‘Community’ is a critical block party: But how do you describe it?

I don’t know if the NBC show “Community” is setting the world ablaze, but it’s got my britches thoroughly singed. I’ve been vocal about my enthusiasm, and it’s the only sitcom I make an effort to watch. Yes, I know “Office” and “30 Rock” are great — but I only have time for one 22-minute collection of yuks, and I’ve made my commitment to the ‘Unity.

That’s because it’s so different somehow, and when you can show me something different in our media-saturated world, you have my respect and loyalty. “Community” knocks me out with its unique way of telling jokes and building character, its bizarre and hard-to-categorize sense of humor. I’ve never had formal training in criticism — television or literary or otherwise — so I seem always to lack the words to explain why a thing works. Thankfully, “Community” has been getting some great critical coverage lately, and those guys always know what to say.

Take, Entertainment Weekly, for instance. They’ve got their fingers on the pulse of everything!

Community is the ultimate meta-sitcom. Tropes are clearly spelled out, references to Cheers and M*A*S*H abound, and archetypes are wrung for maximum irony. … The fact that they’re somehow able to transcend the cliché even while reveling in it is what makes this show so improbably original.
Keith Staskiewicz, EW, 5.7.10

…ooookay, I don’t really know what that means. I mean, I went to college and all, and I recognize words like irony and M*A*S*H, but I’m not sure this clarifies the magic of this show. Mostly, I think it means Keith Staskiewicz can’t put his finger on it either. That’s OK, Keith; it was better than I could do.

What does NPR have to say about it? Those guys are all brainiacs! Linda Holmes writes a really thorough piece here, with specifics that are getting a little closer. She calls out “Community’s” magic cast and the writer’s jokes, but gives special emphasis to the show’s confidence. That’s an apt word choice, and gets us closer to an expression I can live with.

They’ve embraced the idea of pop-culture references, yes, but they do it with sure-footed joy, not with the grasping sense that they want the laugh for the reference itself. It takes a strong sense of identity to throw as many kinds of comedy into the mix as they use here…
Linda Holmes, NPR

That’s still kind of cerebral, and I’m not sure I could convince a skeptic to watch based on that description alone. But I notice Holmes says something later in the review that stuck out:

“This is, for lack of a more refined phrase, a very happy comedy. It’s not an angry comedy, or a cynical comedy, or a dark comedy.”

Which is amazing. Because I (and a few other reviewers I noticed) came up with “mean-spirited” to describe the pilot, and I’m pretty sure you could pour any episode through a cynicism-shaped colander and get at least a little grit in your trap, not to mention occasional grains of anger and darkness.

And this got me thinking: Maybe the explanation of “Community’s” success is not in its confidence, but in its contrast. It’s the show where all kinds of humor are possible. It’s possible to make fun of people without getting too mean; to roll your eyes at the world without getting too cynical; to be witty at someone’s expense without getting too sarcastic; to be happy without being saccharine; to be angry without being nihilistic.

In fact, Slate sums this up in the most succinct way possible: “Acrobatically, the show manages to mock to the low status of [the characters] without sneering.”

Acrobatic comedy, that’s more like it. That’s a word that I can use in a cocktail party conversation to turn a disbeliever around and make him watch this show.

Of course, if that description doesn’t make a strong enough case for you, Hulu makes it pretty easy to get on board by posting scads of episodes and short clips to whet your appetite. Or try this insane fan-made mash-up, that turns some of the show’s more outrageous dialog into a hip-hoppity dance mix.

Or just tune in because it’s the show where people dress like this:

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