It’s mid-September and dusk has fallen on the set of NBC’s gleefully absurd comedy Community, returning for its second season Thursday. The hallways and classrooms of the show’s college campus have been decorated for Halloween. As chains, fake bats, and bloody appendages dangle from the ceiling, a smoke machine wafts thick white fog through the library and bloody-faced extras mill about aimlessly.
Inside the study room, the show’s diverse group of Greendale Community College students—dressed as Captain Kirk, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Glinda the Good Witch, Little Red Riding Hood, an Aliens xenomorph, a giant banana, figure skater Peggy Fleming, and, um, “sexy Dracula”—have barricaded the room against a horde of zombies hell-bent on biting their flesh.
Why aren’t you watching this show?
Community’s freshman season—and in particular high-concept episodes like “Modern Warfare” and “Contemporary American Poultry”—became a critical darling this past year, delivering a hysterical and adroit season that stretched the elasticity of the American sitcom form and recalled such beloved experimental British comedies as Spaced and The Mighty Boosh. Unfortunately, only an average of 5 million viewers a week tuned in—a paltry audience for a network series.
The show’s cast says that it’s the limitless possibilities that Community kicks up that they love most about their jobs. “It’s like living my boyhood fantasies out,” said Joel McHale ( The Soup), who plays ex-lawyer Jeff Winger. “I got to be an action star for 22 minutes in ‘Modern Warfare,’ I got to be in a Scorsese movie… I can’t wait to do more of those. Last night, I was punching zombies out and being thrown through a glass window. It’s just awesome.”
Alternating between character-based explorations of identity and adulthood and mind-blowing out-there adventures (such as a campus-wide paintball war and a Goodfellas-inspired chicken fingers scheme), the freshman season of Community offered a window into a place unlike any other, where earnestness and heart were at home as much as snarkiness and pop culture references.
“Greendale is a magical place where teachers that aren’t allowed to teach in other places, or are too good to teach in other places, come to teach,” said creator Dan Harmon, speaking to The Daily Beast in a booth in the massive cafeteria set. “Where students of all ages, from all walks of life, who are either so broken or so supernaturally talented that they have no choice but to come here, come here to form their own world.”
“This is a place where, as in a Shakespeare play set in a forest, if you lift up a rock, a fairy might fly out from under it and grant you three wishes. But, the personal asking for three wishes has to be majoring in something,” he continued. “They have to be a real person that lives down the street at this campus that really exists.”
However, Community faces an uphill battle this season.
The show, airing at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, averaged roughly 5 million viewers overall last season but it faces increased competition this season from comedy juggernaut The Big Bang Theory, which CBS has shifted from Monday evenings to directly opposite Community on Thursdays, which out of nowhere has become a major ratings battleground.
“I’ve always hoped that we were Seinfeld,” said Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays Shirley, the group’s sweet-natured Christian divorcée. “Some shows just come out and hit immediately, but Seinfeld is one of the greatest comedies in history and nobody watched it the first year and a half it was on. We can be an unfound gem; we just have to get it unearthed by enough eyes.”
But, while some showrunners might be quaking in their boots in Community’s situation, Harmon is taking a decidedly less fearful attitude about competing with Big Bang.
“Making Thursday nights about comedy, even if it is competitive for me, is actually a good move for everybody,” he said. “I think it could be good for both shows, theoretically, to have both of them on Thursday night. I say that with acknowledgement of my delusion. I know that it’s not something you want to bet your house payments on. But my job isn’t to be pragmatic. My job is to dream and smile and make other people smile.”
Harmon and his writing staff tend to dream big. Season 2 features a much-hyped Betty White as an eccentric (and highly dangerous) anthropology teacher, zombies descending on the library (which Harmon assures isn’t a dream), an Apollo 13-inspired episode that finds the gang boarding a “space bus,” Mean Girls-style feminism, and a Christmas special that pays homage to animated Rankin/Bass classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
“Christmas, we’re doing a stop-action animated episode,” said Harmon. “In the first six [episodes], I wanted to come out swinging like Balboa in Rocky III, even if I winded myself. I don’t care because then there’s midseason where we’re doing ‘bottle episodes,’ where it’s literally all taking place in the study room because someone lost their pen. Those are going to be the best episodes. They’re going to be equally good as episodes where they supposedly go to outer space.”
Which might be the enduring charm of Community: it’s a single-camera comedy where, unlike competitor The Big Bang Theory or the show’s NBC siblings like The Office and 30 Rock, truly anything—no matter how outrageous or unbelievable—is possible, even as the characters continue to be three-dimensional and realistic entities, each with their own personal issues, flaws, and prejudices.
“Our writers are just on fire,” said Alison Brie, who plays ex-Adderall addict (and good girl) Annie. “They’re doing these episodes that are just innovative and unlike anything else on TV and have a very cinematic quality to them… You feel like you’re acting in every different genre, but the writers are also able to make anything seem plausible within this setting.”
The first season explored some of what brought each character to Greendale; the sophomore season will expand the world of Community outwards.
“In the first season the camera never leaves the campus,” said Harmon. “It makes my job easier to compress the characters and, though it may make breaking the stories harder, it made the characters more well defined. Second season, you can stop doing that. Now, if a story necessitates seeing the inside of Britta’s apartment, or two people going to dinner together, or carpooling together, or getting a ride to the airport, or having a dinner party, or going to the zoo, or getting into a spaceship, then the show can just go there.”
And they do just go there. “Things escalate to the peak of madness,” said the sexy but self-righteous killjoy Britta’s portrayer, Gillian Jacobs, tucking the tail of Britta’s T-Rex costume under her legs between takes. “That’s where we take everything on Community.”
While the broadcasters are often besieged by criticisms of playing it safe, Harmon credits the network for allowing the show to take creative risks and to challenge the audience’s expectations of what a network comedy can do.
“The thing about NBC just empirically is that they still subscribe to the notion that people making the shows are paid to create something and that’s not their job,” Harmon said.
Still, despite the challenges facing Community this season, Harmon is approaching the second year at Greendale with everything he’s got, even with Big Bang Theory breathing down his neck.
“If I don’t spend these 25 episodes doing absolutely everything I’ve ever wanted to do with these resources, then I’m an idiot and it’s my fault I got canceled,” he said. “[Viewers] can seek refuge in the arms of a reliable mother if I go a little wackadoo on them. That almost licenses me, and mandates me to ask, what business am I in? Reliability? Comfort? Familiarity? No. Freshman show, marginal ratings. Like NBC, my job is to try to blow your minds.”
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.