The Surreal Season of “Community”

The TV college comedy takes a risky turn to the fantastical. But what are the characters hiding from?

In a recent episode of "Community," Greendale Community College’s goofy, clueless Dean Pelton gleefully notes that he's going home to fire up his DVR. After all, he notes, TV is better than ever.

It marked another meta joke from the appealingly quirky Thursday night show whose second season has relied heavily on referential humor as it takes strange turns into the fantastical.

At first blush, the move into odd, gimmicky plots – everybody turned into a zombie at a school Halloween party in one memorable October episode – might seem more reminiscent of a show on its last legs than one still trying to find its footing.

But "Community" is boldly attempting to establish itself as network TV's sitcom of the surreal.

In addition to the zombie episode – it ended with the Army conveniently erasing everyone's memories – we've been treated to a subplot where disbarred lawyer Jeff and former high school football hero Troy discover a secret, magical campus trampoline that lets users bounce away all troubles.

In the most recent episode of the NBC show, Troy and pop-culture savant Abed created a labyrinthine blanket fort that wound throughout the school, playing host to parties, a museum, a parade and an elaborate chase scene.

The first season, notable for the comeback of Chevy Chase as cranky old rich man Pierce, introduced us to a band of oddball characters hiding out in a community college, escaping from various personal woes. This season, we’re seeing the characters – and the plots – take new, at times dreamlike, flights from reality. (Next week, the characters literally become unreal in a planned Claymation episode).

Joel McHale's Jeff is the ostensible center of the ensemble comedy. But it’s Danny Pudi’s Abed, the peculiar, socially tone-deaf student who interprets life through TV and movie cliches, who is increasingly becoming the show’s storytelling filter.

In the promising first season, Abed’s pop culture mania manifested itself in a strangely touching episode in which he relives his parents’ break up by making a movie starring his classmates. This season, we’ve him jump further into fantasy, playing out the role of a zombie-movie hero, a Terminator-like insult machine and an astronaut out of “The Right Stuff.”

The concept of a show unfolding in the mind of one character recalls the finale of the 1980s hospital drama “St. Elsewhere,” in which the past six seasons are revealed to have taken place in the imagination of a severely autistic young man. But that thought – like “Community” – might risk taking things too far.

Blanket forts, as the last week's episode of “Community” showed, are always one rip away from collapse. But for now, like Dean Pelton, we're setting the DVR on Thursday nights.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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