A look back at the pilot episode of the NBC sitcom Community
The aughts emerged right off its centennial heal with an array of sitcom comedies heavily revolving around groups of various character types. In 2003, the dysfunctional wealthy Bluth family came about in Arrested Development. In 2005, it was the depiction of the everyday lives of Dunder Mifflin paper employees in The Office. And on September 17, 2009; we got the social misfits of Greendale Community College portrayed in Community.
Created by Dan Harmon on NBC, the series follows a group of community college students: Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) a suspended lawyer, Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) a former anarchist activist, Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) a pop-culture-obsessed film student alluded to have Aspersers, Shirley Bennett (Yvette Brown) a Christian single mother with an alcoholic past, Annie Edison (Alison Brie) a compulsive overachiever, Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) a former high-school star quarterback who lost his scholarship, and Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) a millionaire who enrolls into college due to boredom.
Straight off the beginning scene of the show’s pilot, we are introduced to these archetypes laid out neatly by the corky Dean Pelton (Jim Rash), centralizing the universe that the audience is in. What makes the pilot so strong, is purely the setup. With the preamble of so many backstories among so many oddball individuals, the expectations are set extremely high for episodes to come. We can only expect humorous things to come about as the details to these stories surface and character relationships intertwine.
Some may argue that the first episode isn’t as grand as other pilots or as funny compared to proceeding episodes, especially looking back on seasons two and three. Although the humor isn’t as mature as that of episodes like Modern Warfare or Critical Film Studies, the pilot displays great promise of great things to come, which is exactly what a pilot should do. To all those naysayers out there I say: What good is a television show if it’s only as good as its pilot?
To its promise, the pilot also introduces a new trend to modern-day television by injecting heavy uses of meta-humor and popular culture references, often parodying film and television clichés and tropes, without explanation or hand holding the viewer. It is with early signs in the pilot, liberally referencing The Breakfast Club via the obvious comparison with the early morning study group and Jeff’s blatant callout to the John Hughes title, that we will get a more complex homage to forgotten films like My Dinner with Andre in the episode Critical Film Studies. Its smart comedy that doesn’t pander, but rather challenges the viewer to be on the same page as the show.
To praise the setup and promise of a pilot is directly related to its writing. Thus the strength of the first show is that of Dan Harmon. The world of sitcom television introduced a talent that can make us laugh while also making us think. If that was ever a testament to its humor, it’s evident in the failures of the fourth season when David Guarascio and Moses Port replaced Harmon as showrunners and executive producers. As a result, ratings dipped, the show went into hiatus beyond its original 2013 season premiere airing date, and showrunners like executive producers Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan and lead actor Chevy Chase among others left the series early. Despite troubling times, on May 10, 2013, the series renewed for a fifth season on NBC, with its sixth and final season airing on Yahoo Screen in 2016.