show clearly loves its characters and is interested in them because what it is best known for is its penchant for metahumor. You see, Community is a sitcom about sitcoms. Not overtly, but in a self-aware, genre-savvy way. It is familiar with sitcom tropes, and it will either embrace or subvert them knowingly. If you don't follow, don't worry, Abed will point it out. While many episodes follow the template of "take a class, learn an important lesson," some of the most memorable are the homage episodes, which heavily reference specific movies or adopt a totally different style for one week. The true brilliance of Community is that it is able to do these homage episodes, heighten reality for a week in which the characters fully commit to their roles, and actually tell stories that matter, that develop the characters in important ways or deepen their relationships. I will admit that in some episodes, it feels like characterization is sacrificed for the plot, but it's made up for in the surprising ways that the show manages to wring real drama out of ridiculous situations.
Community is absolutely bursting with creativity and cleverness, endlessly inventive and full of one-liners and visual gags. I truly marvel at its ability to get away with all it gets away with. I have deliberately avoided mentioning specific episodes because so much of the delight is discovering what kind of episode you're getting. Every week, it challenges the idea of what you can do in a half-hour comedy.