Unwritten TV law dictates that whenever a show has more than one woman as a main character, one be the sexy, feisty foil to the main male lead, and that she stand out as the most prominent woman on the show. It's not uncommon for shows to screw up which of the female characters steals all the attention and becomes the prominent one, but sometimes they get it so wrong that we're forced to wonder who slept with whom while the production notes were being written.
Case in point: The NBC show Community, which cast three women in lead roles. Of the three, the perky, fiery, militant blonde PC feminist Britta Perry was clearly meant to act the part of the foil to the lead name of the show, Jeff Winger. The other two women, Annie Edison and Shirley Bennett, seemed destined to play Britta's wingmen. Far from giving in to their prescribed roles as the "and company" of the phrase "Britta and company," though, viewers of Community didn't quite relate with Britta's political correctness, and many of the people who did certainly weren't about to view their reflection in her overt atheism. Shirley and Annie both broke out, Shirley with an unrelenting sweetness that is often a cover for a vicious temper, and Annie with the wound-up manic nervousness of a cat trying to hunt after swallowing a Mexican jumping bean. And oh yeah - while nobody in their right mind would ever say the actress who plays Britta, Gillian Jacobs, is anything less than than a full-time hottie, Alison Brie, who plays Annie, actually has to be uglied up to play her role. (Shirley is a considerably older character and therefore not meant to be a sexpot.) Brie steals so many scenes on the strength of her full, voluptuous figure alone that whenever Community creator Dan Harmon places her in clothes meant to emphasize it, he's clearly forcing the scenes out for fan service. He's put Annie into a lace dress for a western-style shootout and a skeevy Christmas dress.
Community is a show about a small group of students who form a study group at a community college. At Greendale Community College in Colorado, students Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), Britta Perry (Jacobs), Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), Annie Edison (Brie), Troy Barnes (Donald Glover, son of Danny Glover), and Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) all find each other and form the oddest herd since The Land Before Time. They are all there for different reasons: Jeff is trying to earn a legitimate law degree after his fake one got him disbarred; Britta dropped out of school to impress Radiohead, then just kind of wandered through the world until she woke up one day and realized she needed to do something with her life; Abed was supposed to study business to help his father run their falafel stand, but discovered a love of filmmaking; Shirley wants to learn marketing to better sell her baked goods; Annie was a high achiever who caved under the pressure and dropped out of high school due to an Adderall addiction, and is estranged from her mother due to her decision to go to rehab; Troy lost a football scholarship due to an injury and is now embracing his inner geek; and Pierce is just looking for companionship and popularity.
Community is another one of those cast-carried shows that I love so much, but what makes this cast especially good is that they have such wicked chemistry despite being completely different. One of the best scenes in an early episode involves Shirley, a devoted Christian, making the assumption that everyone in the study group also has Christian roots. When Annie tells Shirley she's Jewish (and Shirley says the word "Jewish" in a low whisper), Shirley finds out she's in the minority group when they all tell her their own religions: Jeff is agnostic, Britta is atheist, Troy is a Jehovah's Witness, Abed is Muslim, and Pierce believes he follows some obscure form of Buddhism when in truth he's just a member of a common cult.
At first glance, Community looked like it would be revolving around the tension between Jeff and Britta, but the show ditched any possibility of that notion pretty quickly. Soon the breakout character was universally declared: Abed, with his pop culture meta references, likening everything around him to the movies, monotonous style of speaking, and occasional leaning against the fourth wall. But every character has a certain way of standing out, and so you never forget that Community is a group show, and not just leads and background characters. The supporting characters are stellar as well; two of them, Ben Chang (Ken Jeong) and the school Dean, Craig Pelton (Jim Rash) were given lead roles after the first season. The Daily Show's John Oliver plays Ian Duncan, a psychology professor, and there is Starburns, whose sideburns are shaped like stars.
Lessons aren't a massive part of Community, although they do happen every now and again. What makes Community a GREAT show is the level of absurdism. In the things it's willing to try, and the areas it's willing to go into, Community is trying to actively one-up The Simpsons. And often enough, it succeeds in being almost, if not as good as any of the episodes from the good years of The Simpsons. Like that old show, Community is revered for its gut-splitting, absurdist masterpiece Halloween episodes. One episode might try telling one story from the points of view of the different characters. Another might go into a weird dream sequence, yet another might produce an interesting, twisting mystery. One very clever show even created a clip show. Normally, I view clip shows as instances of writer surrender, but a few clips into the otherwise ordinary clip show, I had a thought: I had seen every episode of Community up to that point, and I didn't remember any of the clips they were showing. Like, at all. After about the first seven minutes of the clip show, I began to suspect the show was trying to pull one over on me. I got increasingly suspicious as a montage of Dean Pelton walking in on the group presented him more times than the Dean had ever done that. Finally, my suspicion was confirmed in the last few minutes during a clip montage which played clips of the characters in some of the most outlandish scenarios possible! Community had taken the surrender of the television writer and given it a wild twist!
Community is airing in its third season, and while it has attracted a legion of devoted fans, the mainstream doesn't seem to be paying attention. But the show was recently shelved. NBC claims to be saving the unseen episodes for later dates, but after three seasons, this has to be a sign that they've given up on it. I have a theory about why NBC suddenly decided to do that. It's pretty elaborate and complex, but the crux of the idea is that the station is run by chimps, and so that's how I'm going to sum it up.
If you haven't seen Community, for the love of god go and take a look at it before it's too late. Enjoy Troy's friendship with Abed, enjoy Chevy Chase stealing scenes as the arrogant, anti-social Pierce, enjoy Abed dressing up as Batman and talking in an imitation of Christian Bale's gravel voice, enjoy the way Community mocks the Fox show Glee, and enjoy the epic episodes in which the whole school gets caught up in epic matches of paintball. And if you're like me, don't be ashamed to admit to enjoying Alison Brie's cleavage, too. We're all entitled to our guilty pleasures.