Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBC. Five episodes into the second season.
The standard knock on metafiction (storytelling that self-consciously addresses the conventions of fiction, never letting its audience forget the essential fictionness—the falsehood—of the tale) is that it’s empty and insincere, refusing to commit to the emotion or the characters of its story and instead indulging in arch, self-congratulatory naval-gazing, cleverness for its own meaningless sake. That can be true, no doubt—to understand a work as fiction, you always have to take a step or two back, and it’s easy to reach too far a remove—but it’s not necessarily so. The best metafiction finds meaning in the idea that stories are true even in their falsehood, and to me, at least, that’s a tremendously powerful, affirming idea. (I’m the sort of person who cries through much of Adaptation and Stranger Than Fiction.) Good metafiction also provides rich ground for humor, mining the nonsense of storytelling even as it embraces the story. (Arrested Development was brilliant at that.) The balancing act is precarious, and it will never be to everyone’s taste, but done well, metafiction can be startling and provocative and downright hilarious.
Community, an under-performing tongue-in-cheek sitcom in its sophomore year, is still fine-tuning its balancing act. It has its glib moments, its cheap gags, but as it discovers who precisely its characters are and refines its voice, it gets funnier and funnier and, at times, surprisingly affecting. I know Modern Family has its partisans, Glee its passionate fans, but Community is the sole comedy now airing guaranteed to set me in a good mood. Its satiric bite is delicious, its sense of the absurd is unrivaled, and its sentiment well leavened with honesty and wit. This is metahumor done right.
A true ensemble comedy, Community follows the members of a haphazardly assembled study group at a modest community college: Jeff (Joel McHale) is a selfish, flippant lawyer whose college credentials were discovered to be false, forcing him to enroll at Greendale to avoid being disbarred. Britta (Gillian Jacobs), an aimless, self-righteous dropout in her twenties, is back in school trying to get her life on track. Troy (Donald Glover) and Annie (Alison Brie) ended up at Greendale after they lost their scholarships to four-year colleges—Troy when he destroyed his future in football with a freak injury and Annie when she developed an Adderall addiction and suffered a nervous breakdown. Rounding out the group are Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), a divorced mother of two; Pierce (Chevy Chase), a bored, kooky retiree; and Abed (Danny Pudi), a pop-culture savant.
For starters, that’s a remarkably diverse cast of characters—not only in terms of race but also with regard to religion, age, worldview, and life experience—and it achieves that organically. No one feels like a token. Everyone exists as an individual, and everyone has a distinct relationship with everyone else. That gives Community a remarkably deep bench. It can shuffle the characters around endlessly—exploring Jeff and Pierce’s relationship, then Pierce and Britta’s relationship, Britta and Annie’s, Annie and Troy’s, Troy and Shirley’s, Shirley and Abed’s, Abed and Jeff’s—and find new angles at every turn.
Those varied angles have helped the writers fine-tune who the characters are. For example, it took a while for the show to settle on what kind of person Britta is. She seems to have been created simply as a romantic foil for Jeff, but the chemistry there is off—they work best as co-conspirators rather than a bickering, will-they-or-won’t-they couple—and bouncing Britta off Annie and Abed and the rest has given Jacobs material for a more fully formed, funnier character. Shirley started out as a relatively flat, formulaic character, but with time, she, too, has become much more specific, her humor derived from who she is as a human being rather than a generic Sassy Black Lady.
Abed is the center of the show’s metahumor. With his blank affect and detached personality, he views the world through the lens of the movies and TV shows he voraciously consumes, and he frequently comments on his friends’ behavior as though it were a fictional plot. That can be a cynical way for writers to use a lazy plot device, assuring the audience that they recognize the laziness even as they indulge in it, but Community rarely sinks to that. For starters, these writers aren’t lazy—when they do use an old stand-by, they tend to develop it in interesting ways—and what’s more, Abed’s commentary is frequently insightful, intriguing in its own right. Abed also has helped the show’s writers back away from plot turns that haven’t worked out well. The first season finale was a disappointment, falling way too heavily into soapy rom-com antics between Jeff and Britta, but in the second season premiere, the writers reshaped those twists in funnier ways, truer to the characters, with Abed in effect narrating the problems with the finale and pointing toward the way out.
The writers also have experimented with episodes that parody particular film and TV genres, sometimes specific examples. “The Art of Discourse” riffs on Animal House, and “Contemporary American Poultry” is a bizarre take on GoodFellas, but the most successful example is probably first season’s “Modern Warfare,” a far-reaching action-movie spoof, directed with note-perfect style by movie veteran Justin Lin. The episode is fast-paced and witty, getting in a few digs at Glee (always appreciated), referencing everything from Die Hard to The Warriors to 28 Days Later to Face/Off, and—in the midst of all the satiric hilarity—serving up real character development.
Creator Dan Harmon seems to give his writing staff tremendous freedom in developing episodes, for as a viewer, you never know whether you’re going to get an action-packed romp like “Modern Warfare” or an irreverent Charlie Kaufman–style lark like the recent “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples.” That kind of variety is thrilling, but it might have become incoherent were it not for the terrifically game, universally strong cast. Everyone is worthy of praise. McHale doesn’t try too hard to make Jeff a nice guy, which makes his vanity and irascibility all the funnier. Brie brings out Annie’s looniness with wide-eyed innocence, and Brown’s lilting line deliveries always make me grin. I wouldn’t have thought Chase had it in him to be part of an ensemble, but he’s proved to be a reliably laid-back loopy presence, whether he’s in the background or the fore. Given the material (which she hasn’t always, though that’s changing), Jacobs is hilarious, lampooning Britta’s self-righteousness with light-hearted cheekiness.
The breakout duo, though, are Glover and Pudi, who make Troy and Abed’s oddball friendship endlessly funny and weirdly endearing. What’s more, they’re generally the stars of Community’s closing credit sequences, which are what made me fall in love with the show in the first place. The end sequence usually has little to do with the episode itself; it’s just a goofy little one-minute skit, an unrestrained, exuberant gem of beautiful pointlessness. On paper, for example, their nonsensical Spanish rap is kind of stupid (OK, very stupid), but they deliver it with such deadpan verve and tight rhythms that it somehow becomes sidesplitting. You don’t necessarily expect that kind of pure, joyful silliness poking its way into the metahumor milieu, supposedly so cold and cerebral, but that, in the end, is why Community is special: It exposes the lie in the stereotype. It can do both.