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Reading, writing and a 'Community' of misfits

The new NBC show takes a gentle poke at the world of community colleges.

September 20, 2009|Denise Martin

Two-year schools get a bad rap. "You've heard it's loser college," says the dean in a new NBC comedy set in one, "Community." "For remedial teens, twentysomething dropouts, middle-aged divorcees and old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drains of eternity."

Series creator Dan Harmon can poke fun at community colleges because he loves them. When he was 32 and already established as a screenwriter, he enrolled at Glendale Community College.

"My girlfriend was taking classes there and I thought we could both take Spanish together," Harmon said. "We'd have to drive to school, and study together, and do homework about communication together. It was an ingenious plan you come up with when you're in an unhealthy stagnant relationship."

The plan and the relationship failed, but the experiences became the basis for "Community" (9:30 p.m. Thursdays) in which Joel McHale, who hosts E!'s "The Soup," plays Jeff, a hotshot attorney enrolled at fictional Greendale Community College after his law license is suspended when his degree is revealed as phony. In Harmon's world, Greendale's a rare community college where you can earn a BA.

The series is a sort of grown-up version of "The Breakfast Club" revolving around the misfits -- including Chevy Chase as one of those circling the drain -- who glom on to Jeff after he creates a fake Spanish study group so he can flirt with feisty classmate Britta, played by Gillian Jacobs. Jeff is a combination of Harmon's best and worst qualities, or, as the creator puts it, "the worst ones in the eyes of God, and also the coolest."

One day on the set, pictures of McHale cover the cafeteria walls. "I used to be a lawyer. Now I'm a student at Greendale," reads one poster. In it, Jeff is smiling with a backpack slung over his shoulder, completely unaware he's being photographed to star in a promotional campaign for the school. You see, he is being blackmailed by a professor (John Oliver), who needs Jeff to persuade another student to join the football team.

"If anyone on the outside were to know that I'm a community college student . . . it could have a negative impact on the future of my career," Jeff whines.

"My character isn't your typical everyman on TV, wondering why everyone around him is crazy," McHale said. "He's a liar, a cheat and a jerk -- so he's really got somewhere to go in the show."

Helping Jeff along the way are a sassy divorcee, a high-strung perfectionist, a former high school football star, the man behind an award-winning line of moist towelettes, a fast-talking pop culture junkie and Spanish professor Senor Chang ("The Hangover's" Ken Jeong.)

A similar motley study group provided something of a life-changing epiphany for Harmon. "We were trying to make each other understand cellular meiosis and how it was different from cellular mitosis for biology class, and there was this point where we all got it at the same time," he said. "It was just so exciting, this connection to strangers that had nothing to do with advancing my career. In that flash, I felt like I had only lived half of a life. I thought, 'This is what everyone else is always talking about.' "

So, expect a little soul searching mixed in with the irony. "Here's this completely self-sufficient guy who is forced to become a part of a community. We'll just keep asking the question over and over again: 'What does that mean?' " Harmon said. "These are questions humanity has asked since forever. On 'Gilligan's Island,' on 'Star Trek,' on 'Lost.' Community college felt like a good desert island to send this guy to."

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denise.martin@latimes.com

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