The pilot focuses on Jeff Winger (Joel McHale, who turns the potentially deadly video round-up series The Soup into comedy gold), a star lawyer who is finally caught working without a degree and heads to Greendale Community College to quietly get a degree and get back to winning massive sums by routinely playing on the memory of 9/11 for such cases as DUI arrests. On the first day, he meets Britta (Gillian Jacobs), a late-twentysomething trying to get her life together. In an attempt to seduce her, he passes himself off as a Spanish expert and sets up a study group, only for her to guess his motive and invite several other students. They are: pop culture guru and potential Asperger's sufferer Abed (Danny Pudi), middle-aged divorcée and mom Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), bright but insecure Annie (Alison Brie), former high school football star Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) and Pierce (Chevy Chase), a half-crazed moist-towelette tycoon who seems to be here to live out a midlife crisis 20 years past due.
For the first part of the season, Community stays true to its concept, tackling the various stereotypes of a community college. The teachers seem to know barely more than the students, and they're about as imbalanced. Take Señor Chang (Ken Jeong), who routinely berates his students like a drill instructor despite a questionable proficiency with Spanish. Another professor ostensibly teaches accounting, only to throw out textbooks and impress upon students their need to seize the day.
About halfway through, however, the show, which boasts strong, fast writing throughout, evolves. Instead of a well-above-average take on the usual sitcom with usual tropes -- sexual tension between several pairs, goofy two-dimensionality -- it morphs into an absurdist mash-up of deconstructionist comedy and elaborate pop culture references. The Christmas episode plays as an anti-P.C. holiday rant that morphs into an embrace of various cultures that avoids sappiness by bonding characters over a huge fight that plays on the entire career of Anthony Michael Hall (who guests as a nerd-cum-bully who picks fights to outpace a sexuality apparent to everyone but him). Another episode finds the study group seeking easy-A classes, with some landing in a pottery course run by a teacher haunted by Ghost (the film, not the incorporeal beings with business left on this Earth), while others learn to sail...on a boat in the parking lot. They even act as if they're drowning when they fall off onto the pavement.
By the end of the season, episodes serve as full-on homages to other films and shows. The popularity of the cafeteria's chicken fingers launches a scheme that plays out as a farce of GoodFellas, complete with tracking shots and a pitch-perfect narration from Abed. Best of all is "Modern Warfare," easily the single best episode of comic TV since 30 Rock's "Rosemary's Baby." When the hapless dean sets up a campus-wide paintball fight to win priority registration, Greendale devolves into a collision of every action movie under the sun, from Die Hard to Battle Royale to John Woo movies. There's even a fantastic recreation of 28 Days Later's opening. The crash of Community's typical level of dialogue writing and incredible physical comedy is the best condensation of everything that's great about the show, even down to its unlikely sweetness.
With its postmodern metafiction, Community could very well have been smug and overly reliant upon other shows to make up for its own lack of writing (watch Glee and see how it continues to push the songs at the expense of character and even the human logic of sitcom characters). Yet the show, like Spaced, is so literate with pop culture that it knows just the right mixture of references to enhance its own characters, not set them aside. Also, the writers have an ace up their sleeve in Danny Pudi, who generally sets off each reference through Abed. He has such impeccable timing and such a remarkable ability to impersonate the various pop culture items Abed can flawlessly recall that he always gets a laugh. His take on Christian Bale's Batman brought me to tears.
Pudi's not the only terrific cast member. Ultimately, Community succeeds because its cast has the goofy singularity of an old-school sitcom and the effortless chemistry of Office-style comedies that rely on a believably level of interaction. The friendship between Troy and Abed is endlessly rewarding, never playing on the "Isn't it weird that a jock and a nerd could be friends?" angle but simply milking their shared silliness for endless laughs -- Community has easily the best, context-less closes of any show running, most of them playing on some game Abed and Troy play. Meanwhile, Shirley comes off as a close-minded Christian who projects her divorce onto her new "family," and both Brown and the writers know exactly where the line exists to prevent from mocking her beliefs and her issues or from playing on them for hollow sympathy. McHale proves a great straight man for the Abed/Troy variety hour and Annie's peppy inanity, and the openly acknowledged Sam and Diane relationship between him and Britta eventually finds a balance between sexual tension and a sort of bromance between the only two sane people in the group. It takes a united front, after all, just to deal with Pierce, who serves as the best outlet for Chevy Chase's straight-faced non-sequitur as anything he's done in about 20 years.
Occasionally, Community rests on old sitcom clichés without subverting them, but even at its most conventional, it's one of the funniest shows in years. When it goes a step beyond, however, it emerges at the top of the heap, ranking with Modern Family and Parks and Recreation as the next wave of great sitcom programming as The Office and 30 Rock overstay their welcome and shows like Arrested Development rest in the ground. It only gets better as the season continues, growing ever bolder with its pop culture mash-ups and more secure with its characters and pacing. What started as a way to poke fun at community college turned by the end into the perfect mix of old- and new-school comedy, one that follows NBC's strategy of packing a cast with supremely talented up-and-comers (many with writing experience) and inserting an established star in a dry spell (Chase is this show's Baldwin) to rehabilitate his reputation by essentially making a fool of himself every week. There's still room to grow, but that's good; peaking early has been a danger that's plagued NBC's other shows, and a refinement of both the movie parodies and the straight focus on community college could make a great show a classic. Either way, it's still streets ahead of the competition.