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THE MONITOR : There's no kinship here : When it comes to quirky new ensemble comedies, 'Community' can't compete with 'Modern Family.'

November 15, 2009|Jon Caramanica

When Lauren Stamile showed up to play a sarcastic, sexy statistics professor on the Halloween episode of "Community" (NBC, 8 p.m. Thursdays), it was a beacon of hope. Stamile was last seen regularly on "Grey's Anatomy," playing Nurse Rose, a disruptor of the Meredith-Derek axis and, amid the lunatics of "Grey's," a comparatively sensible human being.

Thwarting the advances of Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), the show's ostensibly cool protagonist, only reinforced her position as a beacon of hope. But walking away from him unfortunately seemed to guarantee her a short stay on a show that could benefit from some levelheaded thinking.

Last month, "Community" was picked up for a full season by NBC, a promising sign that it's prepared to allow the show, which has been inconsistent, to find a voice. But the first thing it might want to do is change the show's night, or its network.

Over the last two years, NBC's Thursday comedy block has matured into a lineup almost as formidable as that of its 1990s heyday. Despite some slip-ups early this season, "30 Rock" remains the most ambitious and successful comedy in prime time. "Parks & Recreation" shows signs of maturing, and "The Office," which started NBC's move toward un-self-aware characters driving narrative, has become the mellow grandfather of the crew, unflamboyantly reliable.

"Community," though, feels like a fourth wheel. Buried amid NBC's Comedy of the Awkward, this show, about thrown-together students at a community college, is forced to lean on tricks native to those other shows but that are worse suited to this one's premise. There's no Michael Scott or Leslie Knope here. And it's not that Jeff Winger would make for a great traditional hero, or even antihero: He's generically slick, moderately intelligent and smarmy without cause. He's not oblivious; he knows too much. Even though other characters -- ascendant social outcast Annie (Alison Brie) and self-assured oddball Abed (Danny Pudi) -- aspire to the "Office" mold, they're actually remarkably normal and evenly drawn. (And in the case of Ken Jeong, as the Spanish professor Senor Chang, hilarious.)

Just because a character is unusual for prime time doesn't mean he or she has to engage in odd behavior -- that's a tenet understood perfectly well by another new ensemble comedy with quirky characters, "Modern Family" (ABC, 9 p.m. Wednesdays). The characters here are just as unfamiliar to prime time -- a gay couple with an adopted baby, a May-December romance. All together, "Modern Family" ends up riskier and stranger than "Community" but never feels forced.

Consider the shows' use of music in its plot lines. Earlier this month, a "Community" secondary story revolved around a character writing a bitter breakup song about his ex, Britta (Gillian Jacobs), called, imaginatively, "Britta Is a B." That resulted in an intervention by Pierce (Chevy Chase), who joined the band, then quit it, resulting in a second song: "Pierce Is a B." Neither was memorable beyond the punch line.

By comparison, last month on "Modern Family," Dylan (Reid Ewing) wrote a song for his girlfriend, Haley (Sarah Hyland). The result, "In the Moonlight (Do Me)," was sharply written, funny and memorable (boosted by a closing sequence when several other characters find themselves humming the song and an online companion video).

Finally, there's the conundrum of what to do with the paterfamilias. In the case of "Community," that's Chevy Chase's Pierce, a fallen mogul with a desperate need to make friends. Chase gets a lot of latitude just for being Chevy Chase, and it's refreshing to see him in a weekly role. But he's been woefully underused, relying on simple, lumpy gags that play off his age, not his personality. During the Halloween episode, Pierce took a suspect pill, had a hallucination and barricaded himself underneath a tangle of desks and chairs. It took up a lot of space and time on the show but barely earned a laugh.

On "Modern Family," Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill) barely leaves the house. But with two children he doesn't understand -- the strong-willed Claire (Julie Bowen) and the fragile, gay Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) -- and a second wife, Gloria (Sofia Vergara), 20 years his junior, all he has to do is react. O'Neill, from his "Married . . . With Children" days, is a master of obduracy. He rolls his eyes, sighs heavily, and delivers brief, exhausted pep talks to keep the family humming smoothly. The circumstances may be odd, but the behavior is completely normal -- how about that?

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calendar@latimes.com

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