Right after Joel McHale’s character delivers a rally-the-misfits speech reminiscent of “Stripes,” one of said misfits immediately compares his rousing address to “Stripes.” That’s indicative of the too-cute-by-half quality of “Community,” a series handicapped by the fact that its leading man — however skilled he might be at dropping wry one-liners in other venues — is also its weakest link. Barring some serious cramming, the show — which joins the still-unproven “Parks and Recreation” and the rightly admired “The Office” — could be NBC’s Thursday under-achiever.
McHale plays Jeff, a sleazy, fast-talking lawyer whose college degree turned out to be less than legitimate. So he enrolls in community college, mostly because he got one of the professors there off on a drunk-driving charge (“The Daily Show’s” John Oliver, too good for this Yankee enterprise) and figures he can skate by based on that relationship.
Almost immediately, though, Jeff sets his eye on an attractive blonde named Britta (Gillian Jacobs, who doesn’t look nearly as much like Elisabeth Shue as everyone keeps telling her) and begins scheming to woo her — or “get in my pants,” as she colorfully puts it — by initiating a Spanish study group as an excuse to spend time with her.
Said group of extended archetypes becomes the basis for the show’s title, although in the premiere, anyway, they spend far too much time sitting around yelling at each other. They include Chevy Chase as the older guy who keeps hitting on the single mom (Yvette Nicole Brown), and Danny Pudi as a young Arab with a lightning-fast mind for pop-culture trivia but limited social skills. (Rounding out the diverse cast, Ken Jeong of “The Hangover” show in the second episode as their Spanish tutor, Senor Chang, but like much else in that installment — which focuses mainly on McHale and Chase — the gag doesn’t go much beyond the name.)
Created by Dan Harmon (“The Sarah Silverman Program”), “Community” embraces the traditional sitcom notion of “family” being what you make of it, but it’s a little too self-conscious about the genre’s cliches — or at least, feels that way because its satirical elements aren’t as crisp as they need to be. And if Jeff’s flirty banter with Britta is supposed to be the Sam and Diane for a new generation, well, Gen-X has already been cheated in so many other ways, why not one more?
“If I wanted to learn something, I wouldn’t have come to community college,” Jeff snaps at Oliver’s character.
Similarly, those merely seeking a more reliable stream of laughs might be inclined to enroll somewhere else as well.